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Pesach 5768

April 18, 2008

To Love Another Person Is to See the Face of God
By Laurie Levy

“To love another person is to see the face of God”
(Jean Valjean in Les Miserables)

I recently saw the show Spring Awakening on Broadway. It is the story of a group of adolescents dealing with the mystifying and consuming discovery of their sexual awakening – all the more dramatic because it is set against the backdrop of late 19th century Germany where information and education about sex was nonexistent. The show is no less relevant for today, when more than we would ever want our children to know about sex is but a website away. Even our Sages understood the need to embrace the awakening of one’s longings and desires in the springtime and so on the Shabbat that falls during Passover, we read Shir haShirim, The Song of Songs, a poem filled with images of spring and nature and about the sexual awakening of two young lovers.

The traditional interpretation of the Shir is that it is an allegorical love song between God and Israel. Its reading on Passover describes their courtship that will culminate 50 days later in their symbolic marriage on Shavout. But apparently, there was some controversy surrounding admitting the Song, with all its eroticism and sexual innuendos, into the canon. Rabbi Akiva (2nd century CE) defends the decision in Mishnah Yedayim 3:5,

God forbid! No man in Israel ever disputed the status of the Song of Songs . . . for the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.

Another reason it may have been included in the canon is because of the attribution in the first verse to King Solomon (probably added by an editor at a later date). In any event, I am grateful to some combination of King Solomon, Rabbi Akiva and the anonymous editor that we have The Song of Songs to enjoy during Passover or any time during the year when we are so moved to enjoy a little eroticism and spice in our study of text.

As we gather in all the sights, sounds and smells of spring that fill our senses during this time of year, I can’t help but think of what a beautiful addition this poem is to our holiday celebration. The discovery of the joy of love opens the young couple to the world around them. The landscape surrounding them is filled with images of gardens in bloom, vineyards ripening and animals scampering, all of which reflect the youth, innocence and passion of the lovers. The young woman, the Shulamite, cautions us several times with an important observation about love:

Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me
By the gazelles, by the deer in the field,
That you will never awaken love until it is ripe (2:7, 3:5, 8:4)

In Spring Awakening, the youths are caught in the middle of the same dichotomy that we all remember too well. On the one hand, they are ripe and ready to experience what their bodies are craving, but on the other hand, they are totally unprepared for how this awakening can easily take over one’s life. But unlike the play, the Shulamite and her lover seem prepared to deal with this phenomenon in a spirited and playful way. They invite one another as they celebrate their new awareness of life together.

Rabbi Akiva said that “had the Torah not been given to Israel at all, the Song of Songs would have sufficed for the conduct of the world.” The Song is about the most human of relationships, and though God is not mentioned even once, the sense is that God, the Nurturer and Nourisher of all nature, is present in this and every relationship. To love someone like the lovers in Shir haShirim is to see the presence of God in the relationship. In the recent documentary, Praying with Lior, one of his family members describes Lior as having fewer veils between him and God. Lior, who has Downs syndrome, has no inhibitions or self-consciousness about praying to God with all his heart and soul. Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, when the veils are lowered, even the most intense love is appreciated freely and fully through the awareness of the simplest and purest needs.

On Passover, we are reminded that freedom and redemption came as a result of connecting ourselves to the most basic essentials of life and to God. Like the simple, humble matzah. Like love.


Laurie Levy is a rabbinical student at AJR.