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Rich and Seductive Text Adds Meaning to Pesach

April 12, 2012 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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As Passover concludes, we may feel quite full. We may have gathered around several tables and shared varied Passover meals. And we may have studied some of the texts of this holiday: the Haggadah, one of the most beloved and re-edited, re-printed and elaborated of Jewish texts, and the various Torah portions assigned to this holiday.

One of the most beloved texts of Passover is the Song of Songs. In some homes, it is read on the first night of Passover. Outside of Israel, where some observe two seders, the Song is divided and read the two first nights. It is also read in some communities during synagogue services.

This rich and seductive text has long invited and delighted readers. The Song celebrates love between two passionate souls. The text is unclear about the gender of the lovers, and they seem to be equals. Some read the text as illustrating the love between God and Israel, using the language of human love to help us better understand the depth and power of the relationship between our people and our God. Others have reveled in this magnificent depiction of the possibilities of human love that acknowledges the integration of body and spirit, pleasure and longing.

Our sages teach that we read the Song of Songs during Passover for many reasons. The lush language of nature that is central to the book mirrors the celebration of spring that provides the context for our Pesach commemoration. The Zohar teaches that the Song of Songs stands for the entire Torah, for it speaks of both exile and redemption. During this week of retelling the birth story of the Jewish people, we read this ancient poem of human love that creates the next generation.

Seder night is a night of love, as one generation tells our story to the next. Embedded in the Haggadah are directions for successful parenting. The Haggadah urges us to answer the angry child, the defiant child, the child who has pushed his chair away from the table and to answer the child who does not know how to ask, with these words from Exodus 13:8, "and you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.' "

If we read these as words of love, we hear a patient parent who understands the power of sharing his experience of God's generosity, her own memory of being accompanied as she came through a narrow place. On seder night, and throughout Passover, we build bridges of words from one generation to another, and, taking our children by the hand, we make our way towards freedom.

On the first and perhaps the second night of Passover, some of us welcomed Elijah, and Miriam, our biblical ancestors associated with redemption. We may have sung a song of yearning for a time when all will be free and whole, when Elijah will "turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents." This hope of mutual reconciliation and respect, honor and love is depicted in the Song of Songs, an Edenic garden of delights where lovers do not dominate one another.

This is the world we glimpse during Passover, even as we are reminded of our own responsibility to work towards the creation of such a world where love takes many forms, and enables us to grow. The Song of Song teaches, "my mother teaches me." Passover is a love song from one generation to the next, a glimpse of a world where love has the power to transform every heart.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is the editor of The Open Door: The CCAR Haggadah. She serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism.

 

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