One of the loveliest features of the Pesach liturgy is the public recitation of “Shir Ha-Shirim” – “The Song of Songs” – ascribed to Shlomo Ha-Melech (King Solomon) in its introductory verse: “The Song of Songs of Solomon” – שיר  השירים  אשר  לשלמה.

In the 19th century, Avraham Goldfaden, composing his Yiddish-language opera “Shulamis,” borrowed the trope (musical motifs) of the first few words of “Shir Ha-Shirim,” “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” – ישקני  מנשיקות  פיהו – for his song,  “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen” – a song beloved for its beauty, expressing the deep love of a mother for her infant child. Some years ago, I, too, arranged the trope of the first few verses for flute, to be played as my bride and I approached the chuppah. Although the nusach (musical mode) of the trope is used for 2 other recitations during the year – “Rute” (“Ruth”) on Sh’vuot; “Kohelet” (“Ecclesiastes”) on Sukkot – it has a particularly intoxicating quality on Pesach, engendering the same inner thrill as the sight of the first green buds in early Spring. When chanted meditatively, with quiet joy, it’s almost entrancing.

Yet, it’s not the melodies that have drawn the attention of mystics and spiritual teachers over the centuries. It’s the intense, erotic expressions of loving. As Andrew Greeley wrote: “Human passion …gives us a hint of God’s passion for us. We are most like God’s love for us when we are aroused in the presence of our beloved. And we best experience a hint of God’s love when our beloved pursues us.” [1]

Equating human eroticism with mutual love between G-d and ourselves is hardly unique to the modern era. Rabbi Yehudah He-Hasid (12th-13th c.) wrote: “…a man who has not been with his wife for many days and has a great desire for her doesn’t find the moment that he ejaculates as exhilarating as the intensity and power of loving G-d and finding joy in the Creator.” He then teaches, “His love of the Creator must be so…overwhelming that he becomes lovesick, like the person who is starved for the affections of a woman and is consumed with love when he sits, rises, goes, and comes, and when he eats and drinks…Speaking of this love of G-d, Solomon says, ‘I am faint with love’ (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:5).” [2] 

We come full circle back to “Shir Ha-Shirim.”

Rav Kook, preeminent Talmudic authority, kabbalist, poet and author, turned to “Shir Ha-Shirim” to describe the most comprehensive spiritual experience achievable: “The name ‘Israel’ [ישראל] stands for shir el [3] [אל שיר], the song of G-d…It is the Song of Songs שיר  השירים  אשר  לשלמה, [of] shlomo, which means [his] peace or wholeness. It is the song of the King in whom is whole-ness.” [4]  All other loves, he says, are contained within this one.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great 12th century Catholic mystic and writer, wrote over 86 sermons on “The Song of Songs,” seeing in the verse “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” a metaphor for spiritual union with G-d: “For his living active word is to me a kiss, not indeed an adhering of the lips that can sometimes belie a union of hearts, but an unreserved infusion of joys, a revealing of mysteries, a marvelous and indistinguishable mingling of the divine light with the enlightened mind which, joined in truth to G-d, is one spirit with Him (sermon 2:1). ” [5]

Because the mention of G-d as “Him” is often controversial, it might help to point out that in much spiritual literature from all times and cultures, if erotic imagery is used, the “feminine” can represent the ideal, “receptive” state of the soul – “impregnated,” as it were, with the spiritual life of G-d – for men and women both. In the Tao Te-Ching, for example, Lao Tzu asks, “Can you, mating with heaven, be the female part?” [6] Although I have no knowledge of any Chinese dialect, the translation might even more likely be: “Can you…be the ‘womb’,” or even “…’vagina’?” Of course, this is all figurative, not empirical. The BeShT, for one, famously made the human “male” and the Divine “female”: תפילה היא זווג עם השכינה – “Prayer is mating with the Shechinah.” [7] By “prayer,” he meant the literal swaying back and forth, suggestive of intercourse, that is customary of traditional Jewish prayer — especially when saying the “Amidah,” which is also called the “Tefilah” — i.e. “The Prayer.” Is all this so very different in spirit from “The Song of Songs”?

Why is “Shir Ha-Shirim” read on Pesach, at all? What is the connection between this overpowering love that we share with G-d and the commemoration of the liberation from Egypt?

Perhaps it is that the liberation, more than a demonstration of G-d’s justice, or even of Divine compassion for human suffering, was, in the past, a demonstration of G-d’s unchanging love, given to the B’nai Yisrael for the sake of all people, everywhere, forever. We can also see this allegorically, as do St. Bernard and others, as the heights of individual spirituality.  Even brief mention of Bernard’s own experiences inspires a desire in us for the same, in our own lives – i.e. in the present.  If these were the only possible meanings of “The Song…” – dayyenu.

But, as they prepared to leave Egypt, the B’nai Yisrael saw that if freedom from pharaoh was possible, then so was a future liberation of the entire cosmos from ignorance and suffering; so was a universe to be someday utterly intoxicated with passionate love of and for G-d.

Beyond the absolute heights of individual spiritual experience, then, is the promise of a world that will someday be filled with enlightened people, a world conducted with wisdom, justice, kindness, and love, in accordance not only with G-d’s Will, but with G-d’s own Essence – suffusing as it does all things, all events, all people, all times and all places.

When observing Pesach, when performing our seders, when eating our matzoh, then, let it be this future — never “instead of,” always “in addition to” this past and present – that we celebrate.

To hear “Shir ha-Shirim” being chanted:
or, if that direct link doesn’t work:
(click on) –> festivals –> Pesach –> Shir HaShirim

[1]   “Love Song” (1989)
[2]  Sefer Chasidim; A.Y. Finkel, trans.; p. 6
[3]  The pun is based on rearranging the Hebrew letters to form different words.
[4]  Abraham Isaac Kook; Rabbi B.Z. Bokser, trans.; p. 229. The full quote is even more powerful, but needs too much  explication for the purposes of this short d’var Torah.
[5]  A complete translation is available online, and from Cistercian Publications, Inc.
[6] Bynner, Harold Witter, trans; The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu; Capricorn Books, NY; 1962
[7] Schochet, J. Immanuel, transl. and ed.; Tzva’at ha-Rivash (The Ethical Will of the Baal Shem Tov); section 68; Kehot Publication Society