Chol haMoed Pesach: Drawing the Lessons of Shir haShirim

Shir haShirim can seem esoteric, a love poem that is interpreted either as a metaphor for the Jewish people’s national relationship with Hashem, or our individual one. Rambam’s reading of Shir haShirim shows us some practical ways to take this love song and translate it into our lives.

Dreaming Shir haShirim

The end of Berachot has an extended discussion of dreams and their possible meanings. On 57a, the Gemara suggests that one who sees Shir haShirim in a dream should “expect” hasidut, a term that means more than piety or righteousness. (That is also true of one who sees the book of Tehillim, and David haMelech; notice that Shlomo haMelech is generally thought of as wise, not hasid, but in the case of Shir haShirim, seems to have found that sweet spot of hasidut). If Shir haShirim leads to hasidut, we need to know what it means, and how Shir haShirim leads there.

Rambam and Service Out of Love

Rambam does not, that I found, connect Shir haShirim to hasidut, but he does bring it up in the context of ultimate piety.  At the end of the Laws of Repentance, he differentiates service of God out of a sense of awe or fear (which he defines as done for the sake of reward or out of fear of punishment) and that done out of love.

Love, in Rambam’s definition is both a high standard and one towards which we are obligated to reach.  The standard is that we would serve Hashem—being involved in Torah and mitzvot and travelling the paths of wisdom—for no reason other than that it is the truth.

That statement already challenges many people’s natural assumptions in three ways. First, it takes for granted that service out of love is more an attitude than a set of emotions. It’s not that we approach service of Hashem with more enthusiasm than the one who serves out of fear, it’s that our motivations are on the proper setting.

That setting is the second surprise—we don’t serve Hashem because Hashem said so, we serve Hashem because we recognize that Hashem enlightened us about the truth of the universe. Just like we don’t walk off high ledges because the truth is that we’ll drop to the ground, we ideally follow all of Torah and mitzvot because they are equally truths of how the universe works. That’s what Hashem gave us at Sinai.

Third, Rambam includes walking in the ways of wisdom along with involvement with Torah and mitzvot. I can’t be sure, but it seems to me he was reminding us that deep involvement in Torah and mitzvot doesn’t always make people wise. I think he would argue that it should, but he knew (and too many of us know) people with great knowledge of Torah, who observe the mitzvot punctiliously, and yet have not absorbed the deep wisdom within it.  Service out of love achieves all of those, not one or two to the exclusion of the others.

A Daunting Aspirational Standard

Rambam notes that this is a high level to reach, that many wise people never reached it, and that Avraham is noted for being an ohev Hashem, one who loves Hashem in this way.  At the same time, Rambam says that we’re all obligated in this, as we say often in Shema, ve-ahavta et Hashem Elokecha. For Rambam, this well-known verse means we’re supposed to be telling ourselves that we’re required to strive to inculcate in ourselves the sense of service of Hashem only because that’s what Hashem told us, meaning that that’s the way the world works, and that’s how we therefore have to act.

But he doesn’t stop there.  The ultimate level of this love, Rambam writes, is that one’s soul be so tied up with love of Hashem that the person is like a lovesick individual, who always thinks about the object of his/her affections, which is the meaning of be-chol levavecha uve-chol nafshecha, with all your heart and soul.

Here’s the kicker: He then adds, “and all Shir haShirim is a parable of this matter.”

Meaning that, for Rambam, all the love poetry is not only about that individual’s love—many of us know that—it’s about the individual’s continuing search for a life completely focused on acting as Hashem would want.

Hasidut’s Connection to Ahavah, For Rambam

By looking at some of what Rambam writes about hasidut, I think we can see that it gives us some guidance on how to reach the Shir haShirim level of ahavah (which would then suggest that Rambam also thought seeing Shir haShirim in a dream could lead to hasidut).

In Laws of Character 1;5, Rambam discusses the Golden Mean, Aristotle’s idea that we should strive for the middle road in our character (we shouldn’t be too acquisitive, but also not miserly, not too appetitive, but not immune to the pleasures of life, etc.).  Rambam believes that is the wise path, and what the Torah commanded us when it told us to walk in Hashem’s Ways.

However, he includes the idea that the particularly righteous will not be satisfied with the middle.  They will stray to one extreme or other, depending on the trait. He seems to be saying that the ideal isn’t actually the middle, it’s somewhere just off, but a different amount and different direction for each trait.  He doesn’t tell us how to know which way to go, but I suspect the answer is that people of hasidut recognize what Hashem prefers for each trait.

Ignoring Insults as Hasidut

That guess is supported by two places where Rambam speaks of letting insults go as hasidut. In Laws of Character 6;9, he says we are only required to remonstrate with those who have insulted us if we cannot let it go. With those we know will not respond to remonstration, the more exalted path is to forgive them without ever talking about it.

Similarly, in the last paragraph of Laws of Torah Study (7;13), Rambam adds an appendix to the rules he just laid out for a scholar imposing ostracism on another Jew. While the scholar has the full right to do so, in the case of private insults, Rambam says that the better way is to ignore such insults as well.

It seems to me, then, that Rambam articulated a view of hasidut in which we go beyond what ordinary human wisdom would tell us. Once we’re beyond the human, we’re in the field of the Divine, striving to do what Hashem would want, even when it goes against what we would think on our own. That striving, that foregoing of ourselves for a higher purpose, is the essence of both love of Hashem and of hasidut. And what Shir haShirim leads us towards, if we listen to its messages properly and carefully.

So, if I had to pick an ideal reaction to Shir haShirim, it seems to me that Rashi and Rambam agree that it involves reminding ourselves of Hashem, as often as we can, and shaping our actions, as much as we can, to be those that Hashem would value most (a different standard than just what Hashem insists on or punishes). That’s true love, and that’s true hasidut.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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