William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Feeling our stories

Someone asked the good question at our Seder this year: “Why is the biblical Song of Songs traditionally associated with Passover?”  I responded, “Because it symbolizes youthful love between God and Israel which commences with the Exodus.”  Someone else emphasized, “Springtime’s prominence in the scroll.”  Still another offered, “The figs, dates, apples, and nuts in the Charoset are recurring ingredients throughout the scroll.”  What I now realize I should have answered is, “Emotion.  The emotionally saturated Song of Songs evokes sensations that are compatible with Passover’s master story.”  When we personalize the Exodus we do so with the pathos and passion of the Song of Songs.

Personal stories are often freighted with emotion.  This is one reason why stories enjoy a certain immunity from argument.   A liberal cannot respond to a personal experience shared by a conservative by claiming “You are mistaken.  That did not happen to you.”  Stories don’t require the same cognitive consistency that convictions do.  Of course, people can disagree about what ‘the moral of the story’ is.  One person emerges from an incident of injustice by vowing to become strong enough to never again be victimized.  Another may walk away from the same experience with fresh empathy for how others suffer similar injustices.  All can agree that poignant experiences evoke deep feelings.

When we witness the brutal removal of a passenger from an airplane we feel indignant.  When spokespeople wrongfully liken contemporary leaders to the most wicked (Hitler) or the most inspiring (Rev. Martin Luther King), such comparisons are infuriating.   

So too with sorrow.  The prophetic portion assigned for this Shabbat brings us to a national low point.  “These dried bones are the whole House of Israel.  They say, “Our bones are brittle, our hope is lost (avda tikvateinu), we are doomed” (Ez. 37:11).  Yet the prophet reassures and history ultimately ratifies that ‘our hope is not yet lost’ (ode lo avda tikvateinu), sentiments that today stir the hearts of the House of Israel.   The anthem of our People reverses the dry-boned despair, reminding us how blessed we are to build our future at home (eretz chemda (Jer.3:19)) and in free societies abroad.   Feelings for Israel should run deep.

Stories may be protected from illegitimacy.  But they do require credibility.  They become more valid when they are scrubbed with questions and critical inquiry.  This is the wisdom of the Seder’s approach to storytelling.  Questions are baked into the Matzah.  Yet instead of undermining bonds with Passover’s lessons, they deepen them.  Song of Songs reminds us of how deeply we should feel our People’s story.  May our national rebirth on our ancestral home encourage similar searching and love. 

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
Related Topics
Related Posts