Reuven Spero

The Best Song of All

I’ve been drawn to Shir Ha-shirim since the first time I read the first verse.  Who has not?  Who has not felt the draw and the quickening of the verse: He’ll kiss me with the kisses of his lips, for his love is better than wine.

But does it say that?  It is written “your love,” so what is this switch is person in the middle of the verse?

Is it really in the future?  Maybe the sense is not that he will, at some indeterminate future time, but that I long for the kisses of his lips…

And “dodecha?” For your “love” is better than wine?  But dodecha is not a word for love.  It seems to refer to “dod,” which can mean uncle (your uncle?), but in this book always seems to refer to the male lover.  Bu that doesn’t seem to make sense either – let him kiss me…for your lover is better than wine?  Sounds….odd.

Dod is also spelled the exact same as David, and although it is David’s son Shlomo who allegedly wrote this book, David is perhaps a symbol of virile love, poetry, and gallantry.  But though an interesting allusion, it does not help us unpack this verse.

Dod also seems related to a plant called “dudaim,” mentioned in Breshit. Reuven found Dudaim in the field and brought them to his mother Leah.  Rachel asked for them, because she was still barren – from this, one could understand that dudaim might be related to potency or fertility.  Leah traded the plant for conjugal rights for the night, and she herself got pregnant (maybe she kept some for herself?).

Even the very first unequivocal word – “he will kiss me” or perhaps “that he should kiss me” – has unusual resonances, also connected to Rachel.  When Ya’akov arrives in Padan Aram, fleeing from his murderous brother Esav and carrying the blessing of his father, he arrives at a well and chances upon Rachel. Overcome by an emotion that men feel when in the presence of … that girl, he rolls a huge stone from the mouth of the well and waters her flocks, and then kisses her, right then and there.

Except that “he kissed her” in Hebrew is vayishack, and he watered (as in the flocks) is vayeshk – spelled the same way with a different vocalization.

So…. He “waters me” with the kisses of his mouth….? It does connect with the wine, and also means “kisses.”

In the end, we are left with a verse that does not have a single meaning.  There is a small clip running around the web these says where a woman is shown, saying: if you understand why pizza is round, but served in a square box, and eaten in triangles, then you understand the female mind.  Honestly, I don’t think it has anything to do with the female mind.  The world is just constructed this way, pizza is round, served in a square box, and eaten in triangles.  Just like love.

What I mean is that Shir Hashirim is about love, and love is like nothing else in this world.  It can’t be pinned down to a cut-and-dried definition, it cannot be understood rationally.  Love is the most desirable and desired of all thing, and yet can lead to disgrace and humiliation (one of the last verses: one can give up all their wealth for the sake of love and be completely scorned for it).  Love is emotional and intangible and inextricably tied up in the physical and sensuous. “[…I]n kissing her he feels he is coming at last to a small sip at the end of an interminable thirst.  That the kissing does not quench the thirst, but rather quickens it, so that each kiss demands a more intense successor and involves him thereby in a vortex of mounting and widening appetite – that such is the case does not seem to him to be a cruel but, rather, a typically generous and compelling providence of nature.” John Updike, The Centaur.

It is the swirling dizzying vortex of love that overcomes the couple in the Song of Songs.  Descriptions of love and lust are set in aromatic nature, described in terms of deer and doves; the lovers describe the bodies of each other in detail, drawing again upon natural and even architectural beauty. Passion swells and …”his left arm underneath my head, his right arm holds me” signals a break, a closure: “swear to me, daughters of Jerusalem, that you will not disturb love.”

But is this IRL or is it in the (fertile) imagination of the couple, especially of the woman (“girl” seems more appropriate here).  Some of the most powerful passages are dreamlike – “I sleep, but my heart is awake.  My lover’s voice knocks at my door – open for me….”  Sometimes the dream leads to a fulfilling closure – “I will hold him and not let him go until I bring him to my mother’s room, to my parents’ home.” Other times, the dream seems tragically out of sync, leading to a build up of passion that ends in disappointment and wounds.  Even for us, reading this text, we find ourselves out of sync, not knowing how to understand grammatical changes of person, narrative consistency, even unsure if the love is in the end unrequited, as it might seems: “flee, my love, as a deer or a young stag, over the spice-fragrant hills” combines elements of both separation and endearment.

It is enough for me here, now, to talk about this book in terms of passionate romantic love.  Others have seen this book as a metaphor describing the relationship of Hashem and the people of Israel over time.  Or perhaps, the relationship of the people of Israel to the land of Israel.  This is all valid, for love is…love.  I’ll leave you with a beautiful piece by Harav Avraham Yitzhak Halevi Kook, who expounds on the book in an unexpected, abstract, and poetic voice.

What makes this poem the “Song of Songs”?

There are many levels of song. Some sing the Song of their Soul. Within their own soul, they discover everything, their complete spiritual fulfillment.

Others sing the Song of the Nation. They leave the restricted circle of the individual soul – it is not expansive enough, not idealistic enough. They aspire to greater heights. With sublime love, they cleave to Ecclesia Israel (Knesset Yisrael). They sing her songs, feel her pains, delight in her hopes, and contemplate her past and her future. With love and wisdom, they investigate the content of her inner spirit.

Others allow their souls to expand beyond the people of Israel. They sing the Song of Mankind, feasting in the grandeur of the human race, the illustriousness of his divine image. They aspire towards mankind’s ultimate goal, and yearn for his sublime fulfillment. From this source of life they draw inspiration for their universal thoughts and analyses, aspirations and visions.

And some reach even higher in the expanse, until they unite with all of existence, with all creatures and all worlds. With all of them, they sing the Song of the Universe. Regarding this sublime song, the Sages pronounced, “One who delves in Perek Shira each day is promised a portion in the World to Come.”

And some succeed in encompassing all of these songs together. All of the songs give their voice; together they harmonize their melodies, giving life and sustenance to each other. They combine at each hour and moment, singing the sound of happiness and joy, the sound of laughter and gladness, the sound of exultation and holiness.

Their culmination rises up to become a song of holiness. This is the Song of God, the Song of Israel (the letters of Yisrael in Hebrew form Shir E-l, Song of God), in its essence of power and beauty, truth and greatness. The Song of Songs encompasses together all of these songs: the Song of the Soul, the Song of the Nation, the Song of Mankind, and the Song of the Universe.

“‘The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s (Shlomo)’. The song of the King Who is Master of shalom (peace, completeness).” (Rashi, quoting the Midrash on Shir Hashirim)

[Chanan Morrison, based on Orot HaKodesh vol. II, pp. 444-445]

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About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.
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