There’s a famous metaphor about footprints in the sand, which represents God’s passage through our world, together with us. I was never a big fan. First of all, because it’s based on a verse in Christian Bible, which I often refer to as the ‘Wrong Testament’. But, secondly, and more importantly, for the fact that there is a much better image, with a better pedigree: Tell me, you whom I love, where you graze your flock and where you rest your sheep at midday. Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends? If you do not know, most beautiful of women, follow the tracks of the sheep and graze your young goats by the tents of the shepherds (Shir HaShirim 1:7-8).
When I think of footprints in the sand, I think of ephemeral imprints, soon to be erased by wind or tide. However, those tracks of flocks through the Judean Desert guide sheep and goats for centuries. They seem immortal. My wife and I just rode through the eastern Shomrom down towards the Bika’a, Jordan Valley. The vistas are breathtaking, but the sheep tracks along the steep slopes remained etched in the scenery and my mind.
What was Shlomo HaMelech describing? On the literal level, our romantic poet is describing an assignation or rendezvous in the rugged wilderness. However, throughout the ages we have understood these verses as describing the Jews’ relationship with God. The ‘translation’ of ArtScroll captures this traditional approach: Where will you rest them under the fiercest sun of the harshest Exile?…follow the footsteps of the sheep–your forefathers, who traced a straight, unswerving path after My Torah (The Complete ArtScroll Siddur, p. 299).
That’s a perfectly fine and accepted approach, but there are two issues which I want to pursue. The first is: Who are the characters represented in verse 7? We’ve got the speaker who seeks, and the shepherdess who is being sought. I assume that the former is God and the latter is the beloved nation. Israel. Then who do the sheep represent? I mean they can’t just be sheep, can they? ArtScroll in verse 8, clearly says that they represent our forebears. So, that’s a possibility. We’ve got God, us, and the ancestors.
Rashi, on the other hand, introduces a new character: K’neset Yisrael, the assembly of Israel. This is a beautiful concept, with which I often struggle. As Jews we have a dual personality. We are individuals and part of a greater whole. This greater whole, K’neset Yisrael, is a powerful presence in history and the world. This K’neset Yisrael is the soul of the nation. The Jewish people are more than the sum of the parts. Jews united together are a powerful force.
We see this idea on the HALACHIK level, with the concept of MINYAN. We are allowed to recite more holy things when we have a critical mass of Jews. When the Jewish nation is united, amazing things happen, like the splitting of the Sea, which we commemorate on the seventh day of Pesach. If only the Israeli political system could or would implement that unity.
The other idea is in verse 8. It’s the sheep tracks. This means so much to me, because I love history. When I was a kid, I watched Peabod’s Improbable History. Nothing has been more improbable than Jewish history. Our very existence defies all logic. We were the underdog so many times that our survival is God’s greatest miracle of all. Jewish history is like describing someone flipping a coin which always comes up tails.
In the Watergate scandal, Deep Throat advised ‘follow the money’. Well, Jewish history is ‘follow the tracks’. See where we’ve been to begin to understand where to go. By studying Jewish history, we can discern those tracks, and not only discover where we’ve been, but, more importantly, where we are and where we are headed.
Jewish history has many repeating cycles of sin, repression, and reconciliation with God. This is the whole theme of Sefer Shoftim. However, we’re not stuck in a closed loop. These cycles must be seen more as a corkscrew, moving inexorably towards a remarkable denouement.
This is why Shir HaShirim is so important to read and study, because it describes the often-frustrating search for God, in both history and our lives. That’s why the final verse has so caught the imagination of our Sages: Flee my beloved, and be like a gazelle or stag on the fragrant hills (8:14). Yes, we may seem to be running in circles, but the chase is sweet, because we know if we follow the tracks the destination is worth it.