This Shabbat is also the 7th day of Pesach, which, in addition to being the end of the Biblically-mandated, seven-day, “Festival of Matzot”, is also the date, according to Rabbinic tradition, of the Israelites’ crossing of the Sea of Reeds, drowning of the Egyptian army therein, and wondrous expression of our realization of freedom, through communal singing of Miriam’s magnificent Song of the Sea. As Rashi crisply summarizes in his comment to Sh’mot/Exodus 14:5, when Phara‘oh released the Israelites, he thought they were only going for three days and would then return, “and as soon as they had reached the three days’ journey which he had fixed for them to go and return, and [his advisors who escorted the Israelites] perceived that they were not going back to Egypt, they came and told Phara‘oh on the fourth day. On the fifth and sixth they pursued after them. On the night of the seventh day they went down into the sea and on the following morning they sang the Song and this was the seventh day of Pesach. And that is why we read the Song as the Torah reading on the seventh day of the Festival.” This year, in addition to chanting The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) and, as the haftarah, David’s song of celebration for being saved from enemies (II Samuel 22), we also chant the entire Biblical book of Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), which is usually chanted on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach, but joins the Day of Song on the 7th day on years like this one, when there is no intermediate Shabbat of Pesach. Why all this song? Why is singing so crucial to the experience of freedom?
The inclusion of the Book of Shir HaShirim in Scriptural canon is itself interesting. On the face of it, it’s a collection of eight chapters of gorgeous love and erotic poetry between two lovers in pursuit of each other. It’s not about God or the Jewish people and seems out of place in the Tanakh. Several early Sages claim that there was controversy over whether to consider it part of the canon, but Rabbi ‘Akiva aggressively disagreed, stamping out any question or doubt about the holiness of this book, “for the whole world is not as worth as on the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all Scriptures are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishna Yadayim 3:5). If we take this metaphor seriously, Shir HaShirim is the radiant energy center around which the rest of Scripture derives meaning, potency, and holiness. Accordingly, the Rabbinic tradition understood this book not as, or not only as, erotic poetry between two individuals, but as an interpretive key through which to unlock the Torah’s narration of the courtship between God and Israel during the exodus. (Prof. Daniel Boyarin discusses this phenomenon brilliantly in his book, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash, Indiana, 1990.) Let’s take a look at one example of how a personal love drama comes to unlock the fuller meaning of the drama of liberation.
One verse of Shir HaShirim, which seems to stand apart from the fragments around it, depicts one lover courting the other, with the courted lover shyly hesitating, perhaps coyly flirting, playing hard-to-get: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, let Me see your face; let Me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is fair” (Shir HaShirim 2:14). On the face of it, this preciously captures an all-too familiar moment of courtship compliments. The midrashic tradition sees something else, though, the key to understand another peculiar moment of hesitation in the exodus, from tomorrow’s holiday.
The Israelites stand at the banks of the sea, wondering where to go next. They spin around to find the Egyptian army charging after them. Naturally, they freak out, cry out to God, and then yell at Moshe: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?” (Sh’mot 14:11-12). Moshe attempts to calm their panic with a dramatic, swaggering promise: “‘Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which YHWH will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again! YHWH will do battle for you; you, keep quiet!” (ibid., 13-14). Strangely, though, God doesn’t dramatically split the sea at that instance to justify Moshe’s bombast; God says, “What are you crying out to Me for? Tell the Israelites to go ahead!” (ibid, 15). Needless to say, “go ahead” is a surprising thing to tell a people standing between a sea and a charging army. But this moment was critical to our freedom, so we need a key to unlock it, to understand the mechanics of discovering previously unimaginable paths to freedom when we feel trapped, out of options, hopeless, stuck between a rock and a hard place.
The Rabbis, the same generation of 3rd Century Rabbis as Rabbi ‘Akiva, found that key in the human courtship experience, as expressed in our verse in Shir HaShirim: “At that time, Israel were like a dove which, fleeing from a hawk, entered the cleft of the rock. But there, a snake hissed. If she enters within, Look! The snake! If she comes out, Look! The hawk! That’s what Israel was like at that time: the sea closed them in and the enemy pursued. Immediately, they gave their eyes to prayer. About them the Tradition unpacks: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock, let Me see your face; let Me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet and your face is fair’ (Midrash Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishma‘el on Exodus 14:13).
Maybe the Rabbis are just uncomfortable with eros and so they’re stripping this erotic poetry of its human eros to submit it to religious discipline; a lot of people feel that way about this midrashic posture toward Shir HaShirim. I don’t think so. If they wanted to distance themselves from it, they would have kept it out of the canon; they would have denied its holiness. I think they’re drawing from erotic experience to learn from it about our political and religious experience, centering human eros as universally meaningful, beyond the individuals sharing in the erotic encounter. By reading this line of love poetry in the context of Israel between the sea and the army, they coax us to notice that beneath our shy hiding and coy masking can burn profound fear. People have all sorts of tactics for hiding our fear — masks, costumes, vanishing tools — but ultimately, the closet is a place of fear. That fear can be debilitating, squeezing out the room for creativity to see paths of liberation: all there is is a snake and a hawk, a sea and an army, ready to devour us. How did the Israelites break out of that closet of panic and see a surprising, trailblazing path forward through the sea? The voice in our poem is exactly what is missing in our Biblical narration. While God chastises Moshe to cut the drama and tell Israel to go, God is telling Israel, You’re a beautiful dove, trapped, closeted, and scared. Let me see you, let me hear you, because you are beautiful and your voice is gorgeous. It is the human experience of being built up by a lover, of coming to believe in our own power and worth through the lover’s embarrassing showering of praise, that allows us to remove the masks of hiding, to come out of closets, to find paths of liberation that we didn’t have the capacity to see before.
Prose struggles to break out of the bounds of the expected; poetry and song help us break those boundaries. This Shabbat and yom tov, let’s sing, sing, sing our way to freedom. Let’s sing of love, of miracles, of ridiculous, impossible things like splitting an ocean and then drowning an army in it. Through our song, let’s unlock our prose and birth our freedom.
Shabbat shalom and Chag sameah.
P.S. As a bonus, here’s a beautiful, contemporary, musical rendition of our verse from Song of Songs by Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble.