The description, “You’re a religious fanatic!” was commonly hurled at me by certain family members in my youth. I preferred to believe I was a religious idealist! I strove to perceive everything through eyes of the Torah and the rabbis in the Talmud. It didn’t see it then, but in truth, they were right, and that idealism may have made me blind to certain obvious truths.
When Passover came around and we’d read “Shir HaShirim: Song of Songs”, the ultimate love song of the Bible, I immediately transitioned its allegory. It couldn’t be so bane as to just be a love song between a man and woman, rather it was a poem echoing the love and tempestuous relationship between God and the Jewish people.
The Artscroll translation of the book takes this path as well: Chapter 1
Clearly, the verb is “Kiss”, but they translate it as “Communicate your innermost wisdom to me…
Likewise in verse 4, they translate “Draw me after you…” as
Rabbi Michael Gold sees the song unfolding this way: A shepherd girl has dark skin tanned by the sun. Her brothers tried to keep her locked away. But then she is spotted by King Solomon’s retinue and taken into his harem. The young ladies tell her how lucky she is to be in the palace of the king. But she longs to be rescued by her lover, who will come skipping over the mountains to free her. She escapes from the palace to wander through the city where the watchmen see her and mock her. In their search, they both just miss each other, yet the shepherd girl and her lover never cease their longing for one another.
When I would try to learn and teach this book in my youth I was never successful. One verse didn’t connect to the other and one metaphor never lasted more than two lines. I grew quickly frustrated and gave up. It was the one book of the Bible that completely befuddled me.
However, if we try to understand Shir HaShirim as the story of two inflamed lovers then it’s comprehensible. The young shepherd girl longs for her shepherd boy to rescue her, and the shepherd boy pines to be reunited with his love. The text can work, for poetry doesn’t have to conform to logic and serial progression.
There are in fact thousands of poems composed about springtime love.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote in his poem, Locksley Hall:
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
Ariel Miles writes in “Spring Love”:
It’s funny how
anything that has to do with spring
will always make me think of you
Simple things like
the color of the sky
& if you leave me I’d be blue.
In “The Promise of Spring: a Fibonacci” by Elaine George, the same idea is reiterated:
While you sleep
Lady dressed in white
And melt your cold heart made of ice
High into the sky
And fall as raindrops from God’s eyes
Where now you will grow
With me – in the bloom of a rose
In my youth, when I ignored the simple meaning of the text and rushed to the allegory, I missed out on the romantic message of this text.
Spring is a time to renew our love. Surely, it’s a time to renew our love of God as well, but God definitely wants us to love our spouses, significant others and family and friends as well.
The magical rebirth and renewal of Spring, with love in the air, is meant to have implications everywhere. Perhaps the reading of Shir HaShirim in the synagogue is meant to inspire us to look at our relationships through new lenses and fan those coals of love once more.