By Yehoshua Rose
Song of Songs is of singular nature in the Bible. Even books such as Psalms, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, which contain profound poetic writings, are of a distinctly different nature than Song of Songs.
It is a deep, emotive, and profound love song, which, at face value, seems very out of place among the writings of scripture. But despite its unique, almost transgressive nature, the great sage Rabbi Akiva is recorded in the Mishna as saying, “All [Biblical] writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the holiest of the holies.” Clearly then, there is more to this Biblical book, than meets the eye.
The great Jewish Biblical commentators understood that although couched in the metaphor of a love song, Song of Songs expresses a much deeper truth. It is a conversation between God and his chosen people. Throughout the eight chapters of the book, God is given the appellation “dodi,” “my beloved,” while the name, “rayati,” “my darling” i.e. “the fair maiden,” is a representation of God’s people.
The Targum, the Aramaic translation and commentary of Song of Songs, notes that there were ten other divinely inspired songs composed throughout history. These range from Adam’s praise of God at the onset of the first Sabbath, to different songs of gratitude following an assortment of military victories, to the ultimate composition to be sung upon the arrival of the final redemption. Yet, as Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus (1944 – 2001) notes, Song of Songs is uniquely different from the rest of them.
The ten songs noted by the Targum are each expressions of success in some domain of life; Hannah’s song of joy after her prayers to God were answered and she was granted a child; the song sung by the Jewish people after successfully crossing the Reed Sea; the final song after the successful arrival of the redemption. Song of Songs is fundamentally different. Unlike the other songs, it is not a depiction of triumph and achievement, rather it is the complicated expression of a relationship between God and His people. As with any loving relationship, an apt description of its entirety cannot be confined to the golden pinnacles of its successes. Rather, it is a journey down the road of struggle, error, and strain. But what binds the travelers together is their unbreakable desire to continue along the trail together.
A famous passage by Charles Dickens can be appropriated as a fitting metaphor to capture the underlying message and complexity of Song of Songs. Although Dicken’s opening words to A Tale of Two Cities are a reference to great upheavals during a certain historical time period, it nonetheless succinctly characterizes Song of Songs:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Song of Songs is a voyage through Biblical history. It is the twists and turns of two lovers who are ultimately bonded together for eternity. From the peaks of the Exodus, to the lows of the Sin of the Golden Calf; from the grandeur of the Temple, to its ultimate destruction. Song of Songs is a roller coaster through a tense but profound relationship. There are ups and there are downs. But ultimately God declares to His people (8:7), “Vast floods cannot quench love, Nor rivers drown it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, He would be laughed to scorn.”
The great medieval commentator Rashi understands that this verse is God communicating the following message, “Vast floods” i.e. the nations of the world, “cannot quench [the] love” i.e. the love that God has for his people. “Nor rivers” i.e. even the actions of kings and princes. “[cannot] drown it” – i.e. even using strength, fear, intimidation, and seduction, God’s love will endure.
During the good times, the Jewish People adhere to God’s word; they follow his commandments, learn His Torah, and heed His advice. But throughout the Bible, this always seems to come to an end all too soon. Quickly, the nation descends into sinful behavior. Gone are the days of devotion to the Almighty, and in its place wayward and defiant behavior emerges. The maiden has betrayed the one who loves her.
Song of Songs 5:1 is a very poignant expression of this perpetual paradox:
“I am dark, but comely (i.e., pleasant to look at), O daughters of Yerushalayim— Like the tents of Kedar, Like the pavilions of Shlomo.”
Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein (1860–1941), in his work Torah Temimah, details the stark contradistinctions expressed within just this sentence alone. Among the over ten different Biblical events intimated in this verse, some of Rabbi Epstein’s suggestions include:
“Dark” is a reference to the disobedience towards God while in the land of Egypt; “Comely” refers to ultimate adherence to His commandments upon fulfilling the pascal lamb sacrifice. Alternatively, “Dark” hints at the actions on the shores of the Reed Sea when God was lambasted, saying, “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?”; “Comely” is a hint to the spontaneous outburst of joy and gratitude when the sea split and the nation was saved. “Dark” is an indication of the slander that the spies expressed after journeying around the land of Israel; “Comely” is a reference to the righteous actions of Joshua and Caleb when they elected to defend the beauty and integrity of the land.
Rabbi Epstein lists several other self-contradictory Biblical events, but the examples above suffice to illustrate the idea. The Jewish people’s relationship with God is anything but smooth sailing.
Yet despite the rocky road, the prophet Isaiah gives us reassurance that, notwithstanding Israel’s errant ways and consistent shortcomings, God’s love remains steadfast and the unbreakable bond He has with his nation endures.
“For the mountains may move and the hills be shaken, But my loyalty shall never move from you, Nor My covenant of friendship be shaken —said Hashem, who takes you back in love.” (Isaiah 54:10)