Between the Lines—Pesah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Andy Shugerman

Song of Songs Rabbah 5:11

דא״ר לוי אפי׳ דברים שאת רואה קוצין בתורה תילי תילים הן יכולות הן להחריב את העולם ולעשותו תל המד״א תל עולם כתיב (דברים ו׳) שמע ישראל ה׳ אלהינו ה׳ אחד אם תעשה מן הדל״ת רי״ש תחריב לכל העולם (שמות ל״ד) לא תשתחוה לאל אחר אם תחליף רי״ש בדל״ת תחריב העולם

כי אין בלתך א״ר אבהו בר כהנא הכל בלה ואת לא בלה כי אין בלתך אין לבלותיך


Another interpretation [of "his locks are curled" (taltalim) in Song of Songs 5:11]: R. Levi said: Even things that appear to be mere [scribal ornamentation] strokes in the Torah can become heaps of ruins (tilei tilim). The [wrong] strokes can destroy the whole world and make [the Torah] a ruin (tel), as in "an everlasting ruin" (Deut. 13:17).

It is written, "Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one!" (Deut. 6:4): if you make the daleth (in echad, meaning "one") into a resh (making the word acher, meaning "other"), you will destroy the world. (Likewise regarding the verse,) "You shalt not bow down to any other god . . . " (Ex. 34:14): if you make the resh into a daleth (turning "other" into "one"), you will destroy the world . . .

"Truly, there is none beside You . . . " (1 Sam. 2:2): R. Abbahu b. Kahana said: Everything fades away, but You do not fade away; "there is none beside You" (biltekha)-neither is it possible to consume You (lebalothekha).

Could a mistake in the Torah really "destroy the whole world?" At first blush, it may seem that this midrash spills a lot of ink over penmanship, but the concern about spilled ink (or missing ink, for that matter) is exactly the point here. How we preserve God's words in human handwriting is directly connected to what we are recording, as the form and content of our sacred texts make them sifrei kodesh—literally "scrolls of holiness."

This Shabbat, the Song of Songs and a special Torah reading from Exodus 33–34 will be chanted. Rabbi Akiva famously taught in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5 that "all the Writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies" because the lovers' dialogue is interpreted as an allegory for the courtship between God and Israel. Even a simple scribal error, like the ones feared above, would completely distort the story of that romance into one of betrayal. For that reason, special scribal customs were developed to avoid the potential errors mentioned above regarding Deuteronomy 6:4, which is recited twice daily as the Sh'ma, and Exodus 34:14, which appears in the middle of this week's Torah reading.

What if we were to treat electronic communication with the same level of care and attention? While email and text messages originate in the mundane world, most of us have either sent or received a message with a harshly worded statement, a hastily composed phrase, or even just an inadvertent mistake that led to insult and grievous misunderstanding. Many of us have been publicly embarrassed by such language, and, whether intended or not, that amounts to a hillul hashem, an act of slander against God.

R. Abbahu is correct in stating that "everything fades away," but we must act with the knowledge that our hurtful behavior is not easily repaired. Let us rather regard all of our communications as an expression of the image of God within us. Let us recall that every interaction has the potential to lift or to diminish our spirits and God's presence in the world. Let us express our conviction that "there is none beside You" with newfound devotion this Pesah.