Between the Lines—Pesah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה א ד"ה ב ד"א ישקני

ב ד"א ישקני מנשיקות פיהו אמר רבי יוחנן מלאך היה מוציא הדיבור מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, על כל דיבור ודיבור, ומחזירו על כל אחד ואחד מישראל ואומר לו מקבל אתה עליך את הדיבור הזה, כך וכך דינין יש בו כך וכך עונשין יש בו כך וכך גזרות יש בו וכך מצות וכך קלים וחמורים יש בו, כך וכך מתן שכר יש בו, והיה אומר לו ישראל הן וחוזר ואומר לו מקבל את אלהותו של הקב"ה והוא אומר לו הן והן, מיד היה נושקו על פיו, הה"ד +דברים ד'+ אתה הראת לדעת על ידי שליח,

Song of Songs 1:2

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine.

Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2:2

Rabbi Yohanan said: An angel carried the utterances [at Mount Sinai] from before the Holy One, blessed be He, each one in turn, and brought it to each of the Israelites and said to him, "Do you take upon yourself this commandment? So-and-so many rules are attached to it, so-and-so many penalties are attached to it, so many precepts and so many lenient and strict applications are attached to it; such-and-such a reward is attached to it." The Israelite would answer him, "Yes." He then said, "Do you accept the divinity of the Holy One, blessed be He?" and he answered, "Yes, yes." Thereupon he kissed him on the mouth; hence it says, "It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the Lord alone is God" (Deutereonomy 4:35), namely, by an [angelic] messenger.

From sensual poetry to rules and penalties: how did that happen?

The distance between the peshat, or literary meaning of the text, and derash, its interpretation, is nowhere more obvious than in the rabbinic interpretation of the biblical book Song of Songs. Read in synagogue on the Shabbat of Hol Hamo'ed Pesah, the book is a sensuous collection of lovers' words, moving from courtship to consummation.

That such a text is not explicitly religious did not seem to bother the Rabbis, or at least did not seem to present an insurmountable problem. Declaring the book to be the work of none other than King Solomon, the Rabbis read it as an allegory of the love between God and Israel. (In fact, this claim arises from the book's opening verse, arguably the only one in the entire book the Rabbis take literally.) The midrash cited here is a prime example: lest you think the verse is really about a lover's kiss, know that it's really about the kiss an angel gave to your Israelite ancestor when he accepted the yoke of God's mitzvot, in full knowledge of the complete halakhic system.

What a wonderfully rich tradition to have inherited. Here at our spring festival, we read this most romantic book with two sets of lenses. We read it with the flowers blooming and with "love in the air," appreciating it as the love poetry it is. But we also read it midrashically, relating it to the Exodus story, a courtship that will be consummated with the receiving of the Law at Sinai at the end of the Omer period, which we have just begun. Our religious lives are filled with as much yearning as our love lives, both of which can be "sealed with a kiss," and our tradition relishes all sorts of words and images in igniting the imaginations of both layers of our inner lives.