Approaching Pesah, Part 1: “Turning the Heart”
Two seemingly disconnected texts offer an insight into the experience of Pesah. On Shabbat Hagadol (the Shabbat before Pesah, this year on March 23), the haftarah from Malachi ends with the powerful words, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of God I will send you the prophet Elijah; he will turn the hearts of parents to [their] children, and the hearts of children to parents” (Mal. 3:23).
The gulf between the generations is no more and no less filled with angst and anguish in modernity than in ancient times. If finding love and understanding between parents and children were easy, we would not need the prophet Elijah to bring it about. Among my own memories of seder are no small number of bitter family fights, and I hear many similar reflections from friends and students all over the world. So each year, this haftarah invites us to at least reflect on what it might take to turn the hearts of the generations toward each other.
A different context is presented by the tradition that connects Pesah with Shir Hashirim (the Song of Songs). It is chanted (with a beautiful, lyrical melody) during the synagogue service, but is also recited by many at the end of the seder. There is no explicit mention of Pesah in this short book—indeed, there is no direct mention of God. There are two pathways of understanding, each in some way following from a compelling statement of Rabbi Akiba: “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy [kedoshim] and shir hashirim kodesh kedoshim the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Mishnah Yadaim 3:5).
There are some teachings that the text is an allegory for the love between God and Israel that was born in the Pesah story of liberation. Alternately, we recall that Pesah is always in the spring, universally seen as the time for love and lovers. My friend and colleague in London, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, reflects on the presence of love and hope in the landscape of Bosnia: “The Song of Songs celebrates more than the joining of one man and one woman; the act of generation is itself a meeting of generations: ‘I seized him and did not release him until I had brought him to my mother’s house to the room where I was conceived’ (3:4)” [The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, 163–165].
Approaching Pesah, I invite you to turn again to these ancient texts embedded in our sacred calendar to challenge and inspire us. They compel us to explore our deepest relationships—those between parents and children, between lovers, and with God.
The Song of Songs celebrates more than the joining of one man and one woman; the act of generation is itself a meeting of generations: “I seized him and did not release him until I had brought him to my mother’s house to the room where I was conceived” (3:4).
. . . It is the sign of peace when people are able to marry in the village where their parents were married too . . . Wars and persecution sweep whole people from their ancestral homes. Who knows if they will ever return? If they do will it be possible for love to be there amidst the graves and the ghosts? War sets death in the middle of the bond between heart and home.
Does God have any place in such a landscape? Love brings God near; hatred drives God away. God can make a home in the chambers of the heart, but the heart can also close its doors and leave the spirit homeless in an alien world. We can contribute toward the unity of all things . . . or we can blow everything apart and sever ourselves and all life from its source. (The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year, 163–165)