Dvar Torah For Shmini Shel Pesach, Shir Ha-Shirim, and Yizkor, 5772.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.
As some of you know, throughout the week of Pesach, I have been exploring the meaning of the drinking of the four cups of wine that structure the seder ritual and enhance our celebration of our freedom. We have studied the verses from the book of Exodus in which God employs at least four different verbs to describe God’s promise of liberation to the people of Israel. These four verbs are seen by the Talmud as the literary basis for the four cups of wine at the seder.
The last verb in the Bible’s list is v’lakachti, which means literally, “I (God) will take you Israelites to be my people.” Most commentators on the Torah explain that God’s promise to take us to be God’s people was fulfilled at Mount Sinai, when God gave us the Torah, thus signifying that we were not only physically free from slavery, we were spiritually free as well. This verb, v’lakachti, is used in other parts of the Torah as well as later Talmudic literature as a reference to a man taking a woman and making her his wife. Though this technical term for marriage and the imagery accompanying it may disturb us because it is sexist, it provides us with a rich portrayal of how Jewish tradition has always understood the Exodus from Egypt and our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai: God removes us from slavery to Pharaoh and marries us, with the Torah serving as our ketubah, or marriage contract, on our wedding day when we truly become a people married to God. It is no wonder, then, that we chant Shir Ha-Shirim during Pesach. Its erotic love poetry about a man and woman desiring each other became a preeminent symbol of the romance between God and the Jews that resulted in God taking us to be God’s bride.
One of the most evocative images in Shir Ha-Shirim is of the woman lying on her bed at night, unable to sleep because she is tormented by thoughts of her lover from whom she is separated. We read in chapter 3:1:
Upon my couch at night//I sought the one I love//I sought but found him not.
The sages of the Talmud interpreted this verse to be a lament of the Jewish people before God. There are physical and spiritual nighttimes when we are either oppressed by others or when we drift away from the Torah. At those times, we lie not on a lover’s couch but upon a sick bed, tormented by our alienation from God. Only through our efforts and God’s love is the rift between us repaired so that we can continue to live as individuals and as a people.
The image of the couch in Shir Ha-Shirim is invoked to describe a physical romance between two people, and a spiritual romance between the Jewish people and God. As we will see during Yizkor, the image of the couch is also invoked in the beautiful memorial prayer, Eil Malei Rakhamim. There, we not only call forth memories of our loved ones before God, we call upon God to protect their souls by having them lie upon their couches in peace, in the afterlife: v’yanukhu b’shalom al mish-k’voteihem. What strikes me about this image in the memorial prayer is its firm assertion that those we love and remember who have died, are not really deceased, but alive with God in a place of rest and peace upon heavenly couches that are attended to by God. This is not only a theological image, and it is not necessarily trying to make some forced assumption about immortality and the soul. It is a poetic image that binds us, our loved ones who have died, and God together in the hope that our love, their love, and God’s love keeps them alive in spirit, even when their bodies are no longer alive. We hope for our loved ones that the couch – one metaphor for life experience- that may have been a place of turbulence and torment during their lives- is now the setting for peace and rest for their undying spiritual selves that we remember with sadness, but also with love.