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Torah Sparks

April 7, 2007 – 19 Nisan 5767

Annual: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: Numbers 28:19 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p.932; Hertz p. 695)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:1 – 14 (Etz Hayim, p. 1308; Hertz p. 1015)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Torah Reading

Throughout the year, Jews follow a cycle of Torah readings that moves forward, every Shabbat, through the five books of the Torah. On festivals, we set aside the regular cycle and read material that is chosen for its thematic connection to the holy day.

Our reading from the first Torah-scroll today (which should be familiar from four weeks ago, when we read it as part of the regular cycle of weekly Torah readings) deals with the aftermath of the incident of the golden calf. Moses now has two main tasks. His immediate job is to repair the rift that has developed in the people’s relationship with God as a result of their disregard for the covenant. In addition, Moses wishes to draw nearer to God and to know His qualities and characteristics. (We presume that this has been a long-time wish of Moses’. However, it gains further urgency in the wake of the near-severing of relations between God and the people Israel.)

God reminds Moses that no human being can look directly at God and survive. Instead He suggests to Moses a way for Moses to gaze indirectly at God. As a result of this encounter, Moses learns thirteen attributes of God. In a covenant of compassion, God seems to reassure Moses that He will be especially receptive to the Israelites and their descendants whenever they invoke these thirteen attributes in sincere devotion (as we do quite often on Yom Kippur).

Ironically, our liturgy calls for us to invoke these thirteen divine attributes (as part of the service for taking out the Torah) on all festival days except Shabbat. However, on the Shabbat that falls during Hol Ha-Mo’ed, we read this particular passage from the Torah, thereby “smuggling” the covenant of compassion back into our service. Since we are in a reflective festival mode, it is highly appropriate for us to take this opportunity to reflect on the nature of the divine and upon our relationship with our God.

Our reading from the second Torah scroll enumerates sacrifices that were brought annually on Passover as an ancient expression of devotion to the relationship between God and the people Israel.

Shir Ha-Shirim: The Song of Songs

The festival service is marked by the Torah readings outlined above, as well as a Haftarah reading. All this is preceded by the recitation of Hallel, a group of poems (Psalms 113-118) that are sung congregationally. In addition, some congregations chant all or part of Shir Ha-Shirim, a cluster of love poems found in our Bible as one of the Five Megillot. (Other congregations, following the custom established by Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, do not chant Shir Ha-Shirim at all. The same variation in practice occurs regarding the chanting of the Scroll of Ruth on Shavuot, and Kohellet/Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.)

The Five Megillot are not printed in the Humashim available in most of our synagogues. (This fact may be chalked up to the economics of publishing, coupled with the custom that three of these books are not chanted at all in some synagogues.) In an attempt to address this omission, the Siddur Sim Shalom prints excerpts. (The Song of Songs appears on pages 788-790 in the classic Sim Shalom, on pages 377-378 in Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Holidays.)

One may well ask the question: What is a cluster of love poems doing in the Bible, and why might they be chanted at a festival service? In fact, Shir Ha-Shirim was nearly excluded from the canon of our Bible. Rabbi Akiva (d.135 C.E.) endorsed the inclusion of this book, resourcefully arguing:

There was no worthwhile day in the history of the world like the day on which Shir Ha-Shirim was given to Israel, for all scriptures are holy, but Shir Ha-shirim is the holy of holies. (Mishmah Yadayim 3:5)

This obvious exaggeration flowed from Rabbi Akiva’s sympathy for the viewpoint that endorses an allegorical interpretation of this love poetry. The late Rabbi Isaac Klein summarized this school of thought in his 1979 volume, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice:

According to rabbinic tradition Shir Ha-Shirim is a love song, with God the beloved and the children of Israel as the bride. Since Pesah marks the beginning of this courtship (its culmination was Matan Torah [at Sinai]), the reading of the Song of Songs during Pesah is most appropriate. The Song of Songs is also a song to spring (2:11-13). Pesah is a spring festival both literally and figuratively. Spring means hope and happiness. In this case, hope lies in freedom, and happiness in the attachment to the law of God. (page 38)

Nonetheless, Rabbi Akiva warned elsewhere (Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:5) against chanting this material in a frivolous context. Clearly he felt that a delicate balance must be maintained when love themes are introduced into religious literature.

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