Shir HaShirim – The Song of Songs

The word shir (song) has two meanings in the holy tongue.  Besides the aesthetic-literary meaning, the word carries the significance of a ring or bracelet, or a chain of such bands.  The title phrase “Song of Songs” could therefore connote a series of songs within a single song, like a string of beads.  The song sequel in the biblical Song of Solomon would then be more than a collection of poetic verses relating to a variety of different events; in essence, that is the song itself.  Which is to say, the song is a double, triple, or quadruple song, in which the different segments of the sequence are not next to one another but each within the others.  The very same song constitutes a whole string of songs with worlds upon worlds of meaning connected and intertwining with each other and passing from world to world, from one domain of reality to another, separate and different.

The Song of Songs is at once and the same time, a private song and a general one; it is both carnal and spiritual.  On one hand, it is certainly a love song between a man and a woman, lovers who admire one another greatly, who lose and find each other.  On the other hand, it is also a song of love in the wider sense, of the connection between Israel and her God; it is a song of love and devotion, of redemption, of redemption and exile, of human error and repentance.  And still another song may be found therein, and this too very personal, but definitely spiritual, concerning the relationship between the soul and the Divine, a song of yearning and neglect, of search and supplication.  A fourth song is there too, which is more general song about the rapport between the Creator and His creation between the Ein Sof(Infinite) and the Shekhinah (the Divine Indwelling); it sings of the way the world comes and goes, disappears and gets hidden, only to return and merge with the Creator.

Clearly then, the song series concerns itself with different layers of reality, each of which belongs to an entirely separate world.  And yet, the spiritual and broadly comprehensive songs are not abstract or allegorical developments of the simple love song at the beginning.  They are complete in themselves.  Even though they are integrated one within the other, each is somehow true to itself and self-contained within its own framework. Moreover, all of the songs draw sustenance from each other.  Every one is somehow a sign or an explication for another, and at the same time the breath of life for another.  Even more, each one of the songs gets its clarity and its wholeness from the next song.  Without the others, which belong to an entirely separate world, none of them could stand.

The human love story between man and woman became a song only because of the other, sublime poetry behind it.  Were it not for the heavenly love the earthy love would have expressed only a cry of biological craving.  What raises the physical yearning is the loftier craving for which the human physical love serves as an allegory.  Even when the lovers are not aware of it, their love includes in it something more, elements that they cannot define to themselves.  The biology of desire is very direct, very simple – and in and of itself, quite uninteresting.  But here, because there is something beyond it, the love cry exceeds its purpose as an instrument for the satisfaction of physical desire – it becomes a song-poem.  And in a wider scope, since the love between the lover and his beloved is really a material symbol of the entire love of a people and more than that, of the entire world, the song is lifted up, gains dimensions of another greatness and scope in which matter ceases to be only physical, and becomes the material bearer of other essences.

And just as the sensual poem is raised up by its being bound to the more spiritual songs, so too is the spiritual poem elevated and enhanced by virtue of the sensual poem.  The spiritual songs of themselves would probably have assumed more abstract and ephemeral forms.  But this spirituality is not necessarily an advantage: a spiritual expression is perhaps more refined and delicate but it is also pale and insubstantial and cold.  It is the sensual poem that gives the spiritual poetry its passion and vigor, involves it with the material world, with all its forms and colors.  The evenly proportioned design of the spiritual world is enriched by its contact with this other world of blind, chaotic matter.

The Jewish people as a whole can only function and even think in very general terms.  The parts constituting this whole, because of their multiplicity and the differences between them, relinquish and obscure the subtleties of their individual differences, and their functioning as a single unity is necessarily simpler, made up a limited number of actions and operations of a general significance, whereas the individual love song adds to the general song of the people not only the colorfulness of the individual personality, but, in addition, the dimension of authentic feeling and intimate experience.

The story – on all its levels – is not a chronologically ordered tale of events that follow one another in narrative or ballad forms.  But that which seems to be disorderly in the story is also the source of its great power, changing it from a simple love story to a comprehensive psalm of praise, a psalm that does not only relate to one individual person or to any specific historic event or to a well-defined typical structure, but acts as a general song that belongs to every happening, every person, every combination of reality.

In the order of any one life, or in any particular chapter of a national history, the poem could be read as it is, while in other situations, various sections are appropriate.  And there is no end to the story – because the things described therein never come to any conclusion.  Even if in a single human life the story plot of love does come to some end, for others it goes on.  Every person begins this same tale again at some point in his biography, and lives it in the life of his spirit.  Similarly, every period in the history of the nation begins the story anew, from another starting point, and every era in development of the world recommences it again and not always from the same point of departure.  And only when all is finished and fulfilled, only at the last, will the conclusion of this tale finally unfold.  Only then will the story come to an end.

Just as it has no ending, the story plot of the Song of Songs has no beginning.  But it is not like most of the books of the Bible, which do not start from the beginning of the narrative, not long after; this particular book simply does not have a beginning.  And this is because generally every love story, whether it be earthly or heavenly, has some kind of commencement with a description of the first meeting, even if it is a love-at-first-sight situation, and a certain development of the plot with all its uncertainties and problems until the mutual disclosure of love and its fatefulness for the lovers.  This course of true love is not only characteristic of the human-earthly form; it is no less so for the other levels of love in the Song of Songs.  The people of Israel and God, the soul and the Creator, these “lovers” also have a first meeting of some sort, and a series of hesitant encounters until the decisive commitment.  The absence of such a vital part of the account in the Song of Songs may seem to belittle this prime element of doubt and indecision, of the tension inherent in the mutual search.  To be sure, the narrative poem does have tension in it with a certain among of losing and find each other, but the first part of the relation, which is so important in any mutual cherishing, is somehow missing.

This deletion is not accidental; it may even be one of the keys to the essence of the poem.  In all the seeking and fumbling mentioned in the Song, in the partings and coming together of the protagonists, all the questioning and wondering, there is one thing that is certain – the deep connection between the lover and the beloved on all the levels of the account.  There is never any doubt that the two are destined for one another and bound to each other.  Throughout the winding threads of their fortunes, their partings and reunions, we are never left uncertain about the indissoluble bond between them.

The fact that the Song of Songs has neither a beginning nor an end signifies that the story does not belong to any particular time; basically, it is not a tale of anything that happened in the past or that will happen in the future.  It takes place in an eternal present, which is always real and concurrent.  True, a certain part of the narrative has already taken place (like in the more general national layer of the poem, the Exodus from Egypt), but not only is this past still fresh in memory, it is actually always there, in the historical present or in the future.  That is to say, the order of things may change a little from time to time, but the song remains fixed in an ever-repeated and forever existent pattern of events.

This eternal present of the Song of Songs occurs in a certain season of the year, the time and season of love in the spring.  The winter and the autumn, the cold and the rain, have passed, and the coming winter will never arrive.  Nevertheless, in spite of the unchanging presents of all that happens, the poem is not frozen into one situation.  Within the firm and steadfast bond between the lovers and the undefined immobility of time, there is an astonishing degree of movement.  And it is not a movement of external events, even though each of the described events in the poem has its inner repercussion and influence.  It is rather that the existential truth of the inner, emotional events is itself the central point of the poem.

And this is so for all the layers and all the verses of the Song of Songs.  The system of relations undergoes various changes of parting and coming together.  Not for nothing are there so many references to dances within the poem itself.  Indeed, it is a dance song; everything happens in one place and there is movement all the time.  The participants in the dance make frequent changes in their positioning to one another, they assume different poses and vary their movements, and all the time they carry on in the same dance.

The basic pattern of the Song of Songs is therefore one of the dance movement.  This dance, since it is an expression of the whole life, and actually of the system of the unity of life on various levels, is not at all simple.  Just as it contains simple, straightforward details, it also has complex movements and forms in the background, or as a choral setting for the principal dance of the two lovers.

The basic movements of the poem, which are fundamental dance steps, can be said to consist of three double forms.  The first is manifested when one of the couple is active and seems to move around encircling his partner while the other remains fixed in her place, still and passive.  Then there are the sections in which each of the couple speaks, extolling the virtues of the other, and expressing love for her (or him).  This is a double form because it is not done only by one of the protagonists: both of them do it interchangeably throughout the book.

Another basic form is more dramatic, continuing and quickening the previous form so that there is a certain spatial movement in breadth, a kind of running away and a pursuit, as when one of the couple goes after and seeks the other out while the first hides and keeps running away.  In the language of the Kabbalah, while the first form is of the order of face to face, the second form is of the order of face to the rear.  And of course this latter form is a double movement, because it is done interchangeably by the members of the couple, in order to emphasize that there is no real flight or hiding, but only a dance movement with an overall design.  The pursuit and the search, in spite of being very intense and full of emotion and excitement, do not ever show despair, even for a single moment.  The couple is so sure of the bond between them that they never fear the fate of the love itself.  The pursuit and the flight are the cosmic to and fro movement of the universe and represent the complementary aspects of the single process.

The third form of the dance is one of more intensive inwardness, still a dance – even though outwardly it may show very little movement at all.  This is where the dance seems to shrink to a constricted space, where the movements are scarcely perceptible and there remains only a sort of vibration.  Instead of the to and fro movement, there is a mati velo mati, a play of being visible and invisible.  I refer to the verses when the beloved speaks of her love.  Sometimes she speaks about it to others, like the “daughters of Jerusalem,” and sometimes she talks to herself.  In these verses there is a certain reservation, but within the constraint there is expressed the clearest declarations of the power and enduring intensity of love.

All that takes place in the poem has its setting in a background that is both real and imaginary: Lebanon and Amana, Ein Gedi and Jerusalem.  None of the places mentioned in the Song of Songs seems to need any verifiability as a specific place.  The locations, the trees, and the plants do not carry the authenticity of specific objects in time and space; they seem more like legend or dream fragments.  Even though the poem does not speak of anything that is not of this world, neither mythical beasts nor celestial creatures, and everything appears to be quite real and earthy, there are, nevertheless, features like the vineyard and the apple tree, the daughters of Jerusalem and the little foxes, and even the watchers of the walls and money for the vineyard, all of which become the elements of a dream world.   Moreover, all of these seem to be no more than the setting for the dance; they provide a mirage-like background for that which is the only genuine reality, the two lovers and their dance.

This relationship between the protagonists and their environment is one of the factors defining the deep love that is the essence of the Song of Songs.  Also, on the level of individual/personal experience, love can bring about such a feeling of unreality that the world seems to become no more than a painted backdrop to the validity of the beloved.  And of course, these things assume a more profound significance with every higher level of the poem’s multifaceted contents.  The described reality becomes, at a certain stage, only a series of symbols for other essences on a higher plane.  The material existence of the world is nothing more than an ethereal covering for an immaterial world, which becomes increasingly real and makes of the substantial world no more than a metaphor.

As manifested in the Song of Songs, love flows in waves of coming together and parting, whether in the earthly story as a lovers’ meeting or as a search for the beloved, or whether in the transcendent aspect of approach – the disclosure of desire and the passionate mutuality of love – or by the distancing – as expressed by a certain hesitance or a waiting for an opportunity, a tarrying for a stirring up of love.  The expressions of love’s awakening are found mainly in those verses in which the lovers speak to one another and about one another.  And these too have their different degrees of tension – there are those that are full of endearment and praise, descriptions of the beloved, and of real encounters and total surrender to the other.

And there are, in contrast, the other sides, of waiting, of temporary parting: “Turn my beloved and show yourself a gazelle or a young wild goat on the hills of Bethar” (Song of Songs 2:17).  The repeated refrain “Do not rouse, do not awake love until she is ready” (Song of Songs 3:5) would indicate that one should not rush love, that one should wait a while for the right moment, or for the right stirring to the heart, that there is a certain period of time when it is possible or necessary to be apart.  And, even more so, there are also times of weariness, of an inner languor, when “I have taken off my robe, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I dirty them? (Song of Songs 5:3).  Such phrases are saying that it is desirable to wait a little, that the hour is not appropriate, because there’s something else more important just now.  Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that even in the distancing, when the tension is diminished, there is no questioning the intensity of the love, there is no doubt about the essential tenderness.  These phases are fundamentally variations in the normal vibration of life, the waves, rising and falling, of the one immutable feeling.

One of the outstanding elements of the Song of Songs is the active role of the beloved, the bride.  Although the lover speaks and is quite vigorously present, the central role and the dominant point of view is that of the beloved maiden who is constantly seeking him out.  It is her heart’s musings that are given more prominent expression, her thinking about his whereabouts, her talking about him to the “daughters of Jerusalem,” and her constant dwelling on the possibilities of meeting him in various situations and places.  Of course, all of these have their interpretation on each of the planes of meaning, but it is on the more comprehensive and spiritual level that this emphasis on the bride is important.

The relation from above to below, the love of God for the soul of man and Knesset Yisrael and His Shekhinah, is a constant and unchanging truth.  There are not many variations or hesitations about it, even though this love is not always clearly made manifest.  But even when the lover, who represents the Divine, does not speak to us, and even when He himself seems to be at some unbridgeable distance, His love is steady and beyond doubt.  The poignancy of the variations in feeling, of approaching and parting, of total devotion at one moment and of hesitant waiting for love to be stirred into desire at another moment, all being to the beloved who is the human soul or the earthly form of theShekhinah, Knesset Yisrael.

The dramatic description of the lover knocking on the door seeking entrance, while the beloved is not yet ready to receive him, idly hesitant about getting up and opening the door, is the classic description of the relation betweenKnesset Yisrael, the soul in particular, and the Shekhinah in general, to the call from on high.  The lazy heart, the inner reluctance to total commitment, even to any alteration of the comfortable existing situation, are common to both the people and the individual.  This great opportunity that comes to nation and to person occasionally is often missed.  And afterward, the belated awakening of consciousness to wonder of what was being offered urges one to run after and catch the missed opportunity, in spite of the difficult, the dark night, and the cruel watchers of the wall.  All of this is an intrinsic part of the chronicles of Israel, just as they are intrinsic to the life of any human soul.  They are universal depictions of the experience of the almost attained spiritual solution.

A vital aspect of the Song of Songs lies in the verses that do not deal with the love affair and seems to divert attention from it for no apparent reason.  Among them are passages like “Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun that looked upon me: my mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Song of Songs 1:6), or the verse “King Solomon made himself a chariot of the wood of Lebanon” (Song of Songs 3:9), or the last part where apparently unimportant matters about vineyards and money are mentioned.

The truth of the matter is that these divergent passages, wherein the dance seems to come to a standstill and nothing moves, are the unexplained climactic points of the whole story.  The stormy movement yields a place to a quivering standstill, and as the tension rises, the silence becomes complete.  It is in these passages that there is suggested the conclusion, the meaning, of the tale.  If the poem as a whole is a song of desire, of love that, in a certain sense, is from afar, a devotion that is directed to some future actualization in time, these verses speak of a consummation, of a finality and fulfillment, of a marriage after an engagement.

The prosaic tone of these passages indicates that perhaps all the rest is only a lot of agitated running about, and the dream and desire do eventually get to a dimension of practical realization.  True, this conclusion is never stated outright, because, as said, the poem remains incomplete; there is no ending.  But a certain course is pointed out, how after the tormented searching, after the waiting and the parting, there is fulfillment.