“How lovely are your feet in sandals,
O daughter of nobles!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
The work of a master’s hand.
Your navel is like a round goblet -
Let mixed wine not be lacking! -
Your belly like a heap of wheat
Hedged about with lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle.
Your neck is like a tower of ivory,
Your eyes like pools in Heshbon
By the gate of Bath-rabbim,
Your nose like the Lebanon tower
That faces toward Damascus.
The head upon you is like crimson wool,
The locks of your head are like purple -
A king is held captive in the tresses.
How fair you are, how beautiful!
O Love, with all its rapture!
Your stately form is like the palm,
Your breasts are like clusters.
I say: Let me climb the palm,
Let me take hold of its branches;
Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,
Your breath like the fragrance of apples,
And your mouth like choicest wine.
‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine
Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”
Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture? A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.
Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry. This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON. This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures. Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday. And not only that! Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is. SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.
Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures. What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings? Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?
Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men. Quite the contrary. Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith. They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring. That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty. Quite the contrary. They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred. They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it? The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.
They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things. It is all about use and abuse. When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad? Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple. Marriage. Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself. That is not the human way. That is the way it is among the lower species. For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.
This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations. Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift. If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift. It is the same here. In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.
Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God? Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God. Do not get me wrong! It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being. How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it. That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God. God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.
In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other. We know what they are thinking. We know what they are feeling without having to ask. We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves. Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure. Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy. This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.
The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well. In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.
I-It relationships are one directional. They are all about how the other party can meet our needs. They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other. Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs. We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet. But we also can have I-It relationships with people. Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.
I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional. They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs. Of course they vary in degree. An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend. The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.
For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses. It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God. What a statement that makes! If we could only love God as much as we love each other! If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!
This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS. When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion. He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.” Why did he claim this? Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel. That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery. That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.
It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day. As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.