By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
Once a year in Ashkenazi synagogues, on the Shabbat of Pesach (Passover), we read the book of the Bible known as Shir Ha’Shirim (Song of Songs). It is one of the five megillot (scrolls) read during the year on specific Jewish holidays. The others are Megillat Rut (The Book of Ruth) read on Shavuot, Eicha (Lamentations) read on Tisha B’Av, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) read on Sukkot, and Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther) read on Purim.
Parallels between the onset of Spring and Song of Songs are plentiful. Perhaps this is why it is chanted on Passover, which historically marked the beginning of the Spring grain harvest season. It’s a book about nature, love, longing, and desire, even though the lovers never actually get together. It describes the kind of heady, impulsive love that characterizes the early stages of a passionate and sensual relationship of lovers.
As depicted in Song of Songs, romantic love involves all of the senses. “Let me see your face,” “Let me hear your voice.” (2:14) and “Let his left hand be under my head, and his right hand embrace me.” (2:6). In more orthodox circles, Song of Songs is described as an allegory about the relationship between God and the Jewish people, although God is never actually mentioned in the Book.
The special tune for chanting Song of Songs is melodious and beautiful. In Ashkenazi tradition, this same trope is also used for chanting The Book of Ruth and Ecclesiastes. I make a special point to chant even a small portion of these five scrolls aloud with my congregation for this reason: it’s part of our heritage. Whatever is not preserved from generation to generation will disappear, and I want to do my part to make sure that does not happen.
Passover, our feast of freedom, offers us a treasured opportunity to keep our collective and personal traditions alive. From the specific foods we all place on our Seder plates to the familiar melodies we sing, from the retelling of the story of our people’s escape from the bondage of Egypt to the four cups of wine we drink, we remember our past while we celebrate our blessings in the present.
These kinds of traditions can comfort us by connecting us to our Jewish heritage and to one another in times of turbulence. It is these traditions that touch our heart and soul when we are unable to physically be with people we love. And if we do our part to sustain them, our Jewish traditions will continue to nourish and comfort us for generations to come.
During Passover, as we retell the biblical story of our people’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, we also acknowledge the need to support other people’s struggles for freedom and security. We are commanded 36 times in the Torah not to oppress the stranger, since we were once oppressed strangers living in Egypt. This mitzvah is poignantly pertinent during these troubled times. As it is also a mitzvah to give tzedakah (charity) to those in need, may we open our hearts at this time to the best of our abilities.
Wishing you and your loved ones joy this Passover.