28 March 2010
13 Nisan 5770
As we prepare for the Pesach passage to freedom, we make ready to tell again the Jewish story of redemption, alongside the stories of our personal and contemporary journeys into freedom.
We search our homes and hearts for chometz, eliminating the crumbs of puffed-up ego (leavening!) that obscure and distort our individual and collective stories. Instead of bread, crusty on the outside, soft and spongy within, we eat humble matzah, embodying our intent to purify our consciousness so that our mouths may speak the story simply and truly. We pray to become matzah-like, the same on the inside as on the outside, our inner and outer selves united in service of the Holy One.
It's an ancient custom to read or chant Shir Ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs, at the end of the seder on the first night of Pesach and, at least in Ashkenazi communities, right before the Torah reading on the Shabbat of Pesach. (Sephardic communities also chant the Shir every Friday afternoon, just before kabbalat Shabbat! ) As reason for doing this, classical interpreters point to the mention of Pharaoh in the Song. They see its various depictions of two lovers’ separating, yearning, and reuniting as symbolic allusions to Israel's four different exiles and redemptions.
The Zohar states that Shir Ha-Shirim embodies the entire Torah, including the story of the Israel's exile in Egypt and subsequent redemption from there, as well as the people's redemption from other oppressors, so that by reading it we enhance the mitzvah of recounting the story of Exodus. Rabbi Yosei explains that the Shir was composed by Sh'lomo Ha-Melekh, King Solomon, at the time when he built the Beit Ha-Mikdash, the holy Jerusalem Temple. Tradition teaches that this was the most joyful time for the Holy One since Creation, for at the same time that the earthly Temple was constructed, a second Beit Ha-Mikdash was also built in the supernal world, the world of spirit—a Temple that exists in all worlds and illuminates them all.
How are these two Temples, the earthly and the heavenly, to be built in our time, on our "watch?" How do we become "shomrim," watchpersons, like the shomrim in Rabbi Shefa Gold’s reading of the Song—keepers of the light of consciousness, protecting and illuminating the "city" while others sleep and dream? This is the great blessing and the promise of Passover—that together, in the microcosmic communities in which we gather around our seder tables, we may envision and invite and embody—through singing, telling, praying, questioning, eating and drinking—the unification of the physical and spiritual worlds.
In re-membering this interpenetration of the physical with the Great Light of Truth—an eternal condition of which we need to remind ourselves over and over—we unleash great joy within ourselves and throughout the cosmos. The more we get it, the more child-like we become, emerging like newborns from the salt sea of tears into an expansive, unbounded space—the freedom of midbar, of wilderness.
We prepare carefully for the journey, so that our words and acts may elevate and connect us with each other and with the Invisible Mystery. On the seder night we kiss and are kissed, receiving physical and spiritual sustenance simultaneously as our mouths bless and eat and express connection through song and story, almost in the same breath. We become intoxicated, resting in the "Divine embrace," moving from the joy of the moment into "timeless time and placeless Place" (Reb Shefa’s words). We see with the eyes of the Beloved; we taste the bounty of the Garden. What better moment in our ritual year to chant Shir Ha-Shirim, this song of awakening, of yearning, and of sensuous fulfillment?
At your s’darim this year, at whatever tables you may find yourself, I invite you to bring through the Torah of Shir Ha-Shirim by opening to the beauty of all those seated with you; by deeply tasting and savoring the words that are shared, as much as the flavors of the special Pesach food; and by igniting—through words and songs and the enlivening presences of the prophets Elijah and Miryam—each person's passion to serve the cause of freedom in her or his unique way, now and throughout the year.
To complement the verses of Shir Ha-Shirim, I share this little song, written by my friend and mentor Rebecca Rice z"l, an inspiring African-American actress, playwright, and activist, who grew up in the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects on the South Side of Chicago to become a respected artist and a powerful voice for freedom in multiple communities:
All babies are born
Saying God's name
Over and over
Singing God's name.
She gives them the stars to use as ladders
To climb their dreams.
There's only love, there's only love, there's only love in this world.
A zissen Pesach, a sweet Pesach, to everyone!