What’s love got to do with it? We are accustomed to thinking of Passover as the festival of freedom, of liberation from enslavement, the march from Mitzrayim to Sinai, and on to the Land of Israel and national independence. The themes of Passover are those of justice, moral purpose, resilience and strength. Its foods symbolize toughness—flat breads for the road, maror and salt water to remind us of our bitter experiences, haroset to approximate the mortar the ancient slaves used to build edifices for their oppressors. Many of its melodies are survival songs, not celebrations of plenty. Yes, we relax into the seder, reclining and eventually eating and drinking luxuriously, but it is the meal of survivors, akin almost to the se’udat havra’ah eaten by mourners after a loss. What’s love got to do with it?
Love is the hidden emotion in Pesah, but it is there if you seek it. Our greatest love poem, the Song of Songs, has been associated with Passover for well over a millennium. Tractate Sofrim, a composition from the land of Israel edited around the 8th century, remarks that it is chanted on the final two nights of the festival, but does not provide a reason. Later texts such as Sefer Abudraham (Spain, 13c) provide a link between the Song and Passover. In Chapter 1, verse 9, the male lover states, “I have likened you, my darling, to a mare in Pharaoh’s chariots” לְסֻסָתִי בְּרִכְבֵי פַרְעֹה דִּמִּיתִיךְ רַעְיָתִי. We must admit that this link feels tenuous, and one wonders how it even works as a romantic image. True, other ancient texts from Greece and Arabia likewise compare beautiful women to horses (for example Helen of Troy in Theocritus, and Lyde in Horace’s Odes–See Marvin Pope’s 1970 essay).
Michael Fishbane prepares us for the oddity of the Song’s romantic imagery, here comparing a young woman to a fancy horse, but advises, “a modern reader must pause and let the images have their primary effect—which is to create a strong sensual association between a feature of the human body and the world of nature (animals and topography). In so doing, one must try to cultivate a literary competence that appreciates the sensibilities of a shepherd’s heart over the theological sense of the (modern) interpreting mind” (JPS commentary, Introduction xxvi). There you have it—Passover challenges our imaginations, not only to experience enslavement despite our own happier circumstances, but also to feel love as it may have seemed to an ancient shepherd.Continue reading