“The finest of songs, the most wonderful song, the most trilling of music.” (Midrash Raba 1:11)
Dear friends and worldwide partners,
The texts of Ami Bouganim feeds us all along his books. This year, we are happy to share his thoughts about the meaning of Pessach and of its symbols.
May Pessach bring you the taste of freedom and self liberation.
With our warm wishes for a wonderful Pessach,
Joëlle & Gad
Passover–A Time of Transition
Passover is known as a period of transition. We pass from the cold season to the warm season, from the blessing of rain to the blessing of dew. Overcome with excitement, we conclude the evening of the Seder with the Song of Songs, “the finest of songs, the most wonderful song, the most trilling of music.” (Midrash Raba 1:11)
This is a collection of songs of love and marriage interwoven into a love poem that at the same time defies interpretation and invites commentary. The decision to include them in the Hebrew canon was preceded by intense debate. According to Rabbi Akiba, whose position was ultimately accepted, “for all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.” (Mishnah Yadaim 3:5)
Rabbi Akiba’s words were also controversial. Proponents of his romantic conquests consider them an impassioned view of a lover who admires the great lover, Solomon. The proponents of his innovative Talmudic way of interpretation conclude that the Song of Songs demonstrates the need for commentary that cultivates the holy. More than any other passage of the Bible, the Song of Songs rejects the simple literal meaning of the Biblical verses. According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, “All explanation of this book based on the literal meaning of its references to sensual love desecrates its sanctity and denies the Oral Torah.”
The reason for the reading of the Song of Songs at the end of the Seder, on the Sabbath during the intermediate days of Passover, or on the seventh day of Passover is not clear. Several explanations have been proposed: The Song of Songs mentions in its own manner the redemption from Egypt—“to a steed of Pharaoh’s chariots.” (Song of Songs1:9) It talks about the love that developed between the Children of Israel and God at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. It expresses the wonder of the coming of spring: “for the winter has passed and the rain is over and gone. The buds have appeared in Israel; the nightingale has arrived and the sound of the turtledove can be heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its green fruit and the budding vines give forth their fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:11) On the eve of Passover, the Seder concludes with a series of lighthearted songs that ease the tension that characterizes the reading of the Haggadah.
But Passover is best known as the holiday of unleavened bread. “And the people took their dough before it was leavened, binding their kneading-troughs in their clothing upon their shoulders…and they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt.”(Exodus 13:34-39) According to some commentators, the unleavened bread reminds us of the bread of affliction that the Children of Israel ate during the period of servitude. According to others, they left Egypt in dreadful haste before the dough could rise. The first interpretation does not allow for the legendary pots of meat that the Children of Israel claim to have eaten in Egypt. The second does not coincide with the order to eat the unleavened bread before they were told to leave. They knew, if only vaguely, that if they would embark on a long journey unleavened bread would be better than bread because it does not turn sour and endures over time. The Children of Israel tried to get used to unleavened bread before they left Egypt, whether in haste or by subterfuge. The unleavened bread was supposed to be their provisions for the journey from slavery to freedom.
The Children of Israel did not withstand the austere regimen of unleavened bread for long. They very soon yearned for the pots of meat and complained that Moses had liberated them only to die in the desert. They demanded something less difficult to digest and that had a more refined taste. It was difficult for Moses to change the ways of life of the mixed multitude that had joined the Children of Israel during the Exodus from Egypt. He knew that they would not be freed from slavery unless he could change their habits—their eating habits no less than their habits of worship. He had trouble with both. The Children of Israel had not managed to eat unleavened bread for more than a few weeks before they demanded more hearty nourishment. They had barely received the Ten Commandments when they made for themselves the Golden Calf. Miracles do not change beliefs, opinions, or habits; they can only change with the passage of time, which is also the time of passing from one generation to the next. It takes time to absorb changes, whether individual or collective, attended by therapists or determined leaders who know where to lead the mixed multitude of individuals who quarrel among themselves. Moses provided manna that corresponded to the taste of each of the Children of Israel.
It seems to me that the transition from unleavened bread to manna has not received proper attention. For the Children of Israel, unleavened bread was the bread of affliction; manna was the bread of wonder. Despite all the explanations of researchers and all the interpretations of commentators, we do not understand today what manna was any better than the Children of Israel did then. It became the bread of the angels that was swallowed without expelling waste. It contained all the nutritional requirements and flavors. However, its economic attributes were even more important. Everyone was entitled to glean according to his needs and it was forbidden to hoard it. The Children of Israel went from a regimen of austerity to a regimen of moderation—of the satisfaction of their needs and not more. On the night of the Seder, we gradually pass from the regimen of unleavened bread—the reading of the vindictive passages—to the regimen of manna—the reading of light and happy passages.
The Song of Songs is read just before the Sabbath because Israel and the Shechinah are secluded together on the night of the Sabbath. God’s love makes the bitter unleavened bread taste like manna, weaving the most delicate threads of Supreme love and inspiring the musical scores of the Kabbalists’ liturgical poems…