Pesach’s Rigorous Detail Leads To Dreamlike Love


Candlelighting, Readings:
Pesach & Shabbat candles: 7:14 p.m. (Thu.);
7:15 p.m. (Fri.)
Torah: Exodus 13:17-15:26 (Fri.);
Deut. 14:22-16:17 (Sat.); Num. 28:19-25 (both)
Haftarah: II Samuel 22:1-51 (Fri.);
Isaiah 10:32-12:6 (Sat) & Song of Songs
Havdalah: 8:17 p.m.  

Freedom is a question. What does it really mean? Is it ideally unbounded so long as no one gets hurt, as in Isaiah Berlin’s famous formulation of negative liberty, distilling freedom down to the right to be left alone? Or does freedom necessarily demand responsibility lest it become minimally selfish and maximally dangerous? Judaism prefers the second response. Freedom is wrapped up in the “gadlut,” the dignity of humankind as a species worthy of being commanded by the Master of the Universe. Torah’s potent claim is that there can be no choice-making without its moral instruction and legal guidance.

It is for that reason, and to confirm the legitimacy of Torah through bearing witness to the wonders and signs of the Divine lawgiver, that the Children of Israel were liberated and for which purpose all of us throughout history are called to be present at Sinai.

That is the central message of Passover. It is the annual commemoration of the central ethos that formed the Jewish people. The minutiae of the halacha, Jewish law, in managing observance of the festival, speaks to an abiding concern. Passover makes plain that living out freedom means embracing the physical and then organizing the mundane in as purifying a way as possible. Without worrying about the smallest of crumbs we cannot build a vision of the good life that maintains the fullness of its own integrity.

But a freedom that only lives for the intellectualization and ritualized realization of Torah, however celebratory at the Seder, grows dull quickly. A lifeless liberty that simply posits a rule of law and is then on its way in a week cannot sustain a people of flesh and blood. There must also be an actual feeling of relationship between the receivers of the law and its Giver. Otherwise, revelation loses its immediacy.

While the first two days of Passover set the stage for the meaning of the Divinely granted gift of liberty, the concluding Sabbath extends that privilege into the realm of the passions so as to keep it alive. We end Passover not with a typical bookend of some abridged seder-like ritual of a few more blessings and any sort of concluding Haggadah. Rather, the festival goes out on a high note of impassioned, yearning romance. In fact, we publicly read the most explicitly love-drenched book in the biblical canon: Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Why?

Yes, Pharaoh is mentioned in one verse, but that is not quite enough to justify its inclusion as a Passover reading. Rather, Solomon’s “love-song of songs” is integral to the festival precisely because it frames the covenantal parties of humans and God as deeply involved with each other as only those in a relationship can be. By implication the law is their precious child, to be nurtured and guarded. The gadlut of men and women then is not just that we are commanded. Even more so, we are empowered by the liberty of Torah to be partners of God in its continuing dynamism.

Israeli chassidic anthologist Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov reminds us both simply and profoundly that the Song of Songs is read on Passover because this festival is a time of love between God and Israel, and the Exodus was our betrothal. No less a Mishnaic sage than Rabbi Akiva was himself enamored of this text and exclaimed its superior holiness. Rabbi Akiva, who lived a full life outside the academy, knew something of a core yearning for the Divine beyond the law he expounded with such impact. His coverage of the Oral Tradition was infused with a rare passion.

Solomon Freehof, a 20th-century non-Orthodox scholar, makes a fascinating argument regarding how best to view Song of Songs. He, too, thinks it ought to be read as a statement of love between Israel and God, but in so doing, as a series of dreamlike sequences representing that commitment.

Freehof notes that, if read literally, the lyric has no particular narrative sequence, but “the dream is the outcome of longing and desire expressed in symbolic scenes and actions.” Freehof notes that dreams are taken seriously by the classical tradition. They are “communication between G-d and man.” 

What a perfect way to round out our journey from darkness to light. The arc, the sages remind us in the Talmud, is the way of the seder opening the festival. We add texture and humanity to that theological underpinning by suggesting a romance with God beyond the letter of the law. The rigorous detail of the holiday is enlivened by this reminder of love between Israel and her betrothed. We exit Passover reminded that freedom is no end in itself.  It is the substance of our humanity and source of impassioned covenant with the Divine.

Rabbi Abraham Unger is professor of government and politics, and the campus rabbi at Wagner College.