NiSh’ma: AhavaBy :
The choice of the sages to read the Song of Songs as an allegory of the relationship between the congregation of Israel and God opened the floodgates for commentary, poetry, midrash, mystical insights, and contemporary writing on each and every verse. The language of Shir HaShirim is the language of lovers, with its emotional landscapes of desire, longing, fantasy, ecstasy, jealousy, missed opportunities, bitter surprises, and moments of bliss. Reading the relationship of God and the people Israel through Shir HaShirim means favoring the relationship of lovers over that of parent and child or master and servant.
The rabbis of the Zohar read Shir HaShirim as the choicest of all songs, the love language that tells the story of past, present, and future. They even dare to read the word, “love,” “ahava,” (הבהא) as the inner mystery of the divine name YHVH (הוהי).
While our love relationships change over time and we are alive for but a fleeting moment, this verse in the concluding chapter of the Song of Songs speaks about the endurance of love: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.”(8:7) Love is an inner constant flame, a ner tamid , at the heart of existence and of religious experience. And although the waters of time will come and go in a stormy or peaceful manner, the presence of love will prevail.
I’m grateful that my tradition has given me this passionate lexicon with which to explore my relationship with God, and to know and feel fully that love will endure.
NiSh’ma: AhavaBy :
In my 20s, Shir HaShirim was my favorite book in the Tanach — that short anthology of erotic verses that Rabbi Akiva called the Holy of Holies. He and his fellow sages read the Song of Songs as an allegory of the relationship between the people Israel and God. In their reading, Israel is the woman and God is the man. The woman is chasing a man, a societal inversion, that made the book work for me as a newly out gay man. And, years later, Rabbi Julia Watts Belser invited readers to experience this questing woman as God and the pursued man as God’s beloved, which would have been restorative had I come to it sooner.
Just before we read the verse, “Many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it,” we read this about love: “Its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame…”
Those words and images — hot and fiery — were of my youth. But I am in my 60s now, and the love language of my relationship with God isn’t a dart of fire, a ner tamid , or even the flickering flame of a single candle on my meditation altar. Age has brought a constancy to me of presence, of godness, that I could not have imagined earlier. My love in and with God is liquid: a bubbling spring, a brook flowing softly over mossy rocks in a forest of old-growth trees — not a Ground of Being, but an Ocean of Being, a Oneness that shifts, changes, and enlivens the me who is, while still alive, mostly water myself. And I find myself drawn to these words instead: “Eat, lovers, and drink: Drink deep of love.” (Song of Songs 5:1)
NiSh’ma: AhavaBy :
I was immediately struck by the word “quench” in this verse. The quote seems to be saying, don’t worry, no matter how many “waters” and “floods” come, they will never drown out love. The flame of love will survive. As Melila Hellner-Eshed writes in her wise commentary, love is a ner tamid (constant flame). So, love is to be preserved and quenching it is not what we want.
What’s a little strange, though, is that, normally, to quench means both to drink until one is no longer thirsty or to extinguish with water. Each of those meanings implies the elimination of a problem (thirst, something burning). So, when I try to follow the metaphor literally, it seems peculiar and counter to the meaning of the quote. To “quench” love makes it seem as though love is a problem, like a terrible thirst, or a burning house.
But maybe the word “quench” is exactly right because it gets at a far less sentimental, wiser idea of love. June Carter, in the song “Ring of Fire,” about her devastating and undeniable passion for Johnny Cash, wrote that love is a burning thing and makes a fiery ring. The song is one of the great portrayals of love because it communicates the ambiguity of desire — our simultaneous wish and need to quench and also to stoke our love. This may be as true for religious passion, which, as we know from history and the present, can be both immensely sustaining and profoundly dangerous. As usual, the sages continue to offer wise instruction.