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The Song of Songs and the Story of the Exodus from Egypt

Dr. Tamar Kadari
| 12/04/2012

It is customary to read the Song of Songs on Pesach. Some read it at night after completing the Haggadah; some read it in synagogue on Shabbat of Hol Hamoed. The springtime atmosphere of bloom and blossoming described in the Song of Songs provides a natural link to the holiday of Spring, but a look at the Rabbinic sources teaches us that the association between the Song of Songs and the Exodus goes much deeper.

Exodus 14 tells the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Although Pharaoh has sent Israel out from his land, he quickly regrets it. Seeing that Israel has turned in the direction of the desert, he concludes that they have lost their way: “They are entangled in the land, the wilderness has shut them in” (Exodus 14:3). He harnesses his chariot and gives chase, pursuing the people of Israel with a large army. They catch up to Israel, who is camped on the shores of the Red Sea.

The Parable of the Dove, the Hawk and the Snake

This dramatic moment is described in a parable found in Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah (2, 14:2):

O my dove, that is in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your countenance, let me hear your voice; for sweet is your voice, and your countenance is comely (Song of Songs 2:14)… The school of Rabbi Yishmael learned: To what were the people of Israel likened when they left Egypt? To the dove that fled from the hawk and hid in the cleft of a rock, only to find there a nesting snake. She could not stay in the rock because of the snake, and she could not retreat outside because of the hawk. What did she do? She screamed and flapped her wings so that the dove-cot master would come rescue her. So it was with Israel at the sea. They could not enter the sea, for it had not yet been split; they could not retreat, for Pharaoh was approaching. What did they do? “They were very afraid and the children of srael cried out to God” (Exodus 14:10)… and immediately “God saved Israel that day” (Exodus 14:30).

This parable describes the dove in flight from the hawk. The bird of prey circling above dominated the skies, and the snake in the cleft in the rock lay in wait on the ground. Escape by flight above or hiding below were both impossible. There appeared to be no way out. There is an imbalance of power between the two carnivorous creatures opposed to one vegetarian bird. To the reader of the midrash it appears that her fate is sealed, that she will die either in the hawk’s talons or in the snake’s fangs. But then deliverance comes from an unexpected direction – the dove cries out to her master. Salvation comes in the form of a human who can hurl his fury on the animals. The hawk and snake discover to their surprise that the dove is not wild but belongs to her master, who comes to her aid, dispelling the danger and saving her.

The beauty of Rabbinic midrashim is that they set Biblical stories in a new and refreshing light. This parable concretizes the danger in which the Israelites found themselves, fleeing from the Egyptians (It is interesting that the image of a hawk symbolized the Egyptian god Horus, one of the nine major gods of ancient Egypt. Horus was associated with Pharaoh and thought to be protector and patron of the king). to the desert, only to encounter the threatening sea. The author dwells on this moment of hopelessness: “And the Egyptians pursued after them, and overtook them encamping by the sea” (Exodus 14:9). Danger engulfs them from all sides, from land and from sea, and they know they have no escape. They are overwhelmed by fear and terror and cry out to God. The Egyptians are sure that Israel is their easy prey, because “the desert has closed in upon them,” but just then rescue comes from an unexpected direction: “They were very afraid and the children of Israel cried out to God” (Exodus 14:10)… and “God saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians” (Exodus 14:30).

God easily overcomes the Egyptian army, its horses, chariots and officers.  The Egyptians are surprised not only by God’s appearance outside of the land of Egypt but also by His ability to pave a totally unexpected path of deliverance by splitting the Red Sea. At that moment the Egyptians realize that Israel is a special nation; that God comes to their aid as soon as they cry out to Him. Just as it is clear that man has dominion over the animals, it becomes evident that God dominates all His creations – the Egyptians and the sea both – and thus only from Him can Israel seek full deliverance.

The parable is not only a story about the splitting of the sea but also transmits a relevant message to its audience in the early rabbinic period. Enemies press from all sides, and there is no apparent way out. The author’s message is to remember that when threatened we need only to cry out to God Who will hear, come and save us. The parallel between Israel and the tame dove is not accidental. The author wishes to stress that Israel’s strength does not lie in military prowess, nor will fleeing to caves and hiding places bring salvation. True deliverance comes from God: “God will fight for you and you will hold your peace” (Exodus 14:14).

Song of Songs as a Historical Description

The parable illuminates the splitting of the sea using a verse from the Song of Songs. The source of inspiration for the author was apparently the image of the crying dove in the cleft of the rock. The words “let me hear your voice” are the cry of Israe at the sea when they cried out to God. But why is the author drawn specifically to a verse from the Song of Songs? What is the connection between the Song of Songs and the splitting of the sea?

On the face of it there is a simple answer to this question. It is known that the Song of Songs is thought to be an allegory about the relationship between God and Israel. The dove is the beloved, the people of Israel, and God is her spouse. Yet the answer is more complex than this. Midrash Song of Songs Rabbah (1,2:1) presents a fundamental disagreement over the interpretation of the Song of Songs:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” – where is it said?

Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa said, this was said at the sea, for it is written, “[I have compared you]…to a mare of Pharaoh’s chariots.”

Rabbi Yochanan said: this was said at Sinai, for it is written, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.”

Rabbi Meir said: this was said at the Tent of Meeting, and brings proof from the verse, “Awake, O north wind, and come O south wind …”

The rabbis said: this was said at theTemple, and they bring proof from the same verse, “Awake, O north wind…”

The Sages ask “where was it said,” that is, in what context was the Song of Songs chanted, or what event does it describe? The dispute presents four positions: the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the dedication of the Tabernacle, and that of Solomon’s Temple.

Professor Saul Liebermanhas explained the importance of this argument. He states that this is not a localized or narrow interpretation of a specific verse.  The Sages believed that the entire book should be read according to one line of interpretation, “and each one interpreted the book consistently according to his method.” (S. Lieberman, ‘Mishnat Shir ha-Shirim’, in: G.G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkaba Mysticism and Talmudic Tradition,New York 1965, pp. 119). According to Lieberman, the four positions represent four different methods of interpretation that existed in Tannaitic times. He brings other drashot to show that “it was said at the sea” is the method of Rabbi Eliezer, and “it was said at Sinai” is the method of Rabbi Akiba.

The Song of Songs and the Splitting of the Red Sea

In this light, we can conclude that the parable of the dove plays a role in the dispute presented above. It interprets the verse from the Song of Songs in the context of the splitting of the sea, according to the method “it was said at the sea.” What is the significance of the choice of Rabbi Eliezer’s method, and what does it say about the verses from the Song of Songs?

The splitting of the Red Sea was an event at which Israel experienced direct revelation of God. Their witnessing of God was so sweeping and so imposing that the Sages declared, “the merest handmaiden at the Sea saw what Isaiah and Ezekiel never saw;” (Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate Shira, Parasha 3). “a tot on its mother’s knees and a babe suckling at its mother’s breast…even a fetus in its mother’s womb” witnessed theShechina.” (Tosefta Sotah, סוטה ו ה”ד). At this uplifting moment they broke into song. According to the “it was said at the sea” approach, Israel sang not only the Song of the Sea but also the Song of Songs. The verses of the latter take on a holy dimension and are presented as words of prophecy, an expression of the experience of witnessing God face to face. The Song of Songs enhances the Splitting of the Sea with its ambiance of a longed-for encounter between a pair of lovers. In our opening midrash, the Song of Songs adds a new quality to the God-Israel relationship: not only as a dove and her master, with its elements of caring and lordship, but also as lovers who share a closeness and great love.  The custom of reading the Song of Songs on Passover thus renews that lofty religious experience of seeing God face to face, and expresses our fervent desire that God’s love and concern for us will abide forever.

Dr. Tamar Kadari is a Lecturer in Midrash and Head of the Judaism and the Arts M.A. track at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

English translation by Penina Goldschmidt.

Art Credit: Crossing the Red Sea  Laura James, 1999

Tamar Kadari is a senior lecturer for Midrash and Aggadah at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She received her PhD in Midrashic literature from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at The University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Dr. Kadari received a grant from the Israeli Science Foundation (ISF) to head a research group preparing a critical edition of Song of Songs Rabbah. Her research interests include biblical women in the eyes of the rabbis, aesthetics and beauty in rabbinic literature and literary readings of midrash. Dr. Kadari is also a sculptor whose work has been exhibited in galleries in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

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