Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shir HaShirim, My Father, and an Eleventh Grade Tanach Class

We always value the repetition and review that is endemic to Jewish learning. We repeat cycles in our annual reading of Torah portions, celebrations of Jewish holidays, revisit learned material and consider ongoing review or “chazarah” as part and parcel of learning Gemara. So, this year as we celebrated Pesah, we all read the book of Shir HaShirim, the text of the greatest love poem and story of all time – that between the people of Israel and G-d, according to Rashi and classical commentators; and between a man and his beloved wife/woman according to the words of the text as read by so many. Others have suggested a variety of additional possible readings. My contention is that this is a great love story between A and B and that it is not critically important which identity we give to these two lovers. Isn’t that the sign of great poetry and literature – its potential for universal appeal and application?!

So, I was teaching the text of Shir HaShirim to a wonderful group of eleventh grade students as I have often done as part of my teaching and learning life. This year was different though. This particular group of students really grabbed on to this writing and its multitude of meanings and possibilities. As a result, my experience in this wonderful Community of Teachers and Learners (always my goal and how I see my mission as a Jewish educator – to see all of us as both teachers and learners in a community I facilitate!) was even more thoughtful and intense than in the past. We really grappled with the text in a meaningful and soulful manner. (Thank you to this wonderful group of intelligent young people!).

So, as a result of my experience as a learner with this group, I considered the love story and what is really going on. To be sure there are many issues that bother and concern commentators in terms of the language, ambiguity of voice, mixed pronouns and so much else. But this year, I had a wholly (and holy, you might say) different insight and experience. What if Shir HaShirim reflects an intentional use of mixed metaphors, ambiguous references, changed pronouns, etc. to show how in a great love relationship the point is that two realities blur into one, in a symbiotic and wonderful way so that the dividing lines between the reality of each party are blurred and in so being such, joined together. Imagine two people who love each other immensely chasing/running to meet and then their silhouette appears as if it is one entity. Where does the one begin and the other end? This is the love we strive for…. With our life partners, our soul mates (called ahavat nafshi in the text); between parents and children and in other nuclear family relations on a different level; between best friends who truly understand each other and so on. To be clear, I am speaking here of relational intimacy, not sexual or physical, necessarily.

So what does it mean to blur the lines of our separate beings for the sake of our relationships with those we truly love? Isn’t this the point of the “chase” to love and be loved; and my contention is that it is precisely this chase that is found in the words of this beautiful text. To be sure, this is hard for many people to do. Clearly, we are taught the importance of being defensive and assertive about our clear identity and to not “lose ourselves.” I don’t think that this is what is at stake. I think that if we love so much, that we are willing to let go of our expectations for the other – the one we love so dearly – to enter our reality, and instead are willing to become part of theirs, what different and richer perspectives we may have. Prepare to be amazed as well as humbled!

So to move away from the text for a moment (but clearly my intention is to return), my personal life this year has been deeply colored by my father’s ongoing health concerns. As part of a variety of physical and other manifestations, he has some dementia at this point. It is more present some days than others, due to the various complications involved with managing his complex health care needs. A few weeks ago, my husband, one of our daughters and I went to be with him and my mother in the hospital. We try to be with them as often as possible, considering the distance between where we live outside of Philadelphia and their residence in Baltimore. We entered the hospital room and it was clear that this was going to be a day of confusion on the part of my dad. At other times when I would see this, I was so overwhelmed by what was going on, I would have to leave the room and cry it out before returning. This particular day, however, this was not the case. I felt strong and ready to be there with him!

My dad was somewhat agitated and I asked him what was wrong. He replied (from his lying position in his hospital bed) that he was making omelets and that the egg shells were on his hands and he could not get rid of them. I asked him if he wanted some help. He replied that he did so I placed my hands in a cup under his and “pulled the egg shells off his hands.” We did this several times, I helped him get the bowl to stir the eggs, get the onion skins off of his hands after he “finished cutting the onions” and otherwise assisted him with this vivid culinary scene in his mind, participating in his reality and stepping out of mine. My daughter, husband and mother looked on with varying degrees of puzzlement and understanding. My dad was happy and whole for a piece of time.

Back for a moment to my eleventh grade learning group and the text we were learning.

In Shir HaShirim, chapter 7, verse 1, we read:

שׁ֤וּבִי שׁ֨וּבִי֙ הַשּׁ֣וּלַמִּ֔ית שׁ֥וּבִי שׁ֖וּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה־בָּ֑ךְ
Return, Return, (to) the state of being complete;
Return, return, lets us gaze at you

In this part of the great love story and the chase in trying to come together, the notion is that by returning to each other and embracing each one’s reality as one and the same, there is a completeness that can only be the product of a love and a loving relationship. I felt that completeness with my father. I remember vividly as a child when my dad, with great aplomb would prepare elaborate omelets. In his mind at this moment in the hospital room, that is where he was, nurturing and loving his family. And I, his daughter, for a few minutes, was right there with him.

Return, return to the state of being complete! I now have a completely new understanding of that verse and what it teaches about love …. True love between the A and B of your choice! For me, it helped me love my dad.

Please include Kalman HaLevi Ben Rachel in your prayers. Todah Rabbah!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Saundra,
    This is the first post I read here and what a beauty it is! I am definitely looking forward to the class with you!
    How many times we are looking at "familiar" piece of text and not realizing the deeper, personal meaning of it until something touches our very intimate being. I can totally relate to your experience unfortunately...
    Thank you for sharing this most beautiful of classical texts and your story!