With the Song of Songs in Our Hearts

With the Song of Songs in Our Hearts

by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi

In Genesis, God issued Abraham a call: Go forth (lech lecha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1).

Now, in the Song of Songs, the lover exhorts the woman: Lechi lach, “Go forth!”

Why should she venture forth? The buds have appeared, ready to bloom, and the chirping of birds is heard everywhere. But this is not merely an invitation to see and enjoy nature. One lover tells the other: “It is not enough to see the buds bloom and hear the birds sing. It is time to see you and hear your voice. It is your time to blossom, like nature in springtime.” In the Song, we follow young lovers who court and cavort in the springtime of their lives. The Song depicts love as a dialogue between two equals who awaken one another to the world and to their own possibilities.

Growing up in Israel , I was introduced to pieces of the Song of Songs in folk music and dances. Like my friends, I knew passages such as “Dodi li ve’ani lo” – “My beloved is mine and I am his,” or “libabhtini akhoti kalah,” – “you ravished my heart, my sister, bride.” (Song 2:16 and 4:9) None of us knew that these songs came from the Bible. Yet, we came to internalize these phrases and many others from the Song. Unbeknownst to me, the embodiment of these lyrics during my formative years made them a prism, a lens through which my adult self, decades later, related to the Song.

When I fell in love with Howie, my first love, the Bible was not part of our world. Our reference points were great literature: Henry James, Colette, T.S. Eliot and Blake, the language of classical music that bypassed words. When Howie, suddenly died, leaving me and our two young children bereft of all we took for granted, I had not yet studied or even read the biblical version of Song of Songs. But I had been awakened by love, and soon learned that it could happen again.

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Both David and I came from marriages in which we deeply loved our spouse and expected the relationship to last forever. Both of us were unprepared for the devastation, the havoc, that losing our loved ones unleashed. And neither of us expected to fall in love again. But there it was, unbidden and for that reason all the more potent. We were mystified by the power of new love and fortunately heeded its call. Our kids were swept along as we all reconstituted ourselves into what years later came to be called a “blended family.”

.Our marriage was a perpetual invitation for me to bloom by a man who daily gave witness to words like “My friend,” and “Arise . and go forth,” even though he never read those lines in the Song. In relationship with David I discovered what it means to be coaxed by love into becoming.

And it was with David as inspiration, and with the sorrow of losing our first love and discovering each other as backdrop, that I wrote my first academic paper, “Song of Songs as an Answer to the Book of Job” (1981). In modern Jewish editions of the Hebrew Bible (in contrast to non-Jewish Bibles), the Song directly follows the book of Job. I tried to show how the questions that remain unanswered in Job find responses in the Song of Songs.

The answer to Job is renewed immersion in life and in love. I only understood these words because David lived them. And I only began to teach the Song this way after he was gone, and language was what remained. In the aftermath of David’s sudden death after twenty-five years together, the Song of Songs became my life line. ….

* * *

Bill was a runner, bounding over the hills. He was also a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, like myself, who had grown up with Bible in church from a young age. His voice reached me across the chasm that was opened by loss after David’s death. It was a voice that answered questions I didn’t know I had. And it allowed me to continue to go forth. “Arise, my friend . . . and go forth. . .” (Song 2:10).

The coupling of adults in their early sixties can be, and was for us, the re-creation of Eden, a return to a garden after a life already filled with exquisite joy and deep sorrow, but now reclaimed in the face of loss. As Phyllis Trible observes, the Song is the Garden of Eden reclaimed. The title of her chapter on the Song, “Love’s Lyrics Redeemed,” captures this redemptive power of the Song that is enacted in the protective world of a garden. Although death has not been vanquished, it has met its match “For love is as strong as death . . . Its sparks are sparks of fire, the flame of Yah” (Song 8:6). This love, the poet declares, is divinely fueled.

Trible points out the many echoes, allusions and reversals of the Garden of Eden narrative that transpire in the Song. Once again we have a man and a woman; once again, animals gently surround them. The tension created in Genesis 3, however, disappears in the Song. “No serpent bruises the heel of female or male; no animals are indicted unfit companions for humankind. To the contrary, the beasts of the field and the birds of the air (cf. Gen 2:19) now become synonyms for human joy. Of particular interest is the word “desire,” teshukah. In Gen 3:16 desire places a woman under a man’s control. But the situation is reversed in the Song when the woman declares “I am my lover’s and his desire [his teshukah] is for me” (Song 7:10). In Genesis, Trible writes, “her desire became his dominion. But in the Song . . . desire becomes her delight,”

The garden in the Song became a world for me and Bill to explore together. Here was a place in which to recover from loss and rediscover life’s abundance. Here were words that blossomed into lush flowers broadcasting their scent, gentle animals like deer and doves everywhere; undulating fields of grain and bright red pomegranates, the air dense with spices such as cinnamon and nard.

Each of us had discovered independently Adrienne Rich’s book, The Dream of a Common Language. It held a dream neither of us expected to see fulfilled. And now, at sixty, a common language was springing from within us. The language was us.

Bill could regale and court me in my own language, the one deeply embedded in my nefesh. And he had never before spoken these words of love aloud. The Hebrew did not as yet have an audience.

Ani ledodi v’dodi li. “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine!” Yes, we could say—did say -- this in Hebrew and in action. Mutuality, reciprocity, equality. We were like the lovers in the Song, twins of a gazelle, matched in heart and mind, able at long last to speak our being in the languages and texts that formed us. The text that shaped our very lives now flowed from us and guided our dance, infused us with new and hitherto unfathomed depths of intimacy. Each word resonating in many chambers of the heart. Adrienne Rich describes such moments. “Since we’re not young, weeks have to do time/for years of missing each other." Like the poet, I too wondered, "Did I ever walk the morning streets at twenty/My limbs streaming with a purer joy?"

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“Love is as strong as death.” (Song 8:6). You only really know that when a loved one dies.

The Shabbat before he died, when his body was wrecked with the ravages of pancreatic cancer, Bill, perhaps hallucinating from medication, but more likely reaching deep into his being, said, “Let us be naked. It is the garden, the Garden of Eden.” That garden was his last habitation.

The books we owned did little to ease his life in those painful months of slow defeat. But the texts that he inhabited stood by him and within him, to the end. I do not need to wish each Yizkor that he “may rest in the Garden of Eden.” I know that the Garden of Eden was his final stop, even when breath was still in him.

Spring has come again many times now since the winter that took Bill away from me. The ground above his casket is green, nurtured by the body below. Years later, my soul, my nefesh, keeps speaking with Bill. He continues to be the voice I hear when I close my eyes or look at the world around me. The beds of spices remain as the stubble on his face that still rubs my cheeks when I place my face against the freshly mowed grass on his grave.

Now what?

The seasons return. It is spring again as I write. The voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land, and now is my turn to sing these words to loved ones – family, friends, students: “Arise up my friend, my beautiful one, and go forth. It is time to hear your voice and it is time for you to blossom.”