Journeys of Courtship: From Song of Songs to Megillat Ruth

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2018

Among the different holiday symbols, Shavuot, and especially Megillat Ruth, serve to represent the maturity of Passover and Song of Songs.

Passover and Shavuot are both courtships in the field.

Passover is the courtship of youth, in the vineyards, like that of Tu B’Av or Yom Kippur. It is the courtship between a lover and his beloved, a description infused with the drunkenness of wine and love: “‘Eat, lovers, and drink deeply of love!” (Song of Songs 5:1)

Shavuot, on the other hand, is the courtship in the harvest field, that of the second marriage, of yibum (levirate marriage). In the summer, nature is not in the stages of pregnancy and birth – the richness of pomegranates – but appears as a field, dead and dry.

In Shavuot we find a desire that awakens specifically from a place of mourning, one that has long grown dry, desolate and yellowed. This is the landscape of the summer: Av will pass, Elul will pass, and their heat has passed as well. (מת אב ומת אלול ומת חומם).

Grain is a basic source of nutrition. Unlike the wine, the drunken dream of the vineyards, grain turns us towards the body, its fundamental energy. The story of Ruth and Boaz – facilitated by Naomi – is not fantastical but rather painful and tortured, a desire to restore a destroyed family.

The death of barley and wheat, the dried post-harvest field mirror the death of a first marriage. Yet it is precisely from there that the goel – the redeemer – rises. The desolate condition of the harvest season – bare of any arousal or longing – is the site of the redemption’s arrival: the Messiah, the birth of David. What emerges from here is the honorable fertility of old age, of elders who do not sustain themselves on fantasies, but from life as it is. Drawing from the dullness of routine, the desire for continuity, they say “Yes” to life. It is here that redemption is born.

King David (whose birth and death dates were both Shavuot) was born into Ruth’s second marriage: in the dry season of the grain harvest, the domain of a mature fertility.

In Elul, the King is in the field – because his house was destroyed in Av. He stands in the withered, dried field. But it is there that He is closer. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (אני לדודי ודודי לי)- because He is not in the palace.

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The Tree of Life: A Grape Vine or a Wheat Stalk?

This is a very profound debate. One opinion claims that the Tree of Life was a grape vine: of ratzoh (running forward), a departure from awareness and logic through intoxication, of lights above the hishtalshelus (chain of Sefirot). Another opinion says the Tree of Life was a wheat stalk: of shov (returning), staying within limits, submission and awe, the ability to settle in a desolate, dry land and there to seek God. [Rav Soloveitchiksaid about the Revelation at Sinai: it is specifically in the desolation of the desert that a sudden revelation occurs.]

The foundation of avodat Hashem is the basic desire for food, which is expressed in two ways. The first is the desire for the vine, the longing for fantasy. Desiring wheat, on the hand, is the desire to exist. These are the two ‘types’ of the Tree of Life, and the connection between the barren wilderness and the Revelation at Sinai.

Passover is full of miracles: the ten plagues, the exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea.

The revelation at Sinai, with voices and lightning, is a continuation of the revelation of the Shekhina (Divine Presence) through great miracles and wonder. Yet it is not characteristic of the holiday of Shavuot. While there are elements of Shavuot that point to the Revelation at Sinai – “Zman Matan Toratenu” (The Giving of the Torah) – this is not the primary element and principle of the day, at least not to my mind.

Shavuot, “Zman Matan Toratenu”, is to be associated with the Oral Torah, which emerges into a chaotic, ruined world that has lost its home after the destruction of the Temple. It is given to a nation well-acquainted with suffering in the diaspora, one that lives a life of grain: survival, covenant, kindness, oath, continuity, family, banality, the grind of daily routine. Longing undoes the firm injunction of a separated heaven and earth ordained in Genesis. God dwells in the depths of longing, in the body’s desire for wheat.

‘In this world I give you Torah, in the World to Come I will give you life.” (Kohelet Rabbah)

Faith and avodat Hashem is to be found in life, in its vitality – in the will that precedes wisdom, in the desire for existence itself. The longing for partnership in a withered, dried field, in the yellow summer, is a desire beyond any wisdom. This is not the imaginative lust of youth but the maturity of age: obedience, awe and tradition which hides in its core the strong will, the desire, found within an attitude of humility.

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The First and Second Tablets

The wheat field has nourished and nurtured my Israeli spirit quite literally. I think of Azriel Carlebach’s eulogy about Rav Kook: what the Jews took from the ghetto, the horrors and kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name), Rav Kook extracted from a straw stalk on a Jerusalem street.

This has many far-reaching consequences.

God resides in the beit midrash: in books, minds and in intellect. In shteyging (intense Torah study), images and fantasy. This is how I was taught in Yeshiva.

And I do not deny this – but it is the faith of a young man. The faith of the first tablets.

The archetype of the revelation on Sinai embeds the inevitability of the first tablets breaking, because there are no vessels expansive enough to contain the lights of big dreams, of youthful imagination.

The tablets and the shards of tablets rest in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. The first tablets were broken because they were idealistic, abstract, rigid, inhumane. Breaking the tablets turned them into Torah – to revealing God in action, to bringing his holy presence to the depths of human existence. We learned in the midrash: “God’s vessels are the broken vessels.”

The broken vessel gives faith its humanity, its doubt and hesitation.

Internalizing the break, the passing of days and old age – these create a foundation for a faith that requires a return to the land, a family base, belonging, loyalty to ancient traditions. It calls for saying a fundamental “Yes,” to being, to existence, to one’s desires.

Among the different holiday symbols, Shavuot – and especially Megillat Ruth- serve to represent the maturity of Passover and Song of Songs. They transform the encounter with the king in the dry, desolate field in the months of Elul and Tishrei. It is from this field that mercy, humility, and the broken heart can grow.

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