Shiur #20: Love of the Land in Shir Ha-Shirim

  • Rav Tzvi Sinensky
Dedicated by Mr. and Mrs. Leon Brum for the Refua Sheleima of
Dana Petrover (Batsheva bat Gittel Aidel Leba)
and Marvin Rosenberg (Meir Chaim ben Tzipporah Miriam)
In memory of six friends and family, 
strong pillars of the Montreal Jewish community, 
who have left us in the past 7 years. 
All were אוהבי עם ישראל, אוהבי ארץ ישראל, אוהבי תורת ישראל.
Joseph (Yosie) Deitcher
Avrum (Avy) Drazin
Rabbi Joseph Drazin
Leibel Frisch
Israel (Mutch) Yampolsky
Dr. Mark Wainberg
The references to the Land of Israel are abundant in Shir Ha-Shirim. From specific locations (Carmel, Ein Gedi) to the general landscape (hills filled with shepherds, arid deserts, vineyards, olive gardens) to animals (ayelot ha-sadeh) to botany (gefen, te’eina), one can hardly read a section of the sefer without encountering the Land of Israel. It is telling that Professor Felix, renowned expert in Israeli botany, composed a special addendum to Da’at Mikra’s Introduction to Shir Ha-Shirim.
There are also specific parallels to the manner in which the Torah describes the beauty of Israel. With the exception of barley, the seven species of Israel all appear in Shir Ha-Shirim. Just as the Torah describes Israel as flowing with milk and honey, so does the dod portray the ra’aya as having “honey and milk” below her lips (4:11). Similarly, when the dod invites others to partake in his party, he declares, “I have eaten my honey and honeycomb, Drunk my wine and my milk” (5:1).
The beauty of the Land of Israel, then, is inextricably bound with the love between the dod and ra’aya. The various seasons, particularly spring, become a metaphor for the ups and downs in their relationship. They pursue their relationship against the backdrop of the striking range of Israeli topography.
These observations beg the question as to the significance of this linkage. Why is the couple’s love so deeply intertwined with Eretz Yisrael? Why is the parable portrayed in such a way as to foreground the Land so prominently?
A number of plausible interpretations immediately present themselves. Springtime in Israel symbolizes rebirth, much as the relationship between the couple embodies renewal. From this perspective, the verses that highlight the transition from winter to spring are particularly central:
For now the winter is past, The rains are over and gone.
The blossoms have appeared in the land, The time of pruning has come; The song of the turtledove Is heard in our land.
The green figs form on the fig tree, The vines in blossom give off fragrance. Arise, my darling; My fair one, come away! (2:11-13)
Another possibility is that the invocation of Israel suggests that the couple’s union is not only important in its own right, but also constitutes a national symbol of redemption. Seen from this perspective, Shir Ha-Shirim, even without being read as a parable, may echo Sefer Yirmiyahu’s classic depiction of marriage as a symbol of redemption:
…the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride, the voice of those who cry, “Give thanks to the Lord of Hosts, for the Lord is good, for His kindness is everlasting!” as they bring thanksgiving offerings to the House of the Lord. For I will restore the fortunes of the land as of old, said the Lord. (33:11)
Akin to its role in Yirmiyahu, the love story of Shir Ha-Shirim may also herald the redemption that will unfold in the Land of Israel. This dovetails nicely with those commentators, ranging from Rashi to the Vilna Gaon, who view Shir Ha-Shirim as a story culminating in the ultimate redemption.
In addition to these themes, it is possible that the linkage between Shir Ha-Shirim and Eretz Yisrael is connected to the relationship we have previously explored between Shir Ha-Shirim and Gan Eden. There are numerous indications that Israel is, in a sense, a stand-in for the Garden of Eden. In our sefer, the guards of Jerusalem echo the guards barring the return to Eden. Both are characterized by luxuriant growth. Man must work the land, even as God plays His own role in cultivating the crops; working the land is, in fact, the subject of a command. Both locations underscore the intimate connection with God. Just as some fruit in Gan Eden was permissible and other prohibited, so too the produce of Israel is subject to a series of injunctions. The Jews were exiled from Israel for their sins, much as Adam and Chava were banished from Gan Eden as a result of their transgression. The keruvim play a pivotal role in the Temple, centered in Yerushalayim, just as they do in guarding the entranceway to Gan Eden.
If this is so, the close relationship between the love story and the land of Israel reinforces the larger set of connections we have previously observed between Eretz Yisrael and Gan Eden.
The common denominator between the interpretations we have offered is that they are primarily about the couple’s relationship; in one way or another, the Land serves as the proper backdrop for the dod and ra’aya. But we might consider an alternative: Eretz Yisrael might not be a mere backdrop to the dod and ra’aya’s relationship, but a primary theme in its own right. We should not think of Shir Ha-Shirim as a narrative about a couple whose romance plays out against the backdrop of Israel, but as a romance that typifies the Land of Israel.
How would we develop such an understanding of Shir Ha-Shirim? First and foremost, the rich relationship between the couple reflects the richness of the Land of Israel. From the moment Moshe introduces the Jewish People to the Land, he speaks of its beauty. Even when the spies complain about the land, they ironically praise it by lauding the daunting size of its fruit. The Jews are constantly called upon to recognize the divine hand in their farming success, and the agricultural laws of teruma and ma’aser attune them to the annual seasonal cycle. Many Jews were farmers and/or shepherds, and both fauna and shepherds feature prominently in our sefer. The exotic animals are even invoked as nicknames for Eretz Yisrael, such as “eretz ha-Tzvi.” That it is the perfect setting for a romance speaks not only to the relationship between the dod and ra’aya, but also to the uniqueness of the Land of Israel.
Yet at the same time, the Land also serves as a backdrop to a number of the couple’s challenges. The ra’aya must guard the vineyards, causing the Middle Eastern sun to negatively impact her appearance. She pursues the shepherd over the hills, which impede her ability to locate him. It is precisely the verdant nature of the vineyards that leads her to fear that the foxes may attack the field (2:15). While the guards who harm her (5:7) are not part of the physical landscape, they are necessary precisely because Jerusalem has been built up. The sefer concludes with her ambiguous refusal to sing for the dod and his friends, and her call for him to “flee... to the hills spices” (8:14).
While from one perspective this may highlight the difficulties involved in the couple’s ability to establish a relationship, it also symbolizes some of the challenges in living successfully in the Land of Israel. As the gemara puts it, “ein Eretz Yisrael nikneit ela be-yisurin,” “the Land of Israel is only acquired through suffering” (Berakhot 5a). As some explain, only that for which one must struggle becomes something to which the individual is fully attached.
In the end, what is true with regard to Israel holds for the couple as well; it is precisely through struggle that the couple comes to build a successful relationship. In so doing, the dod and ra’aya perfectly echo the unique relationship between the Jewish People and their sacred land.