If you were cast away on a desert island with just one Jewish text for company, which would it be?
- This week, Cantor Cheryl Wunch selects Shir HaShirim
The text I would choose to read – and reread – on my desert island is Shir HaShirim.
This controversial text is not only poetically beautiful with gorgeous imagery but, in my opinion, teaches about the most basic, and yet often most complicated facet of life – love. It highlights not just romantic love, but all forms of love and their importance.
We read about familial love: “Oh, if you were my brother /Nursed at my mother’s breast, I’d kiss you in the street /And never suffer scorn.”
We also read about love of self: “I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem, and I am beautiful!… Do not see me only as dark: The sun has stared at me.” There are many lovely passages about romantic love, such as in chapter 2:14 where we read: “My dove in the clefts of the rock, In the shadow of the cliff, Let me see you, all of you! Let me hear your voice, Your delicious song. I love to look at you.”
We also know that the entire work has been interpreted as an allegory for God’s love for the People of Israel, and our love for God. Rabbi Akiva taught that love is the source and the explanation of all phenomena of positive human behaviour.
Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov knew of the power and importance of love: A father once came to the Baal Shem Tov with a problem concerning his son. He complained that his son was forsaking Judaism and morality and asked the rabbi what he could do.
The Baal Shem Tov answered: “Love him more.” Every time I reread Shir HaShirim, I’m struck by just how beautiful and powerful love can be. This text shows us that in order to fully love God, we must also love ourselves – and each other.
• Cheryl Wunch is cantor at Aylth Gardens