Relationship status: It’s complicated
One of the more mysterious Passover traditions is the public reading of Shir HaShirim — The Song of Songs. Shir HaShirim is a magnificent expression of affection between lovers. Allegorically, the song is interpreted as a love song between God and the Jewish people. Indeed, it is a beautiful love song, but what does it have to do with Pesach? God rescued us from slavery and then split the sea — surely that was a loving thing to do — but what about Pesach is so special that makes it an auspicious time to recite poetic verse of God’s eternal love for God’s people.
Few things in life are binary. Life is full of complicated, messy shades of gray. Right and wrong are usually better expressed as “righter” and “wronger.” But some things are actually binary. Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery to freedom. That is binary. One is either a slave or one is a not a slave. There are no degrees of slavery.
The struggle from slavery to freedom can last a lifetime. It can take generations. It can be a 210-year struggle, as it was for our forefathers in Egypt. But once the door to freedom is opened, one is free and no longer a slave.
What’s next for the emancipated slave? The entire life of the slave was previously consumed by slavery and flitting dreams of freedom. When the slave tastes true freedom, life as they know it is over. There is nothing left of their old life of slavery or their old struggles. One could imagine the fears of the newly emancipated slave. In fact, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people apparently yearned to return to their slave masters. Freedom is exhilarating, but it can also be terrifying.
Love is what’s next for the emancipated slave. Nothing could be less binary than love. The constant tension of emotions and fluctuations of passion make love an effort that never ends. One can never say they have loved enough or have been loved enough. There is always more. The work of love never ends. Freedom ends slavery, but it also begins a lifetime of learning how and when to love.
On Pesach, we celebrate our freedom and the end of slavery. But freedom is not merely the end of slavery. Freedom also is the beginning of everything else. A slave has no autonomy, no time, or even emotional energy to engage in the challenges of love. With no re-education, the Jewish slaves might have merely transferred their allegiances from Pharaoh to their God. Their relationship with God would have been the same as their relationship with Pharaoh. Different master, still slaves.
Instead, God and the Jewish people began an intimate relationship of love. God loves us, and we love God. Like any relationship, sometimes there are struggles along the way. Sometimes we don’t feel God’s love and other times we cannot give God our love. But it is not binary. It is a struggle within the shades of gray.
We dramatically recall the Exodus every year. But it’s not enough to tell the story of slavery to freedom. We must make use of our freedom to do the good things a slave could never do. As slaves, we could not serve our God. Nor could we love our God. Shir HaShirim reminds us we are now free to love, and we are free to feel God’s love. From slavery, to freedom, to love.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is a rabbi, columnist, blogger and communicator for moderate Orthodox Judaism. For more of Rabbi Fink’s work, visit finkorswim.com.