Ruling Desire and Desiring Rules

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

On Shabbat Chol ha’Moed it is customary to read Shir ha’Shirim, a megillah of blooming flowers and blossoming love between two lovers. The are they/aren’t they protagonists are understood to represent God and the Jewish people. Throughout the megillah their metaphors and similes of passion never culminate in a final moment. Indeed, it ends with the Dod running away again.

What is the story of love meant to teach us about our relationship with God? The dialogue is limited to exchanges of compliments, but no conversation. Is this an ideal relationship? The most salient features of the megillah are passion and appreciation, but the megillah also serves an additional purpose in teaching about equality.

The presence of desire in a relationship creates an opportunity for unequal power dynamic. This is first expressed in the Torah in the aftermath of eating from the tree of knowledge. A punishment of Chava is “וְאֶל-אִישֵׁךְ, תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ, וְהוּא, יִמְשָׁל-בָּךְ”, that she will desire her husband, and he will rule her. Her desire creates a vulnerability that results in an imbalanced relationship. In this archetypical relationship in the Torah, there is a strain of closeness and distance, desire and inequality.

This idea appears again in Bereshit in the aftermath of Kayin killing his brother Hevel. God tells Kayin in regards to sin “הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ”, is it not so that if you are good you will overcome it, because sin is crouching at your doorstep, it desires you and you rule over it. Like a virus needs a host, sin desires the sinner, and thus Kayin can rule over it.

The final time this language is used in Tanach is in Shir ha’Shirim “אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי, וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ”, I am to my beloved and he desires me. Here is a reversal from Bereshit. First, a person is speaking, whereas God was the speaker of both instances in Bereshit. The affected parties are the active ones, aware of their situation and standing. Second, in Shir ha’Shirim, the man desires the woman, the opposite from Chava and Adam. We would expect that this would make him the vulnerable party, at the woman’s mercy to rule over him. However, she is declaring herself to him, making herself equally vulnerable to him. Using her power, she abolishes the power imbalance. They are equal.

Tracing this concept of desire and power gives Shir ha’Shirim a culmination of a larger story, showing how two entities can be vulnerable and equal. God desires us to be His people, as evidenced in the Exodus story from Egypt and throughout our journey in the desert. At Har Sinai we are declared His nation and are sustained in the desert until delivered to Israel. We desire God to be our God, and demonstrate this through the fulfillment of mitzvot and learning His Torah. Pesach is a time when we review the roots of our relationship with God, and renew it by teaching our history to our families at the Seder. The story in Shir ha’Shirim never really ends, because we are still playing the parts in this relationship through the choices we make every day.

Betsy Morgan (SBM 2013, 2014) is a Junior at Drexel University studying Materials Science and Engineering. She is currently serving as the Gabbai for Drexel’s Orthodox Minyan Group and as a Campus Fellow for the Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals.

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