On Pesach, we read Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, written by King Solomon with his prophetic insight and his renowned wisdom. Rabbi Akiva says in the Talmud – and Rashi quotes it at the beginning of Shir HaShirim – that Shir HaShirim is the Holy of Holies. It describes the relationship between us and G-d, and uses the analogy of the relationship between a husband and wife to describe the love between us and Hashem. I encourage you to read a midrashic interpretation or one of the many commentaries on the Song of Songs, so that the analogy is fully understood.
Pesach is the foundation of our relationship with Hashem. On Pesach we celebrate how He took us out of slavery and acknowledge that we are completely dependent on Him. On this festival we think about our relationship with Hashem. It’s about conveying that our Judaism and our relationship with G-d are not just about what we have to do, but about love, devotion, passion, and enthusiasm.
But practically, how do we serve Hashem out of love and with passion?
Judaism: uniformity and individuality
The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, one of our great sages of the 19th century, who was the great Rosh Yeshiva of the yeshiva of Volozhin, says that Shir HaShirim gives the direction of how to serve G-d with love. On the one hand, Torah Judaism seems to be about uniformity – we all have to keep the 613 commandments and follow the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, which instructs us on how to live our lives as Jews. It seems we are all doing the same things. On the one hand, the Netziv quotes a verse in the Book of Kohelet, in Ecclesiastes, also written by King Solomon, where it says in chapter 11 verse 9, vehalech bedarchei libcha, “go after your heart.” He quotes a number of Talmudic sources as well which say that each one of us has to find the one mitzvah which speaks to us personally, and to do that mitzvah brilliantly.
This doesn’t mean that we are exempt from the rest of the mitzvahs; rather, there must be a dual approach. On the one hand, we need to find that one personal mitzvah and do it well, with passion, and on the other hand we must serve G-d by keeping all the mitzvahs as contained in the Shulchan Aruch and within the framework of the halacha, and not step outside of it. The Netziv relates this to the verse we say in the third paragraph of the Shema, Velo taturu acharei levavchem, “do not go astray after your heart.” The verse uses the word taturu, to spy, and not the usual telchu, to go after. The Netziv explains that the verse uses specifically the word taturu because taturu means to spy in order to find something new. The verse is warning us that when we come to serve G-d and are looking for something meaningful, inspiring and spiritual in life, we seek out a new way which is outside the framework of Torah. The Netziv points out that many of the mistakes of Jewish history are because people went to find a new way of serving G-d and their own brand of ethics outside of the Torah. The Torah is the full and only blueprint for how to serve Hashem.
Finding a sense of individuality within Torah
Within the framework of the Torah, says the Netziv, each of us has to find his or her unique mode of serving Hashem. Every person is unique in his service of Hashem and we need to find the one mitzvah which speaks to us personally. Some people are moved by learning Torah; others are moved by the mitzvah of chesed, of loving kindness; some are moved by the mitzvah of Shabbos; for others it’s keeping kosher; for some it’s tzedakah, charity. Each person is moved by a different mitzvah which appeals to him or her individually. This doesn’t exempt us from the other mitzvahs and we cannot pick and choose. We have to keep all of them, but he says we have to choose our specialty, the one thing which our neshama, our soul, is naturally drawn to. If you are inclined toward a particular mitzvah, says the Netziv, that indicates that that mitzvah is part of your divine destiny. Even within a particular mitzvah, there can be specific aspects which appeal to you more than others. For example, within the mitzvah of loving kindness, some people are drawn to bikur cholim, visiting the sick; others are drawn to helping with funerals and comforting the mourners; others are drawn to helping the poor; and others to giving advice or financial assistance. Or, as another example, within Torah learning there are some people who love learning Chumash, some who love learning Gemara and others who love learning philosophy. Within each one of the mitzvahs as well there is a lot of individuality that can be expressed . The message is, says the Netziv, follow your passion. Do that one mitzvah which is your passion and make it perfect because that is part of your individual mission in the world, as indicated by your natural inclination to it. And from the passion invested in that one thing, your whole life will be uplifted.
The Netziv quotes a verse in Parshat Balak, in chapter 24, verse 6, where it says keganot alei nahar, “like gardens on the banks of a river.” The Netziv explains that the difference between a garden a gan, and a field, a sadeh, is that a field is uniform, only one crop is planted – perhaps wheat, or barley, or an orchard of oranges or bananas. But our service of G-d is not like a field, it has to be like a garden, which contains many different plants and flowers. So too our service of G-d, to use the analogy of a garden, has to contain all of the plants, meaning all 613 commandments; but it must also contain a unique personal feature. For example, some gardens have a prominent magnificent rosebush; another might have a huge tree or a special kind of creeper. Every garden is unique. The Netziv explains that likewise, our “gardens” of serving Hashem have to have all the plants – the 613 commandments and the Code of Jewish Law – but there is the one plant we are drawn to, the one flower, the one tree which belongs to us and is unique to our garden. We each have one mitzvah which belongs to us more than any other.
This is how the Netziv explains the verse in Devarim, chapter 6 verse 1 where it says Vezot hamitzvah, “This is the mitzvah,” the statutes and the laws that G-d has commanded you to keep. Says the Netziv, why does it say Vezot hamitzvah, “this is the mitzvah,” in the singular rather than mitzvot in the plural? What about all the other mitzvahs? He explains that this verse refers to the duty of taking on one mitzvah and making it personal and special, and from that the love and passion for G-d will develop.
The difference between Chametz and Matza
This is the theme of Shir HaShirim – our love and devotion to G-d. On the one hand we must be careful not to look for ways of expressing our love for G-d outside the framework of the Torah; on the other hand we must find our unique expression of it. Each one of us has unique gifts and talents, and a distinct passion for a certain area. Passion and love come from doing something that you really want to do, and you are only good at things that you really want to do. As with any endeavour in lifeyou need to try and find something that you really want to do. And, even more importantly, in our service of G-d we have to find that one mitzvah which speaks to our neshama, to our soul, and do it well. When that passion comes through, it uplifts everything else in our service of G-d.
Shir HaShirim encapsulates what Pesach is all about – our love of and relationship with Hashem. The Netziv connects this to the mitzvah of matza. He says the difference between matza and chametz is that matza is just flour and water, while chametz necessitates the addition of human ingenuity to the basic natural products to turn it into something more elaborate. Matza is a basic, elemental food, representing what G-d has given and the fact that we are totally dependent on Him. We eat the matza, the bread of humility, to say that what G-d has given us is all we have, without adding our own elaborate efforts to it. We show our complete dependence on G-d, Who gave us our freedom. We have an obligation to view things as if we ourselves went out of Egypt, because without the Exodus, we wouldn’t have freedom, our Torah, our identity and our very life.
Our vulnerability and utter dependence on G-d and the fact that we have nothing without Him should not create a relationship merely of submissive obligation; rather one of love. Realising that whatever we are is because of Hashem is the foundation of love. And we show that love by doing what He told us to do – not only because we have to, but because we really want to – and by finding that one mitzvah which speaks to us personally and doing it with passion. This is what we need to work on during Pesach. We need to feel the joy, excitement and the privilege of being able to serve Hashem and to live a life of meaning following the Torah and the personal calling of our souls.
I want to wish you all a Chag Kasher VeSame’ach, a kosher and joyous Pesach. Some people are good at celebrating a kosher Pesach. Others are good at celebrating a joyous one. Our celebration should encompass both, the kosher and the joyous, so that we can feel the incredible joy of this festival, and rejoice in our Torah and our individual role within it.