Thursday, April 01, 2010

Springtime and Thoughts of Love

“In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." This rather famous phrase appears in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, “Locksley Hall”.

The temperature reached a sunny 83 degrees here in Chicago today. Truly a gorgeous day – almost summer-like but for the lack of leaves on the trees. This follows an equally gorgeous day - yesterday the 2nd day of Pesach and the prediction of an equally beautiful day tomorrow – Erev Shabbos Chol HaMoed.

The “month of spring” - Chodesh Ha-Aiviv is how the Torah refers to what ultimately came to be called the month of Nissan.

Nissan is of course the month we celebrate our current holiday, Pesach. It is no co-incidence that it is in the holiday that we read Shir HaShirim – Shlomo HaMelech’s poetic “Song of Songs” – the description of God’s love for His people Israel.

We emerge at this time of year from hibernation – as it were – locked up for the dark dreary months of the winter and begin to see long dead greenery come to life. It is a life renewed every year at this time. This is when the spirit of love begins to enter into the mind of man.

This is no less true for the Jewish people than it is for the rest of the world. For the Mamleches Kohanim V’Goy Kadosh our thoughts too turn to love – love of God, of Torah, of Israel, of fellow man. The Jewish soul turns to God who calls to us in Shir HaShirim:

“Rise up my love, my fair one and come away. For Lo the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth. The time of singing is come and the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land… Arise my love, my fair one and come away” (2:10-13).”

These are the words God addressed to his people in the springtime of its history. He beckoned them lovingly to follow Him out of Egypt, through Sinai and to Israel. And these are the words he addresses to us every year at this time.

Spring is after all a time for love. How should we express it? By trying to know God. The Rambam taught that knowledge and love are intertwined. The Torah reading on Shabbos Chol HaMoead – the day we also read Shir HaShirim – speaks of Moshe’s powerful yearning to know God. The Emek Dvar (Netziv) on Parshas Vayera says knowing God is a matter of learning His Torah!

Indeed Halacha teaches that one can fulfill Birchas HaTorah – the blessings over the Torah which are required before one learns Torah - with the recitation of Ahava Rabbah: Ahava Rabbah Ahavtanu – “With an abudant love does He love us”!

Shlomo HaMelech expresses this thought even more poetically: “He brought me to the house of wine and his banner over me is love”(2:4).

Taverns and Love?

The house of wine symbolizes Sinai. God brought me to his “house of wine” - Sinai. How does Torah compare to wine? The Midrash explains.

First – just as wine makes a man feel bigger, giving him a feeling of physical strength and confidence, so too do the words of the Torah. Modern man may at times suffer feelings if inadequacy and impotence in the face of the quick pace in the advance of modern technology. This can lead to a withdrawal of sorts from society. But the Torah offers us “the banner of love”. The Torah teaches us that God is concerned with us even when one else is. It is with the regimen of Mitzvos and God’s Divine sympathy that can drive away those empty feelings of despair and feel big – spiritually big.

Second – Just as one who loves wine is never satisfied with what he has – so too is the one who loves Torah. The mnore we have – the more we want.

How important this is for modern man. We have every conceivable opportunity to enjoy life available to us now. We can experience it at levels undreamed of by our ancestors of even 100 years ago. And yet we often tire quickly of them. We can get easily bored after just a little time spent on our mundane desires. We will go from one thing to the next getting just as easily bored by the new as we did by the old. We spend much of our lives chasing a dream and once we achieve it, we will often find it empty and lose interest.

I will never forget the first time I could afford to buy a luxury automobile. I thought – finally the car of my dreams. I drove it off the lot feeling quite good about it. It took about two weeks for me to think of it as nothing more than a car – no different than the one ahead of me or behind me in traffic. This is true of any material achievement I have ever had.

Shlomo HaMelech offers us love of Torah. Try it, he says. Throw yourself into it and you will discover that – like the lover of wine – the more you have the more you want. It is not only the study of Torah but the full life of Torah and Mitzvos. A meaningless chase after vanity is then exchanged for a meaningful pursuit of purpose and direction.

Finally – just as people know immediately when wine has been consumed to excess so too will people know the lover of Torah. Torah is more than an abstract discipline. It is transformative. It life altering. It makes us a new person – giving us a new identity so that a perceptive stranger will recognize our spiritual strength just as he would the weakness of the over indulgent wine drinker who can’t stop.

A Jew who does not want to be relegated to a life of shallowness and oblivion let him take to Torah –the precious wisdom of the ages -even as others take to drink!

All the world loves a lover - how much more so the lover of Torah.!

These are some of the thoughts that come to mind as we read Shir HaShirim thoughts of love - the love of Torah. Like wine Torah elevates the spirit. Although our world sometimes threatens to turn wine into vinegar; although occasionally a lingering winter rain and chilly wind make the spring in our hearts seem far off; although our environment is inundated at times with vulgarity, flooded with the debris of moral failure, drowned with derision for our old love and our old Torah, and deluged with doubts, nevertheless – in the words of Shlomo HaMelech, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (8:7). It is a sublime and heavenly romance to which the Jewish tradition beckons.

Adapted from The Royal Table by Rabbi Norman Lamm