Shaarei Shamayim

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The Greatest Love Story Ever Told



I want to share with you what my colleague Rabbi Raphael Schwartzman calls, “the greatest love story ever told.” There was a very beautiful girl who was a shepherdess. She tended her family’s flock of goats and fell madly in love with a poor shepherd from her village. Her family was outraged. The shepherd was poor, ignorant and plain—not good enough for their beautiful girl. They also suspected her moral conduct. To separate her from the shepherd they relieved her of her duties as a shepherdess and reassigned her to the family vineyards closer to home, so that they could keep an eye on her.


One day as she was tending the vines, members of the royal family passed the village on the way to their coastal summer resort. They were captivated by the beauty of this girl. They tried to persuade her to come with them and become a member of the King’s harem, but she refused. They nevertheless took her as a captive to the King’s chambers.


When the King met her he was captivated by her pristine beauty and fell madly in love with her. He romanced her, offering her clothes, jewelry, riches and position—all in an effort to gain her love. But to no avail.


The ladies of the court also tried to convince her to give up her love for the shepherd who was poor and could offer her nothing. They urged her to accept the King with his riches and honor and fame, but she was steadfast. Her heart belonged to the poor village shepherd, so the king allowed her to return home.


Hand in hand she brought her shepherd lover home and introduced him to her family. She told them of her captivity at the palace. She pointed out to her family that her love for her shepherd was genuine—not depending on material possessions. Her love could not be extinguished by all the temptations offered by the King. She also assured her family that she never compromised her virtue. Her family accepted her shepherd lover and celebrated the occasion.

Do you know the name of this story? Perhaps it is the greatest love story ever told, but it has a more famous name: Shir HaShirim, “The Song of Songs.” It’s one of the 5 Megilot in the Bible and is usually read on Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach. Since this year there is no Shabbat Chol Hamoed, we read it on the last days of Pesach. We read it yesterday. Are you surprised that a love story like this should have such a prominent and important place in Jewish life? Well, so were the sages of the Talmud.

When discussion was held which books should be included in the Bible, the sages protested: “Why, it is a love story. [It’s almost erotic at times.] Gd’s name is not even mentioned in the story. Let’s ban it.” Only one Rabbi came to its defense exclaiming (Yadayim 3:5): Shekol haketuvim kadosh, v’Shir HaShirim kodesh kodashim, “If the other books of the Bible are holy, the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies.”

Who was this Rabbi? The greatest sage of his time: Rabbi Akiva. Small wonder Rabbi Akiva was so impressed. The story of the Song of Songs is a replay of his life.

Rabbi Akiva, in his youth, was an ignorant shepherd. He worked for one of the wealthiest Jews in Jerusalem: Kalba Sabua. Kalba Sabua had a beautiful daughter named Rachel. She fell in love with Akiva. Her wealthy father was outraged. How could his beautiful and only daughter fall in love with an ignorant shepherd who at the age of 40 couldn’t read a word of Hebrew? Besides he was so old—40! Kalba disowned his daughter, disinherited her and took a vow never to speak to her again.

But Rachel’s love could not be shaken. She recognized his dormant potential and promised to marry Akiva if he would leave his flocks and enroll as a student at the Yeshiva. Rachel and Akiva were so poor that she cut off her beautiful braids and sold them to buy food. Her father refused to help. Akiva enrolled in the Yeshiva as a beginner. Imagine, he was 40 years old studying with 4-5 year olds learning the alef-Bet. But he persisted and, after many years of study, he became the undisputed spiritual giant of his generation.

He returned home accompanied by thousands of students. A poor woman dressed in rags made her way through the crowds to welcome the great sage. She finally reached the sage and fell at his feet. Akiva’s students tried to push her aside for this disrespectful gesture, but Rabbi Akiva, with tears in his eyes, exclaimed: “This woman in ragged clothes is my wife Rachel. All the Torah that I possess, all the Torah that you my students acquired, belongs to her.”

Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, and the dramatic story of Rabbi Akiva demonstrate the power of true love. The beautiful shepherdess rejects the proposals of the King for a poor peasant. The beautiful Rachel defies her father—turning her back on her father’s wealth—for the love of an ignorant shepherd.

These stories also demonstrate that true love is the holiest emotion. The shepherdess, because of her true and pure love rejects the material offerings of the King: the jewels, the luxuries, the glamor. And Rachel rejects her father’s wealth for Akiva’s love for true love is not based on material things, preconceived formulas, nor even logic or reason. True love transfigures and hallows. The pure love of a Rachel turned an ignorant Akiva into the greatest Talmudic scholar of all time. The love of the shepherdess overcame promiscuity and established a true Jewish home wherein the spirit of Gd dwelled.

The message of Shir HaShirim is expressed in its immortal words (8:6-7): Simeyni kachotam al libecha, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, ki aza chamavet ahava, “for love is as strong as death...Many waters cannot quench this love; neither can the floods drown it.”

Why do we read this beautiful love story on Pesach? Our Sages teach us that this love story is a metaphor of the love between Gd and the Jewish people. Pesach marks the birth of the Jewish people as a nation—the time when Jews as a people fell in love with Gd. The Egyptian Jew because of his oppression began to lose faith, for true faith and love of Gd can develop only when one feels that somewhere, sometime in his life he has personally received demonstrations of Gd’s love, kindness and concern. The dramatic events of the plagues and the Crossing of the Red Sea—which we celebrate on these last days of Pesach— began a love affair with Gd that has been reaffirmed every Pesach for 3,327 years since the Exodus.

My friends, today is Yizkor, a day of Remembrance. When you look back upon your lives, can you not remember the times somewhere, sometime in your life when you have personally experienced Gd’s love, kindness and concern? For sure the evidence is there for all of us. Pesach challenges is just to open our eyes and see it!

The Egyptian Jew fell in love with Gd with his miraculous liberation. Tradition sees Gd in the story of the Song of Songs as the Shepherd, and the Jewish people as the shepherdess. The love of the Jews for Gd defies reason or logic. Many tyrants have tried to separate the Jew from his Gd. The Jew has been tortured; the Jews has been ridiculed; the Jew has been burned at the stake and in Hitler’s ovens. But his love for his Gd continues.

Many lovers have tried to win us over. The might of Egypt, the glamour of Babylon, the beauty of Greece, the glory of Rome, and today the glitter of Western civilization—all beckon the Jew to abandon his love for Gd and Torah. But this love affair with Gd is an eternal bond. And when we are faithful to Gd, demonstrations of His love grow even stronger.

Pesach celebrates this bond of love. That’s why so many Jews who participate so little in Jewish life most of the year, become so much more attached on Pesach. I know Jews whose home is not kosher all year but is kosher for Passover. Even many estranged Jews find themselves at a Seder.

My friends, as we recite Yizkor and remember our departed loved ones this morning—especially our parents and grandparents—let’s also remember that—for the most part—their relationship of love with Gd was a natural part of their lives. Let us honor their memories as we try to emulate them and reaffirm our love for Gd with the immortal words of the Song of Songs: Simeyni kachotam al libecha, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, ki aza chamavet ahava, “for love is as strong as death...Many waters cannot quench this love; neither can the floods drown it”—not our love for our loved ones we remember today and not our love for Gd. Amen! 

                                               Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis 

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