From Turtledove to Gathering Swallows

How do we make sense of the period between Pesach and Shavuot? For me, the most meaningful aspects of each chag have always been the megillot that we read. On Pesach we chant Shir Hashirim, a celebration of young love in all its energy and innocence. And then on Shavuot we recite Megillat Ruth, a more sobering tale about a woman who uses love to rebuild a family devastated by loss. In the period of the counting of the Omer, then, with the winter long past and the days growing still longer, we experience the shift from young love to mature love and from freedom to redemption.

Shir Hashirim is appropriate for Pesach, and not just because it celebrates the awakening of spring and the blossoming of youth. In its description of carefree, unbounded lovers leaping over the hills and peering through the lattices, the book is its own feast of freedom: the freedom to love and be loved without any concerns or responsibilities. These are not lovers who need to support themselves or find a roof to put over their heads – they can sustain themselves with raisin cakes and fall asleep in the fields to the song of the turtledoves. As if in defiance of time itself, the entire book of Shir Hashirim – eight chapters in total – has no narrative progression and no plot development. It is as if the young man and woman are frozen in time, and in this they are reminiscent, to me, of Keats’ fleeing lovers on the Grecian urn:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss;
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

In this poem, Keats describes an ancient Greek vase depicting two lovers running after one another. Since they exist in the static immobility of sculpture, they will never catch each other up at last and embrace. They are, as Keats says, “Forever warm and still to be enjoyed / Forever panting and forever young.” Their love is eternal and timeless, and they are to this day, as in the last verse of Shir Hashirim, still hurrying off to the hills of spices.

The freedom of Pesach gives way to the legal strictures of Shavuot, where we are saddled—albeit also blessed—with the responsibility of observing the mitzvot of the Torah. We are no longer just a liberated people; we are a people consecrated unto God in divine servitude. The contrast between the two holidays is evidenced also in the two megillot. Ruth, unlike Shir Hashirim, is a story of love but also of economics, politics, and history. From the very first verse, we are immediately situated in a particular geographical and chronological context: “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah, with his wife and two sons, went to reside in the country of Moab.” Unlike Shir Hashirim, the book of Ruth unfolds sequentially over time, with a clear narrative progression: Elimelech’s family travels to Moab to escape famine; Elimelech dies; Machlon and Chilion get married; Machlon and Chilion die; Naomi sets off on her own…. From famine to death to marriage to moving, this book is filled with the stuff of real life.

Perhaps Ruth loves Boaz, but if so, we are never told that this is the case. When still a young widow, she wins him over at the urging of her mother-in-law Naomi, who encourages her to glean in his fields. For Ruth, courting Boaz is a homework assignment of sorts – it is something she must do to save herself and her mother-in-law from the dangers of being unattached women in a strange land. Moreover, unlike the lovers in Shir Hashirim who celebrate at their leisure in the wilds of nature, Ruth and Boaz have their tryst on the threshing floor, the place of hard labor. Although Keats writes in Ode to a Nightingale of “Ruth, when sick for home, she stood in tears amid the alien corn,” it is another Keats poem that comes to mind when I think of Megillat Ruth – “Ode to Autumn”:

Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twine´d flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

The breath like the fragrance of apples which we find in Shir Hashirim has been replaced with the oozings of the cider press. The blossoming Rose of Sharon has given way to the drowsy poppy. And the lover has become the gleaner.
Ruth, who has tasted the bitter fruits of death and hunger, knows that there is no Song of Songs for her to sing – and Keats captures this as well in the very next stanza:

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barre´d clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river-sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

It is these gathering swallows, though, and not the voice of the turtledove, that serve as harbinger of the Messiah. While the lovers in Shir Hashirim are still prancing amidst the gardens and valleys, Ruth gives birth to the ancestor of David. Redemption comes not from carefree freedom, but from a life of Torah and mitzvot. And perhaps the love into which we inevitably grow is not that of the fleeing lovers on the urn, but of the gleaners who winnow on the granary floor.

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