Averting our eyes from Shir HaShirim (Moed Katan 16a)

One time, Rabi decreed that it was forbidden to teach Torah in the marketplace. What was the basis for his decree? “Your rounded thighs are like jewels” (Shir Hashirim 7:2). Just as a thigh is concealed, so too should Torah be concealed.

Rabi Chiya went out and taught his two nephews, Rav and Raba bar bar Chana, in the marketplace. Rabi heard about this, and grew furious. Rabi Chiya came to see Rabi. Rabi said to him, “Iya [derogatory form of Chiya], what happened out there in the marketplace?” Rabi Chiya knew that Rabi had taken offense [literally: that his words had taken hold in his mind]. Rabi Chiya excommunicated himself for thirty days.

On the thirtieth day, Rabi sent for Rabi Chiya. Then he sent another message telling Rabi Chiya not to come. What was Rabi thinking? In the beginning he reasoned: a part of the day is like the whole day (and therefore even at the beginning of the thirtieth day, the full excommunication sentence had been completed). In the end he reasoned: we do not say that a part of the day is like the whole day.

In the end, Rabi Chiya came. Rabi said to him, “Why did you come?” Rabi Chiya answered, “You sent for me.” Rabi said, “But then I sent another message telling you not to come.” Rabi Chiya explained, “I saw the first message, but not the second.” Rabi said to him, “When God is pleased with a man’s conduct, he may turn even his enemies into allies.” (Mishlei 16:7)

Rabi asked, “Why did you teach Torah in the marketplace against my will?” Rabi Chiya answered, “It is written, ‘Wisdom cries aloud in the streets.'” (Mishlei 1:20). Rabi said to him, “If you learned this, you did not review it. And if you reviewed it, you did not go over it a third time. And if you went over it a third time, they did not explain it to you well. The meaning of ‘Wisdom cries aloud in the streets’ is as Rava interpreted it. As Rava said: If a person learns Torah in private, his Torah will make itself known in public.”

–Moed Katan 16a

* * *

Rabi decrees that Torah should be taught only in private because, to his mind, the words of Torah are intimate matters that are not appropriate for the marketplace and other public venues. He bases his claim on words of Torah themselves — that is, on a verse from Shir Hashirim, which we will recite tomorrow on the intermediate Shabbat of Pesach: “Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master craftsman.” The midrashic collection Shir Hashirim Rabbah allegorizes the awakening of love in this text as the relationship between God and Israel, who are bound in a covenant of Torah. Nearly each verse in Shir Hashirim is followed by an allegorical interpretation, often linking the much-longed-for revelation of the beloved to the revelation of God at Sinai:

Let me kiss the kisses of your mouth — each word of Torah would be spoken, and Israel would be asked to accept it, and Israel would reply “Yes, yes!” — and then the words of Torah would kiss Israel.

His left hand is under my head, and his right embraces me — the left hand is the first set of tablets given on Sinai, and the right hand is the second set.

These passages remind us that even at Sinai, in the moment of revelation, it was impossible to look directly at God. The people did not realize that to do so was quite a dangerous matter. Unlike Moses, they were not ones to avert their eyes when stumbling upon a bush aflame. Moses’ cautious assura na v’ereh became the people’s rash sarnu maher. Rather than averting their glances, they would turn away from the path that God had commanded. And their deviance was no so small matter: The people, eager to test whether God was in their midst of not, built a calf of golden and danced around in wild ecstasy — believing, that in so doing, their eyes were watching God.

Of course, God grew furious: “What happened there with the calf in the marketplace?!!”” The God who once had the forbearance to burn but not consume now said to Moses, “Let Me be, that my anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them.” Moses knew that God had taken offense. But Moses reminded God what it means to turn aside and return in forgiveness, and Moses convinced God, “Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.”

Turn back, turn back
O maid of Shunem!
Turn back, turn back,
That we may gaze upon you….
For love is as fierce as death,
Passion is as mighty as hell;
Its darts are darts of fire,
A blazing flame.

* * *

Just after the incident with the calf, in the Torah portion we read on the same day as we recite Shir Hashirim, Moses says, “See, you say to me, ‘Lead this people forward — Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You.”

O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks,
Hidden by the cliff,
Let me see your face!

Moses understood what it was that the people had yearned for so desperately. And Moses cried, “Oh, let me behold Your presence!”

God heard Moses’ plea, and God conceded, “You will see my back, and my face you will not see — for man cannot see me and live.” And so God placed Moses down gently in the cranny of the rocks and shielded him with His hand, and God passed by in all his glory.

Moses saw God as Vronsky saw Anna: “He could not look at her, as one cannot look directly at the sun. And yet he saw her, as one sees the sun always, without looking.”

Turn your eyes away from me,
For they overwhelm me!

Then God placed His left hand under Moses’ head, and God embraced Moses with His right hand, and God said: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first ones.” The first one I saw, and the second one I did not see….

* * *

Moses was ashamed to come down the mountain, and when he descended, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant. Moses sensed, in those moments, Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality:

For though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight….

Moses knew he would request to enter the promised land — because part of the journey is not like the whole journey. “O Lord God, You who let Your servant see the works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand — Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan.” And God said, “Enough! Man cannot see me and live. If you learned this, you did not review it. And if you reviewed it, you did not go over it a third time. And if you went over it a third time, they did not explain it to you well….”

When Moses had finished speaking with God, he put a veil over his face because the radiance was so great. Whenever Moses went in before God to speak to Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out, the Israelites would see how radiant was the skin of Moses’ face.

You are fair my beloved, o, you are fair. Your eyes are like doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats streaming down the mountain.

My beloved is like a gazelle or a like a young stag. There he stands behind our walls, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices. My beloved spoke and said to me: Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Here, too, Shir Hashirim Rabah redirects our gaze:

There he stands behind our walls — The wall of the synagogue, and the wall of the study house.

Gazing through the windows — Between the shoulders of the high priests.

Peering through the lattices — Between the fingers of the priests, which are raised in blessing.

My beloved spoke and said to me — May the Lord bless you and keep you.

It is forbidden to look up during the priestly blessing. We hide ourselves behind the veils of our prayer shawls, and avert our eyes. But who does not harbor a secret desire to gaze and peer through the cloth? Oh, let me behold your presence!

May the Lord bless you and keep you
May the Lord shine His countenance upon you….

This is the priestly blessing: If you learn Torah in private, your Torah will make itself known in public. You will come out of the study house, and your face will be radiant. We will avert our eyes, and you will put on a veil to cover your burning face. But we will know, even as we turn away, that the rounded thighs of Torah have been spread out before you.

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