The Song of Songs

By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 26th Apr 2024

Dear Community,

I ought to be writing about the Song of Songs, the most beautiful book in the Hebrew Bible, with gardens and love at its heart, the book Rabbi Akiva described as its ‘Holy of Holies’.

I can’t. The only flowers on my mind right now are whether I can send any to Ayelet, mother of 19-year-old Naama, still hostage to Hamas, because last time we sent some Ayelet WhatsApp’ed back: Good to have something nice come through my door.

It’s over 200 days since October 7 and this terrible war goes on, in the north and south of Israel and in Gaza literally, and across the world by proxy. In a different way, it’s also being fought out, or about, in our own communities and minds.

Here is David Horovitz on what’s happening on American campuses his piece interspersed with shocking footage:

‘The initial goal of this inexcusably tolerated murderous hostility is to aid in Israel’s demise — by establishing our country as a pariah state, and rendering it untenable to be associated with, defended or protected. Protected, that is, from the amoral, rapacious, misogynistic, homophobic, and potent enemies who, as I write, are firing rockets from the north (Hezbollah), trying to do so from the south (Hamas), and advancing toward obtaining nuclear weapons in the east (Iran). But if those enemy states, terrorist armies and their facilitators get done with Israel, they’ll be coming for Jews everywhere.’ (The Times of Israel, 24 April, 2024)

It’s terrifying, and it’s not just about Israel, or Jews. The world is in conflict, directly or indirectly, with Iran, Russia and their allies. It’s horrible to acknowledge. That’s why so many of us, whatever our politics, fear and feel for Israel, its hostages, bereaved families, soldiers, whole communities dislocated, living in and out of bomb shelters.

But that’s not all we’re seeing. Day after day we face pictures of the destruction of Gaza. Fellow Jews with whom I speak all acknowledge the horrible suffering of ordinary Palestinians caught between Hamas and Israel in the misery, destruction and death into which Hamas has, cynically and calculatedly, lured Israel into co-responsibility.

That’s still not all. There’s Israel’s government – a coalition despised by many Israelis, according to repeated opinion polls – with hardened extremists in its ranks. There are the vicious actions of West Bank settlers who are not only taking advantage of this war, with everyone looking the other way, but who have for years, through bullying acts of aggression towards local Palestinians, sapped the life blood of Israel’s moral credibility.

So where are we left? In the Passover Haggadah we’re victims: ‘They rise up to destroy us in every generation.’ Maybe not everywhere in every generation, but it’s a broad, sad truth.

Now, though, are we in any way, to any extent, perpetrators too? Has the poison of hatred seeped into our souls? If so, do we, should we, speak such an uncomfortable truth?

Add to this the huge sweep of antisemitism, leaving us anxious in places where, until recently, we felt secure.

All that makes this the most difficult, painful period in my lifetime to be Jewish.

Jonathan Freedland puts it so well:

These issues ‘don’t only rage around the family table: they also rage within us. Indeed, I think that’s one reason why this last half-year has been so hard for so many. We’re having to hold multiple and conflicting thoughts and feelings in our heads and hearts all the time.’ (The Jewish Chronicle April 10, 2024)

All this is even harder because we each, depending on numerous factors including our age, holds these conflicting feelings in different proportions.

We would do well to acknowledge this, with forbearance and generosity. Otherwise, it will be yet one more way in which we become victims of what Hamas did on October 7.

I wonder what God thinks about all of this. Maybe God’s feeling: Why is humanity abandoning my beautiful Song of Songs garden and destroying my world instead?

Shabbat Shalom
Senior Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

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