17 April 2010

Omer 18: Metaphor

Omer Day Eighteen
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth--for your love is better than wine.
Your ointments have a goodly fragrance; your name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love you.
Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in you, we will find your love more fragrant than wine. The upright love you.
So opens Song of Songs, the Bible's love poetry of the highest order. The Sages downplayed its overtly sensuous and sexual elements, choosing instead to understand the poetry as an allegorical tale of love between God and the Jewish people. Rabbi Akiva famously said if all other books of the Bible are holy, than Song of Songs is the "Holy of Holies" adding further "the whole world attained its supreme value only on the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel."

With the Giving of Torah at Mount Sinai symbolizing the Ketubah given at the covenantal marriage between God and the Jews, reading the Song of Songs between Passover and Shavuot is a springtime ritual for many. It's also traditionally read each Shabbat--the phrase "we will be glad and rejoice in you" finding its way into Yedid Nefesh, sung each Friday evening. Metaphors abound.

My studying yesterday took place late in the day, on the subway, between a funeral in Queens and a visit to Sloane in the late afternoon. From the grave to a hallway of rooms where for many life hangs in the balance, I was fixated on another teaching of Rabbi Akiva's from Pirke Avot:
He used to say: Everything is given on a pledge, and a net is spread for all the living, the shop is open, the shopkeeper gives on credit, the ledger is open, and the hand writes, and everyone who wishes to borrow, let him come and borrow; but the collectors make their rounds continually every day, and exact payment of man with their consent or without their consent, for they have that on which they can rely; and the judgment is a judgment of truth; and all is made ready for the banquet.
We live on borrowed time. This is a truth that we often ignore. It's not a statement of desperation but a perspective on reality that we'd do well to make a focus of our attention. The classically non-metaphoric God (big guy, beard, throne) is not who Akiva is describing here. Rather, he might be saying that the God whose name is "I Am that I Am" and is the Author of All Existence provides us a window into a transcendent reality that our own lives--however long they are lived--are expressions of time "borrowed" from the spectrum of all time.

Clearly, the "store" is this world; and its "goods" are made available to us to use as we see fit--though there is judgment and truth to be had in those choices that we make.

I fundamentally believe this. And often think about my teachers, some long-dead and some more recently, who I one day hope to encounter at the Banquet.

But as I read Akiva's words with the train rattling along the tracks, I couldn't help but think of the eulogies at the funeral--keep the soul of the dead alive by recounting her kindnesses, her decency, her insistence on seizing whatever she could from the time she had been given to live. The woman I buried yesterday couldn't be with her family for Passover but she made sure to be on the phone for the 4 Questions of the Seder, to make sure that the youngest at the table would be reciting them correctly. That generational continuity in the face of death is nothing less than pure inspiration.

Similarly, the immediacy of life's needs and the clear-eyed expressions of love that one sees on cancer floors is also pure inspiration. While it's obvious that time is borrowed for those struggling to maintain their place in this world, time judges all of us with its inexorable truth--"exacting payment with or without our consent."

You can't fight City Hall, they say.
Another metaphor, perhaps. It fits, too.

1 comment:

David said...

Re: "A net is spread for all the living." In context, that seems like a seriously mixed metaphor. I wonder what you make of that.