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Shir ha-Shirim I: The Freedom of Work

“The song of songs.” This bears out what Scripture said through the teachings of King Solomon, “Do you see a man who is diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings, he shall not stand before dark men (Proverbs 22:29).”


“Do you see a man diligent in his business,” this applies to Joseph, of whom it is written, “He went into the house to do his work (Genesis 39: 11).” Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemiah each has his own explanation of this verse. Rabbi Yehuda says: it was a day of idolatrous sacrifices to the Egyptian god, the Nile. Rabbi Nechemiah says: it was a day of theatrical performances to honor the Nile.

All of the people of Egypt went to participate, but Joseph went into his work, to calculate the accounts of his master.

Rabbi Pinchus says in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Abba: a slave who serves his master as he should, eventually obtains his freedom. From where do we learn this? From Joseph; because he served his master properly, he obtained his freedom. Therefore, “he shall stand before kings,” the King being Pharaoh, as the verse says, “then Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph, and they brought him quickly from the dungeon (to see 41:14).”

“He shall not stand before dark men,” the “darkened man” is Potiphar, whose eyes God darkened by making him a eunuch. (Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 1:1)

Shir ha-Shirim is the song of Pesach, the song of newly freed slaves. They joyfully saying over their freedom, however their song was only the first of many songs to come. Shir ha-Shirim is a textbook that teaches us all how to use Torah and our service of God to become true singers; those whose very life is a song to and of God.

Therefore, the midrash begins by celebrating how work, in our context, service of God, can lead to increasing levels of freedom. It begins by describing Joseph, a slave in the house of Potiphar, going to work while everyone else is going either to worship idols, or to participate in theatrical performances. Poor guy, who has to work while everyone else parties. However, the midrash reminds us, that one who works as he should, will eventually attain great freedom.

Freedom was not to be found in the theatrical performances, it was to be found in working as he should.

Therefore, begins the midrash, yes, those who want to sing you will have to work, but they will find their freedom in their work.

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