Shir ha-Shirim X Part Four: Three Lives
He saw three worlds. Rabbi Yudan and Rabbi Chunia explained this differently. Rabbi Yudan said: He was a king, then a subject, then a king again; he was wise, then foolish, then wise again; he was rich, then poor, then rich again.
On what does he base this view? Because Solomon said, “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity (Ecclesiastes 7:15).” A man does not call to mind his sufferings except when he is at ease again.
Rabbi Chunia said: He was first a subject, then a king, then a subject again; first foolish, then wise, then foolish again; first poor, then rich, then poor again. On what does he base his view? Because it says, “I Kohelet have been King over Israel,” as much as to say, “Once upon a time I was, but now I am no longer. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1.1:10)
Are they arguing about fact? Are they debating how Solomon ended his life? Perhaps not; they may not be arguing about the end of his life, but rather, the beginning. One describes Solomon beginning as a king, the other describes him beginning as a subject. One describes his beginning as wise, the other describes his beginning as foolish. One begins with Solomon as being wealthy, the other sees Solomon beginning as poor.
It seems that they believe that the beginning somehow affected his end. This is an especially important question on Pesach: We are instructed to, “Begin with the negative, and end with the positive.” We begin our story with the negative detail of being slaves in Egypt, or even further back in our history, with the story of Abraham’s roots. The beginning, is an important part of the story. How are we to understand the approach of Solomon’s story beginning with the positive, that insists that the beginning shapes the end if our story begins with the negative? How are we to deal with this second approach that the negative beginning contributed to Solomon’s negative end when our story must begin with the negative?
I believe that the solution can be found in the way we approach, “Begin with the negative, conclude with a positive.” We deal with the negative in one or another very quick phrase: “We were slaves in Egypt.” “Originally our forefathers were idol worshipers.” We then immediately switch to the positive: and God took us out.” “God brought us close to His service.” I always wondered what was the point of “opening with the negative,” if we deal with it in such a perfunctory manner. It seems that the emphasis is not on the beginning with the negative, but how quickly the negative can become a positive! We were slaves and God took us out. Our forefathers were idol worshipers but God brought us close to Him.” We are declaring that the negative beginnings did not matter as they did to Solomon.
Pesach is a celebration of change and transformation. It is a reminder that no matter how negative a situation may be we can immediately change it into something positive, and God’s participation in our lives, just as His participation in the life of Abraham, and His participation in the life of Israel in Egypt, can affect immediate and drastic change.
Therefore, even when we review our history and mention how in every generation people stand against Israel to destroy it, we know deep in our hearts that it is not just that God saves us; He transforms the worst situations into tremendous opportunity and new growth.
Why begin a commentary on the Song of Songs with a negative view of Solomon’s three worlds? Because the change from one world to the second and from the second to the third is a change that reflects life as it is; a life of constant change, and yes, down, but Solomon’s song is a celebration of the possibilities offered by that change.
Here we are in exile; we began in exile, we were redeemed, and now we are back in exile. We sing the Song of Songs with the confidence of people who know that we can live our lives with such constant transformations that they become a powerful part of the Song of Creation.