The love the Holy One has for us is amazing. As the wisdom poet says, “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Songs 1:1).
The sages of Israel and also the classic devotional writers of Christianity interpreted this love poem as a song about God and his people. The sages of Israel say in Song of Songs Rabbah that “may he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” refers to Israel’s response to God’s first love. It is not unlike the saying of Yochanan (John) who said, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” and also “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 3:1; 4:19).
The sages discussed the meaning of “may he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” They playfully thought of a variety of contexts where variously Israel or the angels who witnessed Mount Sinai may have uttered this saying.
R. Chinnena thought it was uttered by the Red Sea, following the parting of the sea and the people in their joy responded, “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” meaning: “Let the Holy Spirit rest upon us and we will sing before him many songs.”
R. Gamaliel thought the ministering angels at Sinai were jealous of Israel who meant by it: “May he impart to us [the angels] of the kisses which he gave to his sons” [i.e., Israel].
R. Meir thought it was uttered in the inauguration ceremony of the Tabernacle, meaning: “May he send fire down upon us and receive our offerings.”
In all these interpretations the issue of God’s great love, his love which precedes the love of Israel, his love which precedes the love of the nations. God rescued and revealed and the people responded to this great love with rejoicing and a desire to approach more closely, to experience more. The angels were jealous. Such is God’s eternal love and what it means to those who receive it.
This is the love that God showed to Israel at Mount Sinai:
‘…if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.
God calls his people a treasured possession. He loves Israel with eternal love. He considers Israel precious. And those of the nations who enter in by the blessing of Abraham find that they too are precious in his sight. For God loves all those he has made as his children, those who are his image in the world:
‘I am the rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley,’ [said Israel].
[And God replied]; ‘Like a lily among thorns, so is my darling among the nations.’
-Song of Songs 2:1-2.
The sages said that Israel was a people hidden in the wickedness of the ruling powers of this world: the forces of governmental oppression, of death and sickness, ultimately of the demonic powers that control this present age, but who will be defeated by the Holy One. But God saw his flower among the thorns and he saved the world. God regarded his lily of the valley and rescued with his mighty hand.
‘He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.’
-Song of Songs 2:4
The sages interpret this simply:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, brought me to a great cellar of wine, namely Sinai. There he gave me the banners of Torah and precepts and good deeds, and in great love I accepted them.
How active is God in his love? It seems to us many times that he is inactive, hidden. But we read in Song of Songs:
The voice of my beloved! Behold he comes, leaping over mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Behold he stands there behind our wall, gazing through our windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away.’
-Song of Songs 2:8-10.
Rabbi Isaac said: The Congregation of Israel said before the Holy One, Blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe, you say to us, my love, my love! You give us the love greeting first!’ MY BELOVED IS LIKE A GAZELLE. Just as a gazelle leaps from mountain to mountain and from valley to valley, from tree to tree and from thicket to thicket and from fence to fence, so the Holy One, Blessed be He, leapt from Egypt to the Red Sea, and from the Red Sea to Sinai, and from Sinai he leaps to the future redemption.
And so we see repeatedly how Song of Songs can be read as a poem about God’s love for us and our love for him.
And we learn something worth exploring more, worth remembering and applying to our lives this Yom Kippur. God has loved us first. God’s love is eternal. God’s love forgives wrongs. God’s love heals. God’s love rescues. God’s love is active. He leaps from redemption to redemption. And though the mountains of history seem far apart to us, God, like a gazelle has been leaping through history and will leap toward the World to Come and say to us, “Come away, my love!”
In Exodus 34:14, God says to us: “For you must not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Does God care about whether we love him? He says he does. He says he is jealous for our love.
In Jeremiah 31:3, God says to us, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” And this everlasting love of God is not limited to times we are lovable or when we are particularly good. He said this to his children, Israel, at a time when he was most angry with them. “How you love to wander,” God accused (Jer 14:10), “How well you direct your course to seek lovers!” (Jer 2:33). And yet God says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”
“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life,” says Hashem (Isa 43:4).
“The Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep,” he promises (Deut 7:12).
And so we who need to know there is love in this puzzling universe, who wonder if the vastness of space is cold or warm, we ask of God: “Show us your unfailing love, O Lord” (Psa 85:7) and “Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge from their enemies” (Psa 17:7).
Why am I reminding us of God’s great love for us at Yom Kippur? Isn’t this a day to think about our sins, about our failings? Is a day like Yom Kippur fitting to remember God’s unfailing love from eternity past to eternity future?
It certainly is a day to remember that. On this day God bared his right arm for us. On this day God revealed to use the extent of his forgiving love. On this day God brought us to the mystery of the Most Holy Place, closed to us and veiled, but not forever. God invited us to think about his hidden glory and to know that he would invite us to dwell with him and know him in the World to Come.
We love him because he first loved us. We repent because we see that there is a love worth repenting for. We attain to higher love and goodness because we are enraptured by a vision of Eternal Love.
At CREATION he formed us from the dust of the earth. He made the world and he made us, not because he needed a world, but because he wanted a world to love and a people to love and be loved by in return.
In ABRAHAM he implanted his covenant into history. He chose Abraham, a man of faith, because God loves faith. He even tested Abraham’s faith on Mount Moriah because God is jealous and desires to be loved by his sons and daughters. He set the pattern in history then, to love and choose one people so that through his relationship with them, all his sons and daughters in creation would enter into love.
At SINAI he drew his treasured people close and revealed to us a way of life. He promised to be with us forever and to make us the people we were created to be.
And when the time was right, according to the prophets and the Torah, he brought us MESSIAH. And Messiah was not a king who ruled to seek his own glory. He was a friend of sinners, a man who inspired love in those who at first loved only themselves. And in Messiah, God bared his right arm.
While we were still helpless, Messiah died for the ungodly, says Paul (Rom 5:6).
Messiah prayed for us:
The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:22-24).
Therefore, this is the message we need to hear at Yom Kippur. This is what God has said and is saying to us:
You are my treasured possession. I saw you as a lily among thorns. I reached down with my hand and saved you. You waited outside my sanctuary, separated from the holiness. But I sent in a substitute, the blood of an offering. I loved you first and you discovered what love is. I rescued you in your troubled and hopeless state. I made you in the primordial beginnings in order to love you into the eternal ages. I leapt from Eden to Ur of the Chaldees to Egypt to Sinai to Jerusalem to Samaria and to the Ends of the Earth like a gazelle to chase you and show you my love.
I loved you first and you have loved me in return. You are altogether beautiful. Love is stronger than death.
Weep and wail and moan, my sinful child, and let me burn the dross away. Approach the Most Holy Place with confidence that I will receive you through my atonement. On this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before me.