Black is BeautifulBy Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
The Song of Songs, by Solomon.
The woman says: Kiss me, because your love is sweeter than wine. Your reputation is comparable to fine oil. All the girls want you. Show me some encouragement and I’m all yours! You’re like a king to me; you brought me to your chambers. I will rejoice in your love. I am dark-skinned but beautiful. Don’t look down on me because of my complexion; my brothers were angry with me and they made me work in the fields. I had to tend their vineyards rather than looking after my own. Tell me, my love, where and when you rest your flocks so that I can join you there rather than mourn.
The man replies: You don’t know where to go? Just follow the tracks left by the flocks and you can graze your goats alongside the shepherds’ housing. You are as superior as the horses selected to pull the Pharaoh’s chariots. You are adorned with earrings and necklaces. I will have ornaments of gold and silver made for you.
The woman responds: While you were dining, I anointed myself with fragrant oil. You are like a bundle of myrrh that I place between my breasts. You are like a bunch of henna blossoms from the vineyards in Ein Gedi.
The man says: You are beautiful, with eyes like doves.
The woman concludes: No, YOU’RE the beautiful one! We’re wonderful together – our bed is prolific and our home is built of cedar and cypress.
Some people mistakenly believe that this Song was written by Solomon for the Queen of Sheba, whom they believe to be Ethiopian. To support this hypothesis, they cite verse 5, commonly translated “I am black but comely.” This is clearly not the intent of the text, as the subsequent verses go on to explain that the reason the woman in the Song has been darkened is because her brothers have been making her toil in the vineyards, and that it is a temporary condition.
The Song of Songs to G-d. (In this sense, the word “Shlomo” is not interpreted as the name Solomon, but as “the One to Whom peace belongs.”)
Israel, represented by the woman in the Song, asks G-d to share His wisdom, compared to kisses. His Name is like the finest oil, which is why people have left all the various nations of the world to join Him. He encouraged the Jewish people and they followed Him into the wilderness, where He sheltered them. No matter what, they shall rejoice in the Torah, which He has given them.
Israel may be blackened from their sins, but they are also beautiful from their merits. They ask that G-d not hate them for their sins, since they were compelled by their oppressors to neglect their obligations.
Israel asks G-d, their Shepherd, where He may be found and when He will give rest to Israel, His flock. He replies that if they don’t know where to find Him, they should follow the path blazed by their forefathers. G-d defeated Pharaoh’s mighty army for the sake of His beloved, Israel, whom He adorned with booty from the splitting of the Red Sea.
But even as Israel stood at Sinai, they antagonized G-d by crafting the Golden Calf. This “drove G-d away,” so He responded by having them build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), so that they might keep His Presence among them, between the poles of the Aron (Ark). (This is the metaphor of the myrrh between the breasts.)
G-d forgives the Jewish people for their errors since their good deeds make them beautiful; He compares the righteous of Israel to doves. Israel replies that G-d is the beautiful One, for forgiving us and enabling us to build the Temple, which was lined with cedar and cypress.
The Talmud in Yoma (38a) relates the final verse of this chapter, about the cypress doors, to the famous Nikanor doors of the Temple. A man named Nikanor went to Egypt to pick up the specially-made doors for the Temple’s eastern gate. On his way back, a storm arose and the sailors threw one of the doors into the sea. Nikanor wouldn’t let them touch the other door, saying “You’ll have to throw me in with it!” At this, the sea calmed. When they reached their destination, the first door washed up on the shore. Later, when the doors of the Temple were upgraded to gold, the Nikanor doors were retained because of these miracles.