Courtesy: Dr. Ismar Schorsch)
In his comment on our parashat, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, a much beloved third-generation Hasidic master who died in 1809, classified worship out of fear as imperfect. The highest form of worship springs from a love that expresses itself not like marital love behind closed doors, but like the love of siblings for one another that exults in public. This is the radical reading that Rabbi Levi imputes to the sensuous verse in The Song of Songs 8:1:
If only it could be as with a brother,
Who had nursed at my mother’s breast:
Then I could kiss you When I meet you on the street
And no one would despise me.
Building on the long-held rabbinic view that The Song of Songs is a dialogue between Israel and God, Rabbi Levi hears in this verse an echo of Israel’s desire to exhibit its love of God publicly. The externality of expression corresponds to feeling God’s presence in the most prosaic of commandments and in the most physical aspects of human life. Nothing is bereft of holiness, but only religious joy can reach it and release it.
Nor is what befalls us, even the most frightening of fates, without divine intention. The joy that flows from love detects the hand of God in everything, turning adversity into opportunity. A spark of light is embedded in every black hole that hurtles our way. This is what Moses implied when he spoke of God in the wilderness as “bringing forth water for you from the flinty rock” (Deuteronomy 8:15). In the final analysis, faith has the capacity to extract good from evil. Despair is a function of disposition.
And this is how Rabbi Levi understood Jacob’s faith. Despite the dangers of his surroundings, he dwelled in tranquility. His love of God actually surpassed that of his father. He was ready to overcome every setback with unshakeable trust in God (Sefer Kedushat Levi, va-yeshev).
By way of a postscript, I might add that the multivalent nature of biblical Hebrew, as you have probably noticed by now, is one of the fertile seedbeds of midrashic exegesis.