Rabbi Yossi SlotnikThe writer was formerly Rosh Kollel of Torah Mitzion in Capetown and now teaches at the Ma'aleh Gilboa yeshiva.
The maiden in the Song of Songs describes herself "I am blemished but lovely, O maidens of Jerusalem". The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Raba) points out the internal contradiction: "if she is blemished, how is she lovely?" The Midrash offers three approaches to solve this inner tension, and each of these approaches relates a pertinent message of self-awareness. (the bold letters are the translation of the Midrash).
A. My actions are blemished, but lovely are the actions of my forefathers –
This explanation points out the gap between past and present, what is now called "the decline of the generations." Perhaps: "I can be lovely but in practice my actions have not measured up to those of my forefathers so in fact I am blemished!"
B. Another approach – the people of Israel said "I am blemished in my own eyes but lovely in the eyes of my Creator …"
This explanation speaks against low self-esteem - I truly am lovely, but I see only my faults. This approach is very encouraging – we should not always judge ourselves harshly - we have a lot of good, and we should remember that we are lovely in the eyes of the Master of the Universe
C. Another approach- contrasting episodes
I am blemished in Egypt and lovely in Egypt - I am blemished in Egypt (Ezekiel 20:8) "they defied Me and refused to listen to Me", and lovely in Egypt through the blood of Passover and the blood of the Brit …
I am blemished by the sea (Psalms 106) "they defied by the Red Sea", and lovely by the sea (Exodus 15 ) This is my God, I will glorify Him.
I am blemished in Mara (Exodus 15) "the people complained to Moses, saying, What shall we drink", and lovely in Mara (Exodus 15) "and the water became sweet".
I am blemished in Rephidim (Exodus 17) "and he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah", and Lovely in Rephidim (Exodus 17) "and Moses built an altar".
I am blemished standing by Mount Sinai (Psalms 106) "They made a calf", and lovely standing by Mount Sinai (Exodus 24) "All that God says we will do".
I am blemished in the desert (Psalms 78) "How they defied Him in the Desert" and lovely in the desert when I built the Tabernacle
I am blemished with spies… and lovely with Joshua and Caleb…
I am blemished in Shitim… and lovely in Shitim where Pinchas prayed
I am blemished with Achan …. and lovely with Joshua …
I am blemished with the kings of Israel, and lovely with the kings of Judah,
If with my blemished points I am so lovely, how much more so with my prophets?!
The Midrash in the third explanation juxtaposes our worst failures and our best achievements by putting them in the same context. While in Egypt, we both betrayed God and remained loyal to Him; by the sea we defied God and glorified His name; we received the Torah in the same spot where we worshiped the Golden Calf; and so on.
The third approach, which dominates the Midrash (the Midrash brings 10 examples to support this point), points to a different idea. There is no dissonance between blemished and lovely. They come together, appear in the same places, and grow from the same background, yet are complete opposites.
This means that I can take the reality in which I exist and make it both good and bad. In Egypt, I can both defy and heed the word of God. At the Red Sea, I find the strength to both disobey and praise God. I have both evil spies and good spies, I am with both Achan and Joshua.
We often lament our double identity - we are both religious and secular; we are drawn to Judaism and Western culture; we are Jews and Israelis. We have strong feelings of confusion that arise from being pulled in different directions.
The Midrash helps us cope with this contemporary problem by providing ancient wisdom. I especially find the end of the Midrash beautiful: If with my blemished points I am so lovely, how much more so with my prophets?!
How special it is that the Midrash frames "loveliness" in terms of blemishes! Even when we are dirtied by sin, we still have beauty that shines through; we can find a way to bring into our blemished selves the loveliness of beauty, holiness and prayer. I am not torn between darkness and light. It recognizes that even within the darkness there remains an ember of light.
When a prisoner in the Darkness of Egypt or within the sin of Achan, I still have light. Maybe this is what our ancestors meant when they spoke of "the Pintale yid," the little point of light that eternally radiates in every Jew..