The structure of the ark that holds the most central teachings of Judaism, the tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, represents much more than Jewish law. It was built with cherubim, one on either side, a male and female, pointing to the significance of the love between man and woman as well as man and Hashem.
So what are the life conditions that move us toward seeking love with Hashem and with one another in marriage? Strange as it might seem, it is our own insecurity, the unpredictability of our lives, that motivates us to reach out. Once we begin to reach out, we discover that Hashem not only wants us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but he also wants us to be in a loving, exclusive and intimate relationship with another human being. Once we’ve made the commitment to marriage, are faced with new challenges: creating ways to work with the difficulties that always arise in our relationships; learning how to face them; and committing to work through and resolve them. The first factor in seeking out others is to recognize our own insecurity.
Rational people love to make sure that we have good, secure and predictable lives. We want to have good pensions, to eliminate surprises, and especially avoid downside risks. The problem with our instinct to seek and attain security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. Death comes to us all: we cannot avoid it. More than this, the purpose of life is not merely to live, but to make our lives meaningful, to improve ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. So we must grow, or we have wasted the only opportunity we have to really live.
Our language is full of similar truisms: “Needs, must”; “Necessity is the mother of invention”; “No pain, no gain.” These are all fine in a vacuum, but they miss a key element: it is through relationships that we grow. The best teachers are not institutions, but people; people never remember the amazing school system, but they cherish the amazing teacher. The best marriages involve two different people who never stop investing in each other. And the best religions are those that require us to think about what Hashem wants from us, how we can grow and change to be better partners with the Creator in this all-important journey.
Relationships, however, are hard. They require soul searching, being subjected to criticisms that cut deep, being willing to consider and even embrace profoundly challenging changes. Relationships are so intimidating that many people give up on even trying to have deep relationships with other people, choosing to commit to their cats or dogs or even their cars or interior décor instead.
And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow. The illusion of self-sufficiency (and security) is a major impediment to personal growth. We only reach out to others when we are not self-sufficient, when we are scared enough by the alternative that we have no choice but to hold hands, and walk off that cliff. Without insecurity, we do not take the risks needed to initiate, sustain and grow relationships.
Our desire for permanence in a constantly-shifting world is understandable, but it is anathema for personal development. Ultimately, the world is not improved through huge buildings, or great institutions or enormous bureaucracies. Those things can all be useful implements for sustaining a way of life, but they are often impediments for personal or public growth. Static civilizations are dying civilizations, though that decline and death can happen so slowly that we miss it unless we look for large historical arcs—the decline of Greek intellectual civilization, or the extended quagmire of the Roman Empire. In the more modern world, we can see how government bureaucracies today, from public schools to the EPA, go from dynamic and proactive collections of earnest well-meaning people, to hide-bound institutions that only exist for the purpose of perpetuating themselves.
In the Torah the Jewish people complain that Moshe, “that man,” went up on the mountain, and they cannot handle the insecurity of not knowing what happened, or how to secure their future. They crave a permanent physical manifestation, something beautiful and great, something that, unlike leaders, is not capable of wandering off and disappearing from their lives. They want a leader who cannot die.
And so they make the golden calf and worship it. And they are so very happy with their creation that they celebrate the calf. They are comforted by this manifestation of Hashem. A golden calf, like nature, is much easier to understand than a deity, Hashem, who has no physical manifestation. In the calf, the people have found their permanence.
What they did not know is that Moshe, at the same time, was receiving precisely what the people said they wanted – the permanent tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed by Hashem Himself. It was the ultimate symbol of an unchanging compact, a divine and eternal gift that would change the relationship between Hashem and man for all time.
What happens? When Moshe sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets. He eliminates the very idea of a static relationship, of a symbol that can pass from generation to generation venerated by each in turn. Moshe makes it clear that the only way for Jews to exist in this world is if we stop trying to create a false sense of security, but instead embrace lives of insecurity, of uncertainty. Lives in which we are incentivized to grow and improve and make something of ourselves. So Moshe breaks the tablets and in so doing, incinerates the Jewish security blanket.
When people try to eliminate insecurity from their lives, my Rabbi says that they are trying to take Hashem out of their lives. A person who has everything, needs nothing. And if we do not need anything, then we do not reach outside ourselves to build relationships with others. Those relationships might be with other people, or they might be with Hashem—but they are risky either way.
Yet the Torah is full of commandments and reminders of the importance of insecurity: we are forbidden from the “safe” way to make money, by charging interest. Loving others, and especially strangers, are commandments to force us to stay outside of our comfort zone. The commandment to live in Israel is itself to force us to “look up” for our sustenance, as Israel lacks the dependable “clockwork” agriculture of Egypt. So personal and national growth are baked into the cake, and irrevocably tied to perpetuating insecurity.
Yet we learn of the servant who chooses safety with his master after the requisite number of years, instead of going out into the world for himself, chooses to have an awl driven through his ear: he no longer is open to listening to Hashem’s voice. The servant has chosen to listen only to his master. Freedom means uncertainty, risk, and responsibility for our own decisions. Most people don’t want that responsibility.
But Hashem wants us to want Him! One intriguing feature of the Torah it that it isn’t really telling us to merely trust in Hashem – that would be too easy, too pat. That way leads to fatalism, to believing that Hashem arranges all things, so all we have to do is be good little servants, and everything will work out for us in the end. This is clearly a feature of many religions: it is not Torah Judaism.
Instead, we are told to seek to be close to Hashem, in a myriad of ways. After the splitting of the Red Sea, the people sing a collective verse in the first person: “This is my Hashem and v’anveyhoo”—that last word is really two words: “Me and You.” “This is my Hashem,” and “Me and You!”
That “Me and You” is a statement of yearning, a desire to be close, in any way we can. And because it is put in the first person, we understand that each and every person has the opportunity for a personal and unique relationship. None of us are supposed to do things exactly like other people do them – otherwise, what am I here for?!
So Hashem has given us a world in which we are full of reminders that we need relationships. We need them when we are young and less capable. We need them when we are grown, and we rely on society to help meet our needs. We need other people when we are old and no longer able to do what we used to do. Death is itself the greatest reminder: our lives are finite. What will we achieve before the end? Any achievement worth its salt comes about as the byproduct (if not the primary product) of relationships: business, families, service to others.
Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson, and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The Mishkan (Tabernacle) became the temple, and then Jews started building it bigger and bigger – even though the core components and features were the same ones that could be carried by hand and traveled through the wilderness. Did the Beis Hamikdosh (Temple) really need to be grand, or was it just a concession to misplaced human priorities? I suggest that making the Temple enormous and impressive was actually similar to the sin of the golden calf, and for the same reasons.
On the other hand, the Torah itself, as well as the corpus of Jewish Law, the Talmud and the commentaries over the millennia, are testaments to insecurity. Judaism is not a “paint by numbers” religion; it requires investment and involvement by each generation, parsing and arguing at every step of the way. If we are insecure enough so that we are forced to invest deeply in relationships with other people and with Hashem, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.
There is another vessel in the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh that renewed the connection between these two marriages, with Hashem and our spouse, each and every day. The kiyor or laver, was made “of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women [who bore those] who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.”
The clear meaning of the verse is that the laver was made from mirrors used by women in Egypt to incite desire, lust, in their husbands. How on earth can such an object be present in the Mishkan, let alone be a critical feature? The question is an obvious one, especially for those who tend to consider love and lust to be embarrassing. Indeed, our sages tell us that Moshe had a hard time understanding this instruction.
Imagine the laver in use. The Cohen (priest) must wash his hands and feet in it before he approaches further to serve Hashem. As he is washing himself, he sees his reflections in the highly polished metal, the very same bronze that Jewish women had used to make themselves attractive to their husbands, to strengthen and grow their relationship. And then, having prepared by washing his hands and feet, the Cohen goes into the Beis Hamikdosh and does the very same thing—to strengthen and grow the relationship between mankind and Hashem. The priest is making himself desirable to Hashem, just as his mother did for her husband!
And the commandment concerning the laver tells us that marital love comes first, as a prerequisite to heavenly love. The laver is the preparatory step for service to Hashem, and it is the only vessel in the Beis Hamikdosh that has its own base, that can stand by itself. Marital love inspires and reinforces our service to Hashem. Love between man and woman not only allows for the creation and nurturing of children, but it is the essential building block of society. Marital love is holy DO WE NEED TO SAY WHY?. Combination of physical and spiritual, doing something at the edge of human physical experience that can (and should) also be at the edge of spiritual experience. Fulfillment of commandments to cleave to spouse, to procreate. Also growth between very different people, stretching to make that connection possible is analogous to our relationship to HKBH. [steal from Torah Manifesto book]
The Torah describes the process of rapprochement between Hashem and the Jewish people in a dance of oscillating words: the people do X, and Hashem does Y. Then the people respond with Q, and Hashem moves onto P, and so on. There is fluid movement on both sides, changes in posture and attitude and desires, sometimes flexing in toward each other, sometimes bending away or even—when things go very wrong—one of the dancers abruptly breaking it off and leaving the dance floor.
It is this sort of language that helps us understand that Hashem is not some kind of great static thing: a strong but silent gravitational force or a distant and proud king. On the contrary, the Torah’s words show us that Hashem is a full participant in this dance, able to be distant or near, equally capable of being inflamed with anger or with love.
The dance of the Jewish people with Hashem is, and always was supposed to be, a dance of desire and a dance of love. Our relationship is meant to contain every element found in a good marriage: love and respect and trust and desire. And like any good marriage, there are good times and bad, times of head-spinning romantic flight, and times of hard, but cooperative effort: and then there are times when it is sufficient and beautiful to merely sit together, to enjoy being close to each other after a hard day, or year, or life.
Most civilizations and cultures take their cue from the natural world, and conclude that the world is, and is supposed to be, inherently circular. The world, and the seasons, and so much of what we can see is cyclical in nature, and so it is easy to assume that this is in fact not only the way things are, but the way things should be.
Judaism has a different worldview. On a national as well as the most deeply personal levels, we Jews are on a journey, a historical quest of development and growth. So while the wheels of our wagon, seen in isolation, look like circles spinning in one spot, we are well aware that every time a certain point on that wheel touches the ground, it should touch down in a different and new place. Jewish history is not of a wheel spinning in space, but of a wheel traveling down a road. Every year we have the same Torah readings and the same festivals and the same commandments – but we accomplish and experience those things within the context of our growth, and within the new developments within our relationships with each other and with Hashem.
It has often been said that the opposite of love is not hate: the opposite of love is indifference. At least with hatred, a person still cares. With the emotion of love or hate comes the ability to think of others, to take an active interest in what happens to someone else. When we can think only of ourselves, we can never love or serve Hashem, the author of the guidebook text in which the verse at the very middle is, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is through loving others that we become capable of loving Hashem. One is the gateway to the other.
The Mating Call
Insecurity is the primary mover to our pursuing a marriage with Hashem and another human being, but loneliness can also be a powerful motivation.
In the last exchange in the Torah between Hashem and Avraham, Hashem instructs Avraham to offer Yitzhak as a sacrifice. This time, Avraham seems to understand. He does not argue or negotiate. He wakes up early in the morning, and goes off with Yitzhak. The Binding of Yitzhak culminates with Hashem being pleased that Avraham was willing to offer “thy son, thine only son, from me.” The love is not gone, but it is reprioritized. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
After the would-be sacrifice (the Akeidah), the Torah tells us that Avraham left to go to Beer-Sheba, and he stayed there. But Yitzhak is not mentioned. The Torah does not tell us where Yitzhak was – and it does not say even that Avraham and Yitzhak ever even lived together again. Which is, in its way, quite understandable: how could either the father or the son reconcile what had happened on the mountain and return to normal everyday life? Indeed, since Sarah died at the same time as the Akeidah, Yitzhak no longer had the same home to go back to (and any mere mortal would even have blamed his father for Sarah’s passing).
Yitzhak was alone. He had separated from his father; he was not yet married. If he was a normal person, he was also deeply traumatized by the Akeidah. I have heard countless stories of people finding faith when they were down and out, in places dark and lonely. And it THE TORAH tells us what to do in that situation: seek to connect. Pray. And look for love.
And so Yitzhak went to find Hashem, to go to the place where Hashem was known to talk to people, and give them guidance and hope. He went to Beer-lahai-roi. He went to the place that was named because Hashem sees people there, and, based on Hagar’s experience, Hashem connects to people there.
And it worked for him. One afternoon Yitzhak was praying in the field near Beer-lahai-roi, and his prayers were answered: his future wife, Rivkah, came to him, creating a new home within his deceased mother’s tent. Yitzhak loved her; she was his consolation for the death of his mother. And she was his “hardwired” connection to Hashem (for Jews, marriage is a prerequisite for a full relationship with the divine). [probably delete all the green]
Marriage exists for its own sake. If a marriage is blessed with children, it is a wonderful thing – but the marriage is supposed to be built first and foremost. And when we don’t prioritize our lives accordingly, then we, both as a nation and as individuals, end up paying the price.
Hashem is making it clear: the relationships within our generation are more important than even our connections to our children. Our marriage to our spouses and Hashem trumps everything else, because marriage is the pinnacle of fulfillment.
Judaism is not a transcendental faith: we believe in anchoring ourselves in the physical world through relationships, and then seeking to personally grow and also elevate the world around us. To this end, every physical act that mankind can engage in is something that we ennoble with blessings or prayers or rituals, infusing spirituality into even the most mundane acts. Everything we can do with our bodies can be done in a holy manner, in a way that makes the world a better place. Marital intimacy is the foremost example of how an animalistic act can (and should) be infused with spirituality and create holiness.
Animals call out to each other when they wish to mate. It is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) step in the propagation of their species. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews take this animalistic instinct, and we elevate it when we blow the shofar. Rosh Hashanah is called, “yom teruah” in the Torah, “a day of calling/blasting.” The sound of the shofar is the mating call of the Jewish people: Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the dance. Our spiritual analog to a mating call, blowing the shofar broadcasts our intense and profound desire to connect with Hashem, to renew and deepen the love between us.
This is our Zikaron Teruah, remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to Hashem, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Yitzhak. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to Hashem, to both renew and grow our marriage to Hashem.
This kind of mating call can be risky, of course. Every relationship is dangerous – even showing our interest in someone else exposes us, cracks the armor that protects us against the slings and arrows that cause so much pain. It is hard to do this, especially if we have been burned before.
And even with desire, of course, we do not have enough to sustain a proper marriage. Marriage to Hashem takes every bit as much of an investment as a marriage between man and woman. There is desire, but there is also risk, and commitment, and the profound difficulties of self-examination and personal growth in order to become the kind of person whom your intended can love and respect in return. Relationships take enormous effort; like Yaakov’s ladder if one stops climbing, then one is necessarily descending. As a result, each person needs to ask himself or herself: do I really have what it takes to make this work?
The journey down the road can begin at any moment. On Rosh Hashanah, we have a designated opportunity: the shofar blast is coming, and the dance is about to begin. Our partner is waiting, yearning to hear the teruah, the Jewish people re-initiating the dance. As the Torah makes clear, Hashem wants to dance. But before He can, He needs us to take the first step, to call out with the zikharon teruah, to simultaneously recall our shared mutual history, and to express our desire to begin the whirlwind love affair all over again.
Engaging in the Dance of Marriage
Once we have decided that we wish to actively pursue a loving relationship with our partner and with Hashem, that we are ready to be married to both, there are certain realities that will determine the nature of our relationship.
The opposition between man and Hashem has always been framed as a kind of marriage, a national marriage to Hashem. Marriages come in different varieties, exemplified by the examples the Torah gives us of our forefathers. We know that Avraham and Sarah had a partnership in which Sarah was not afraid to confront her husband when she thought he was making a mistake.
We know that Rivkah’s marriage to Yitzhak was not equal: from the first time that she falls off her camel, we see that she is unwilling to confront her husband. The Torah never even has Rivkah speaking to her husband directly until she fears that Yaakov’s life is in danger.
The marriages in Genesis are a “sneak peek” of the relationships between man and Hashem in Exodus and beyond.
Hashem first tells Moshe, in their first conversation at the burning bush, that–
When you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters.
And then, after all but the last plague:
Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.
And then what happens? The people do as they are told….
And they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments.
And here is an obvious question: why does it really matter that the Jews got gold and silver from the Egyptians? Are these material possessions really important, and if so, why? And what do garments have to do with anything?
The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold, and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out “Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rivkah.”
The gift matters! When Hashem tells the Jewish people to enrich themselves with silver, gold, and garments, He is recreating for them the engagement of Yitzhak and Rivkah! In that final act before leaving their home in Egypt to travel and “meet” Hashem at Sinai, the Jewish people would be receiving the same engagement present that their foremother, Rivkah, had received before she left her home to travel to marry Yitzhak.
So far, so good. But then what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, Aharon tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf. Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that Hashem had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place! This was the very same gold taken from the Egyptians. “And Aharon said unto them: “Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.”
But Aharon does not merely tell the Jews to bring their gold. Instead, he uses a much stronger word:
And Aharon said unto them: “Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.”
What has happened here? When the Jews sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking them off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from molten metal. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities who are so close that it is impossible to tell where one person ends and the other begins.
How do we know the word can mean the end of a relationship? The very first time the word parak (break) is used is when Yitzhak tries to comfort a crying Esav, after Yaakov stole his blessing. Yitzhak says:
And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.
No more would things continue as they had: the destruction of an engagement ring between a man and a woman is an act that, even if they patch things up, will always be remembered as something that cannot be undone. Breaking a ring is how one symbolizes the destruction of a relationship – whether between Hashem and man, man and wife, or (as in the Torah precedent of Yaakov’s yoke) between brothers. Perhaps when Aharon used such a strong word, he may have been trying to signal that breaking off the engagement gold would be tantamount to ending the betrothal between Hashem and the Jewish people.
And so it proved. When Yitzhak was betrothed to Rivkah, their relationship continued for the rest of their lives. But both with Esav and the golden calf, once the engagement ring was broken, the relationships were never the same.
And in any case, none of these relationships was “equal.” Yitzhak was wise and enigmatic. Rivkah was a junior partner, cowed by Yitzhak’s evident holiness—so cowed, indeed, that when she seeks insight about the babies in her womb, she asks someone besides her husband for divine insight.
This makes sense. The marriage is unequal – as, one imagines, our marriage to Hashem must be. Rivkah was clearly subservient to her husband. And why not? Our sages tell us that Yitzhak embodied din, strict judgment. This is the model of our first marriage to Hashem, the first covenant at Sinai. We know that it is a marriage of strict judgment, of zero tolerance for sin. We were expected, initially, to become like Rivkah in her marriage to Yitzhak.
But we, as a nation, rebel. We do not trust that Hashem and Moshe know best, and in our fear, decide to take the initiative ourselves. And so we insist on the making of the golden calf, and in so doing, we break apart the engagement rings. This is a most un-Rivkah-like thing to do. And so Moshe and Hashem tear up the first contract. The marriage of din is over. It is replaced by the covenant of rachamim, of mercy.
With the second set of tablets, Hashem gives us the Attributes of Mercy, or Shelosh-‘Esreh Middos
And Hashem said to Moshe: “Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.” … And Hashem passed by before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, The Lord Hashem, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
And, like Sarah, we as a nation continue to question and challenge Hashem. Just as with the golden calf, we doubt that our leaders and Hashem Himself really knows what is best for us. As a nation and as individuals, we challenge Hashem at every turn. This has been the nature of our marriage for thousands of years.
Making the Marriage Work
At first glance, we might think that the balance in a marriage really is to be found in some golden mean between selfishness and selflessness that allows for a proper relationship between man and Hashem and man and woman. A marriage is in trouble, however, when either spouse decides that he or she either does all the heavy lifting or none of it. When a married man or woman thinks that he or she is without an actual partner, then the relationship is doomed. So, too, in our relationship with Hashem.
So Shavu’os is the first festival that falls by the wayside when Jews wander from following the Torah. Most Jews are not interested in Shavu’os, because they would rather that the Torah itself did not actually exist. What they fail to realize is that if Shavu’os is cast aside, then the rest of our heritage, sooner or later, will follow. When a married couple starts to disregard the heartfelt gifts of the other person, the marriage is in profound trouble. That is the state of the “national” Jewish marriage with Hashem.
Of course, our relationship with Hashem is not only national: it is also personal. And each marriage is, within the relationship, meant to be unique. Though the Torah lays down laws that, while always open to refinement and deeper understanding, are nonetheless ultimately unyielding: all of these laws are classified as an asei or a lo t’aaseh – “do this” or “don’t do that.” Others have pointed out that at Mount Sinai, Hashem did not give us the Ten Suggestions. But the Torah itself tells us otherwise – there are some commandments that depend on the individual’s preferences: When Hashem commands us to build the Mishkan, Hashem says to Moshe,
Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart, you shall take my offering.
And when we start talking about fuzzy things like relationships, the normal language of “do this” and “don’t do that” continue to govern most elements – but not all. We have plenty of rules within marriage, just as we have rules in our marriage with Hashem. But there is a key part of this relationship that is most definitely incompatible with strict legalities: the ability to open our heart to the other person.
And so Judaism tells us how to be married to our spouse, just as it tells us how to relate to Hashem in the Beis Hamikdosh. But it draws the line when it comes to telling us how much we have to emotionally commit to the relationship – how much we share our heart. We don’t criticize people who hold back their inner emotions in a marriage – that is what works for them. And Torah Jews don’t criticize people who go the other way, who dote on their spouses completely – that too is an option.
When the Torah tells us that the level of our contribution to building a home for Hashem in our hearts is up to us, we should learn that this is true when we build a home with our husband or wife as well. We are commanded to have a relationship – but we must freely make that decision, to make that choice. And even when we choose to connect, the emotional depth of that relationship is entirely up to us. When we build a home for Hashem or for ourselves, the relationship comes from whatever we freely give from our hearts. And so too, the contributions of intimate body jewelry from the married couples were freely given: the material investment in the Mishkan was given from the heart, and mirrors the material and spiritual investments that a married man and a woman make one to the other.
But the contribution of gold was not an imposed tax, nor did it come from any kind of national treasury. Instead, the people came: “vayavo ha-anashim al hanashim” which Rashi understands as “im hanashim” – when volunteering gold jewelry for the building of the Mishkan, men and women came with each other, as Simcha Baer says: as couples. The holiness of building the Mishkan was provided by married couples, volunteering their personal, even intimate jewelry of bracelets, nose-rings, rings, and body ornaments. These couples, by sharing their gold, were in effect sharing their personal connections to the Shechinah, to the holiness they nurture in their personal relationships with each other. Hashem’s home is built by the contribution from married Jewish couples. The link between the marriage of man and woman and between Hashem and mankind was explicit.
And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.
For example, when we look at the marriage between Yaakov and Rachel, the Torah does not tell us that the relationship is, in any way, an equal one. At first glance, this might seem strange: after all Yaakov is often associated with love—he loves both Rachel and Leah (albeit the former more than the latter). He loves his son Yosef, and Benyamin.
But when we think about it, it becomes clearer. Yaakov falls in love with Rachel at first sight. She does nothing to earn it: she just has to be there, as the passive recipient.
After falling in love, Yaakov works for his wives—seven years for Leah, and seven more for Rachel. He invests many years of his life at back-breaking labor to gain their hands in marriage. Why does he have to work seven for both of them?
I would suggest that the Torah gives us a hint – that when it says that the seven years “seemed unto him but single days”, and then again, “Yaakov said unto Lavan: ‘Give me my wife, for my days are filled’” – that we are being told that it is not the years that matter, but the number “seven” itself. The years might as well be days, and that is how Yaakov feels them.
Hashem made the world in seven days. The Torah is telling us that a marriage, each marriage, is analogous to building the whole world. When a man marries a woman, they create their own world together, and then, just as with Adam and Eve, life begins anew, and together.
There is a very important corollary to this nugget. The two marriages are very different, and they yield different fruit. Leah bears six children directly (and more through her handmaid). She is also buried in the cave of Machpelah, in the ancestral family burial grounds.
But the marriage with Rachel is much less productive. Rachel has fewer sons, and is not buried at Machpelah, but is instead buried in a place along the side of the road, a spot that is not even marked.
The amazing thing is that Leah loves Yaakov profoundly and deeply, while the Torah never tells us that Rachel loved her husband at all!
The Torah is teaching us a lesson about marriage, work, and all of life. Our investments and their returns are connected. Things that are hard to achieve are worth far more than the things that come easily (compare the spending habits of a man who earned his bread versus one who wins it).
Yaakov’s investment for Rachel is easy—every year is like a day to him. He does not have to invest; it is painless. But the years Yaakov works for Leah are not called “like days.” They are full, hard years of labor.
And what is the return on his investment? With Leah, Yaakov enjoyed a richer and fuller marriage, and eternity spent together in Machpelah after their lives had passed.
The marriage with Rachel is also commensurate with Yaakov’s investment: she is not similarly blessed with children nor even with a notable love for her husband.
The lesson is simple enough: the harder path may well be more fruitful. Our rewards, especially in relationships, are commensurate with the effort and energy that we pour into those relationships. Indeed, building a marriage is the way in which each of us creates the entire world.
In order to have a complete relationship with Hashem, one must first have a complete marriage with one’s spouse. Rachel’s marriage was incomplete in that she did not love Yaakov, and so her relationship to Hashem was also incomplete.
At the end of Rachel’s life, the loops all close. Her dying breath is to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, but Yaakov gives him the name Benyamin. This is the first child that Yaakov names, and he seems to do so as a way of separating from Rachel.
And then she is buried. But instead of being laid to rest at Machpelah, the burial place of all those who built the bridge between the worlds that enabled the Beis Hamikdosh, she is buried at the side of the road. Because she did not invest in her marriage (naming a son “the son of my sorrow” may have been about regrets), she did not build a house. Rachel did not love her husband, she wrestled with her sister, she retained a connection to her father’s idols, and even when she was blessed with children, Rachel connected it to herself, and not to her marriage. It was a life that ended in bitterness, perhaps all because Yaakov loved Rachel unconditionally, without any investment required on her part. In some sense, Yaakov’s abundant love may have enabled Rachel to not invest in the relationship!
Unlike Rachel, we must always be cognizant of the decisions we are making, and the fact that those decisions matter. There are no “happily ever after” stories in real relationships, whether with a spouse or with Hashem. Most people don’t realize this. Most of us think that we are somehow the exception: how come our marriage is not a fairy tale? Why does our relationship with Hashem not include the part where He showers us with infinite blessings? And why not? Is there something wrong with us?
But upon reflection, the surprising thing is not that we don’t have fairy tale relationships. It is that we are ever naïve enough to think that anyone does! In real relationships, the dynamic is always shifting, with opportunities for errors and corrections at every turn. But as long as there is a desire to be together – we can call it “love” – the relationship can grow and adapt, creating something extraordinarily beautiful.
The linchpin, of course, is love. And love is not something we can take for granted – after all, there is no shortage of people who claim they have never really experienced it! Love is rare enough, and often fleeting. And yet, we have an almost irrational desire to experience a vibrant love, to experience ongoing attraction and romance. How else can we explain why couples who have been married for decades still exchange gifts, have romantic dinners, and never want to be taken for granted by their opposite half?
We don’t want our spouses to stay with us because of simple inertia – we want them to want to spend time with us. How many times have we delighted in hearing people saying: “I would do it all over again”? We want to love, and be loved in return for who we are, and not because of some irrevocable decision that forced the other person’s hand.
In sum, it is all about choice. Not only do we want our spouse to have chosen to love us when they married us, but we also want them, even if we had somehow just met again for the first time, to still be crazy about us. Relationships are not just about the choice to get married in the first place; they are, just as much if not more, all about the ongoing choice to grow the relationship long after the wedding album has faded.
Building the Ongoing Relationship
Any relationship in which one party somehow compels the other to stay married is in some way crippled. Sure, two people may be technically married for some external reason (money, children, inertia, or fear), but those are not the kinds of marriages that anyone covets. The best marriages are those in which the man and woman happily married each other, and continue to choose that relationship.
But even once we commit to this relationship, there is no happily ever after. The decision to be married to Hashem does not end with the bar mitzvah ceremony. On the contrary! He wants us to choose to love Him every conscious moment of our lives. He desires a relationship that is as close and as intimate as we can handle. It is like a brand new and all-consuming infatuation: Hashem wants to be involved in every facet of our daily lives.
But there is a catch: Just as in human relationships, Hashem does not want us locked into the relationship, because if we are not free to walk away, are we really choosing to stay?
And here we find the prohibition in Judaism against making irrevocable decisions. We are forbidden, for example, to cut our flesh as idol worshippers do. A permanent mark on our bodies is the kind of thing that is difficult – if not impossible – to live down and reverse. And love must come with the freedom to walk away, or it is not the kind of love that Hashem cherishes.
Hashem wants us to be free, so that, on an ongoing basis, we can choose to have and develop a relationship with Him. That freedom means that we can – and many do – decide to exercise our freedom and walk away from Hashem. That is a price Hashem is willing to pay, because He would rather that everyone who serves Him does so willingly, rather than do so because they feel they have no choice.
Our value to Hashem lies in the choices we freely make – not just once or twice, like at a pivotal coming-of-age ceremony, but every waking moment. There are no “happily ever after” marriages, because if both parties remain free to choose, then the relationship is always a challenge. Do we choose to serve Hashem, to grow our relationship? Or do we walk away?
Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. Hashem is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, it has been necessary to discover Hashem in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with Hashem, with each other, and with ourselves – because, to a conscious mind, these are all facets of precisely the same thing!
But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.
But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage the moment the ring is on her finger. His success is a process, flowing through many years, as he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not constantly engaged with each other and continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.
And so Hashem requires us to go through the motions – not, in the case of sacrifices, for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. Thus, visiting the sick, providing hospitality, and feeding the poor, all of which are commandments that connect us to other people, are, also, ways of serving Hashem directly. The audience for sacrifices is not a remote pagan deity demanding his cut, but the personal soul of the offeror, coming to grips with a connection between his actions and Hashem. When we invest in our relationship to Hashem by changing ourselves, we are acting in a way that is very different from the ways in which pagans serve their deities.
And Judaism is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that Hashem put his soul in us. And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: Hashem does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and Hashem on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is so similar to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of tzaraat , which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Kayin treated Hevel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is given to us for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.
Jewish laws on marriage and sexual relations are quite specific for every Jew, priest or not. The Torah has a long and detailed list of forbidden relations – incest, homosexuality, and the like. Once upon a time, we did not even feel the need to explain these laws– after all, we felt a strong sense of the taboo, of what “feels” appropriate.
But in recent years, society has worked very hard to break down these barriers, these old-fashioned notions of limiting the sex or love lives of consenting adults or even children. What used to be “icky” is now mainstream. Traditional mores are in full retreat.
And, too soon, society will turn its attention to the rest of the relations that are forbidden in the Torah. “After all,” one might ask, “if there is no possibility of having children, then why cannot siblings or other close relations be ‘married’ to each other?”
It is hard to logically reject this argument, since, after all, if there are no genetic damages to a child, there is no victim if two people choose to be intimate with one another!
We must accept the logic: there is, indeed, no external victim of a childless love between close relatives or homosexuals. Why, then, does the Torah forbid these relations for Jews? And even more than this: why does it put these laws right in the middle of the Torah, as a centerpiece of the entire Jewish legal code? To answer this, we must recall that the word “Torah,” as used in the text itself, is both an evocation and a guidebook. The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between Hashem and man.
And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo – not really. They are inappropriate because they are too easy. It is not properly challenging to be married to a woman who is closely related, or to a member of the same sex. Not enough divides people who come from the same household, or who, because of their physiology, see the world largely the same way. To have the possibility to grow, we must be uncomfortable.
Thus, the Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity, because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This fact matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our Creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.
Marriage is meant to be the model for a relationship with Hashem. Marriage makes it possible for us to understand Hashem. If we can change ourselves enough to have a successful marriage with our spouse, then we have a chance to change ourselves enough to connect to Hashem! But if we marry someone who is too similar, with whom we have too much in common, then we are not challenged enough. Therefore, we do not grow. And so it means that we never have the opportunity to reach higher, to grow to a full relationship with our Creator.
And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.
The problem with a relationship between Hashem and man is that it is hard. It is difficult to be close to Hashem because we are so different than He is. We are anchored in our physicality, hindered by our blinkered vision and finite lifespan. Our relationship with Hashem requires constant, off-balance change, never-ending nudges, encouragement, and disappointment.
Hashem’s love for us is like marital love: the Torah is full of this kind of imagery, with The Song of Songs, Shir Ha Shirim, the most explicitly intimate of these. Consider, for example, the explicit instruction from Hashem to the Jewish people to “return to your tents” after the giving of the Torah. Rashi tells us that this is a commandment that husbands and wives shall once again build their own holy houses, to once again unite and make homes suitable for Hashem’s presence. The goal of returning to our tents, to our marriages, is to ensure that the attitude and mindset we experienced when we were with Hashem at Sinai remains with us as a people forever. In other words, these are connected events: we seal in the magic of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the national marriage to Hashem, by building our personal marriages with our spouses.
This commandment to return to our tents is not the first time that Hashem says that we should be married. Indeed, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is an echo of the very first commandment Hashem ever gave mankind:
Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.
And then, right after this, the first of all commandments, which is, after all, Adam’s very mission statement, what does Hashem do? “Hashem said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’”
It is a complete non-sequitur! One might think that having just received a command from the Source of all Existence, Adam would be very much un-alone: Hashem is standing right there with him!!!! Adam is the least alone being in creation! And yet, at the very moment Adam hears Hashem’s voice, Hashem determines that Adam simply cannot be allowed to live alone! Hashem is informing us as to Adam’s existential state: Adam is alone! Adam has heard Hashem’s voice, and he knows exactly what Hashem demands from him, with greater clarity than any human since…. yet he is totally and utterly alone! That’s an amazing assertion! But Hashem states it:
And now, therefore, “Go back to your tents”!
Hashem is telling us that we must dive back into the personal! Our mission on this earth – just like Adam’s – will never be fulfilled if our family is not standing there with us. Just like Adam, at the moment of hearing Hashem’s voice, of experiencing a cosmic objectivity, so, too, Israel is only now required to dive into the murky oceans of relationships, interactions, emotions, interconnections and intimacy – the things that seem so prosaic and small, so difficult and so removed from an objective, sweeping Divine mission. Mitzvos do not exist in a vacuum; they are meant to be immediately applied to our marriages.
The unit of husband and wife are meant to be the atomic unit for all people, and especially for the Jewish people. The “tent” is the basic building block of a nation, representing the married couple, secure together. Judaism does not suggest that we abandon the self to a great mass of humanity, to a single cause. We suborn the self to the family unit, and then in turn we make up the nation of Israel.
Not for nothing does Bilaam use the poetic phrase “Ma Tovu Ohalecha,” “How Goodly are your Tents!” Bilaam saw that the fundamental unit of the Jewish nation is found in its marriages, in its tents—and this is why he returns to advise Israel’s enemies to send their daughters into Israel’s camp as whores, to tear up the tents of Yaakov, to destroy the holy relationships between husbands and wives.
Our reliance on Hashem is discussed throughout the entire book of Bamidbar (Exodus), story after story of the Jewish people complaining: they complain about food, about water, about Israel, about leadership, about everything, seemingly, that they can think of. The pattern is a predictable one. There is a complaint. Hashem reacts. People die. Rinse and repeat.
And of course, we learn the obvious lessons – that Hashem is capable of taking care of us if we put our trust in Him. We learn that we must believe in our own capabilities to achieve the seemingly impossible, as long as Hashem is with us. And we learn a great deal about the kinds of repercussions which fall on us for our misdeeds.
Marriages are not very different from the “peace” Hashem created within each man, in the battle between body and soul. Marriages are not necessarily peaceful at all – many of the best marriages are highly dynamic and evolving, in a constant striving for coexistence between two people who are, at their very essence, opposites.
If Hashem’s creation of man was creating peace between heaven and earth within one person, then His subsequent acts of creation through each of us who tries to be married is the coexistence, peace, between man and woman. This is a dynamic peace, not necessarily easily distinguished from conflict and war. Just as our relationships with Hashem are meant to be challenging, so, too, are our relationships with our spouse.
How challenging is the relationship between man and Hashem? Are there any limits to how radically different we can be from our Creator? The Torah specifically includes even the most extreme case of a marriage, and connects that to our relationship with Hashem. It tells us of seeing a beautiful woman, and capturing her in battle. This woman shares no culture or language or faith: she is simply attractive to the conqueror – and the Torah allows the soldier to marry that unsuitable woman – with not even a word of criticism or warning.
The Jewish people are the beautiful, but wholly inappropriate, wife for Hashem. When we lived in Egypt, we too were captives. As Ezekiel says (and as we read every Pesach), “[the Jewish people] became very beautiful, your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare…. I pledged Myself to you, entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, declares the Lord G-d.…” So Hashem, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-haired and raw beauty. We, the Jewish people, are that beautiful woman, the spoils of Hashem’s war on Egypt and her deities.
And so, on that Pesach night, as He passed over the Jewish homes, He was intimate with the Jewish people. That was the act in which we as a nation were taken by Hashem. Like the captive non-Jew, we did not deserve it because of our merits – on the contrary, we were saved from Egypt because Hashem wanted to save us, and not because we deserved it. Like the captive, we were uncouth and unready for a proper adult relationship.
And then, a most peculiar thing happens. Hashem takes us out of Egypt, and for the following month, the Torah does not tell us about anything that happens. It is a quiet period of adjustment, just as the beautiful captive adjusts to the loss of her parents. And at the end of that period, the Jewish people start to complain. We complain about water, and we complain about food. Our Sages tell us that our complaints begin when the matzos that we had baked in Egypt run out. And at that point, we have adjusted to the new reality of living in the wilderness, and started to interact once again with Hashem – just as the captive after a month can start her relationship with her husband.
And what does Hashem do to us, one month after he was first intimate with us? He gives us the commandments of the manna, and Shabbos. These are the building blocks of a Jewish home: sustenance and a connection to the holiness of Shabbos. It is at this point that Hashem starts to grow the relationship in earnest, about the six days we labor for our sustenance, and the one day we do not.
Embracing Intimacy USED THIS HEADING EARLIER
Intimacy between husband and wife is a union of holiness. The mere act of coupling with love takes something performed by every animal, and joins it to heaven.
This can also explain how Rashi emphasizes that intimacy, physical enjoyment, between a man and his wife was particularly important on Shabbos. Elsewhere, Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but lay people also should engage in this practice on Friday night. Every Jewish marriage aims to invite Hashem into the relationship, and if Shabbos is a path to the unification of heaven and earth, then the unification of a couple on Shabbos is doubly so.
When effected with love and desire, both a marriage and the Mishkan invite the Shechinah inside. Of course, love and desire must be there, because without them, physical intimacy is merely earthy and animalistic. And the Ramban adds that without love and desire, then Hashem is not present.
The direct link between Hashem’s presence in a marriage and Hashem’s presence in the Mishkan is established when married Jewish couples contributed together to the building of Hashem’s home. Hashem understood this perfectly, sending the Jewish people right back to their tents to absorb and apply the Torah they have received, just as he gave Chavah to Adam so that Adam would follow Hashem’s sole commandment. Every marriage is unique, yet in a successful marriage, no matter how you practice Judaism, the differences are not found so much in the orthodoxy of our practice. The differences are found in the way we relate to Hashem.
There is a normative way of doing the holy deed, but there are many ways of hearing the holy voice, encountering the sacred presence, feeling at one and the same time how small we are yet how great the universe we inhabit, how insignificant we must seem when set against the vastness of space and the myriads of stars, yet how momentously significant we are, knowing that Hashem has set His image and likeness upon us and placed us here, in this place, at this time, with these gifts, in these circumstances, with a task to perform if we are able to discern it. We can find Hashem on the heights and in the depths, in loneliness and togetherness, in love and fear, in gratitude and need, in dazzling light and in the midst of deep darkness. We can find Hashem by seeking Him, but sometimes He finds us when we least expect it.
Working through Issues in a Marriage
No marriage is ever perfect, and it is not meant to be. For us to thrive and grow, we need to be fully engaged in our marriage, making sure that as issues arise, we deal with them promptly and honestly. When we try to ignore our problems, they rarely go away; rather, they fester and eat away at our loving relationships. We can choose to see working on our difficulties not as a fearsome task, but as an opportunity to take the relationship deeper. That is what Hashem calls us to do.
We can all benefit from letting go of the past and allowing ourselves and our spouses to move on. This is why gossip is so destructive: negative speech reinforces conclusions, making it hard for any of the parties to grow beyond their past.
But there are limits: there are certain kinds of problems in a marriage that we cannot, no matter how tolerant and forgiving we might be, simply accept and move on. These are not the kinds of problems that one can internalize, make adjustments, and keep living – these problems paralyze us, keeping us locked in a Hamlet-style morass of indecision and inaction. I speak, of course, of the same fundamental affliction that plagued Hamlet—indecision—caused by uncertainty, self-doubt, and soul-eating suspicion.
Is she faithful to me? That question, all by itself, makes it impossible for a marriage to grow. Without that kind of basic trust, two people cannot grow any further. If and when the basic fabric of our lives is in doubt, then people find themselves in a dangerous limbo. In Othello, Shakespeare explores the corrosive effects of suspicion within a marriage: Is my wife true? Asking that question, in Othello’s case, led to madness. And even in non-fictional characters, the mere suspicion that one’s partner in life is being unfaithful is paralyzing.
The crazy thing about this kind of problem is that it is not the knowledge that creates the impasse: it is the uncertainty. After all, if one is certain that their spouse is or is not faithful, then one can make plans, act accordingly, and move on. It is the doubt that gnaws at the soul, making people second-guess themselves and everything around them.
Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this issue. The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.
ALL FROM VIEWPOINT OF MAN TOWARD WOMAN . . .
The Torah tells us about a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. She is called a sotah, and there is a ritual that involves drinking bitter waters, and the threat of a gruesome death if she has, in fact, been untrue. As with other incidences of bitterness, the issue is not unfaithfulness itself, but the dynamic between a husband and wife in the event that he suspects her of being untrue, but simply does not know for sure. The entire purpose of the ceremony is to reveal the truth, to end any lingering doubts either way.
One peculiar thing about the ritual is the timing of its description in the Torah: in the middle of the national story between the counts of the priests, the Levites, and the national dedication of the Mishkan and resumption of Hashem’s direct conversations with Moshe. And the lesson seems to be very interesting indeed: the Torah seems to be telling us that in order for Hashem to be among us, to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Jewish people, we first must have no doubt that our spouse is faithful. In other words, removing fundamental doubts within our personal marriages is a precondition for a spiritual connection to Hashem.
As with so many other commandments, the origin of this commandment is also found earlier in the Torah, and in the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem:
And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, its name was called Marah.
The waters were bitter because Hashem wanted to connect the Jewish people to the lack of fidelity to Him in their own past. The first time the word for “bitter” is found in the Torah is when Esav marries a Hittite women. And they made life bitter for Yitzhak and for Rivkah.
Bitterness is associated with infidelity – the act, like Esav’s marriages to non-Jews, that more than anything threatens the long-term survival of Judaism, the perpetuation and practice of the Torah. But bitterness is also associated with the mere suspicion of infidelity. And suspicion is acidic; as Shakespeare so ably shows, the mere suspicion of infidelity eats away at relationships and, if unchecked, destroys them.
And at Marah, where the waters were bitter, Hashem performs a very peculiar act:
‘. . . the Lord showed him a tree, which when he threw into the waters, and made the waters sweet;’
A tree?! The first specific tree that Adam knew, of course, was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was the tree of certainty, the symbol of clear understanding. Hashem commands that the tree be cast into the water.
Why? Why is the water bitter, and the tree required to make it sweet again?
When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they were presented with other deities. They lived very similarly to Egyptians. Hashem wanted to make a clear point: one cannot be both a true Torah Jew, and an idol worshipper. Our relationship with Hashem is monogamous. We are to have no other gods before him! And so if there is even suspicion of infidelity between a man and wife, or man and Hashem, a relationship is poisoned.
Hashem makes the connection between the suspected wife and the Jewish people even more explicit, when he makes it about health:
And He said, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your Hashem, and will do that which is right in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you.’
The most relevant lesson for us to acknowledge is that relating to Hashem in Judaism is not merely a matter of obediently doing Hashem’s will. We are meant to be independent actors, freely choosing whether, and to what extent, we seek a connection with Hashem.
More than this: the Torah is telling us that when there are impediments to our relationship with our spouse and our Creator, we cannot merely wish them away, or ask Hashem to make them disappear on our behalf. We are the actors: in order to move on, the spouse has to tackle a suspicion head-on, discuss it and work to resolve it. Passive acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt doesn’t work, at least not if we want to make something of ourselves. When we are paralyzed, it is up to us to come back to the world, ready to move on and grow, partners with Hashem in improving the world in and around us.
Dealing with Life and Loss in Marriage
When we suffer the loss of trust or the loss of a relationship, it can be devastating to a relationship. We know that Sarah died when she heard the news that Yitzhak was offered up as a sacrifice; she was unprepared to continue to have a relationship with a man who would offer up their only son as a sacrifice.
Is the Holocaust so different? How many Jews ended their relationship with Hashem after He did not stop the Holocaust from occurring? We, as Jews, do not merely quietly sit and take what is given. Instead, we quarrel and argue – and when that fails, we certainly have been known to simply terminate the relationship, to refuse to have anything more to do with our spouse. Sarah’s death is analogous to the Jew who turned away from Hashem after the Holocaust. When we do not like what has happened, we leave the relationship.
The marriage of Avraham and Sarah is the national Jewish marriage with Hashem, and has been ever since the second tablets were given to us. Ours is a tumultuous and dynamic marriage which continues to yield unprecedented wonders.
Even death can be a trigger for growth. Sarah died, but Avraham then goes to very great pains to bury her with the highest honors. It is his act of redemption, one that heals the relationship for the Jewish people for all time going forward. Avraham establishes the cave, the foundational burial place, for all time.
In the same way that Avraham plants the foundation stone at Machpelah, Hashem does the same thing when he commands the creation of the Mishkan. Both exist to heal a profound rift between man and his spouse; the Beis Hamikdosh was a way to live in peace with the Jewish people after our actions of betrayal in the desert, just as Avraham’s burial of Sarah atoned for his offering of their only son.
Both the cave of Machpelah and the Beis Hamikdosh are eternal parts of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They are, of course, necessarily separate. The cave of Machpelah is a place only for the dead, while the Beis Hamikdosh is only a place for the living. The two places are two sides of the same coin: the former unifies man and wife in death, while the latter connects man and Hashem in life.
Death is inevitable, and is the final end to any relationship, but it is also a legacy for the living and a legacy for the world. From generation to generation – whether one pursues holiness through relationships or technology or spreading knowledge and wisdom… these are all ideals embodied in the Mishkan, goals and aspirations for every Jew’s life.
As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”
Conclusion on the Ark/Intimacy/Marriage/Path to Holiness.