Rabbi Daniel Lichman
Have you ever played the song game? Each team sings a song with a particular word in it and is out when they cannot think of another one. If you play with the word love it goes on forever. You can think about this now – how many well known songs can you think of with the word love in it?
...Love is a many splendid thing, love lifts us up where we belong, all you need is love...
Popular culture reflects human experience: the joy and ecstasy of intimacy; the pain and heartbreak of a breakup; the pining and longing of desire; the shame and the confusion of rejection. Given the strength and the universality of these feelings it is no surprise that the rabbis used love as a primary metaphor to consider the relationships between God, Torah and Israel (us).
Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of Torah by God to Israel, is the time when these metaphors of sexual/loving relationships between the parties come to the fore.
The metaphor comes up in two distinct rabbinic traditions. In one God is portrayed as the bridegroom and us (the people of Israel) as the bride (see midrash Pirkei DeRbabbi Eliezer 41:7). The Torah is then understood as the gift given by the groom to his bride. There is a sephardi tradition to actually read the ketuabah - the marriage contract - between God and Israel as a part of the shavuot service.
A romance on cosmic proportions!
The heteronormativity of the story might make it hard to relate to for some yet I find that it is compensated for by the other tradition, which when read side by side with this one, renders Israel distinctly gender-queer - portrayed as male in one tradition to female in another.
Here’s an example of this tradition. I recommend reading it a few times and considering it in light of the questions below.
Midrash Shemot Rabbah 33:1
God said to Israel: 'I have sold you My Torah, but with it, as it were, I also have been sold' as it says, ‘That they take me for an offering.’
It can be compared to the only daughter of a king whom another king married. When he wished to return to his country and take his wife with him he [the father] said to him: 'My daughter, whose hand I have given thee, is my only child. I cannot part with her, neither can I say to thee, 'Do not take her' for she is now thy wife. This favour, however, I would request of thee; wherever thou goest to live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.' Thus God said to Israel 'I have given you a torah from which I cannot part, and I also cannot tell you not to take it; but this I would request: wherever you go make for Me a house where I may live' as it says ‘And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ Ex -25:8
Who represents God, Torah and Israel in this mashal (parable)? What do you think each character feels at each point in this story? How does this story help you or hinder you in your relationship to Torah?
How might you learn Torah in accordance with this myth?
I love this midrash: by using anthropomorphic (human) symbolism for Torah the text invites me to bring the learnings I have gained from my intimate relationships to help me to relate to Torah.
Just as my relationships with other people have changed me, so too can my study of Torah; just as other people sometimes hurts me and sometimes comforts me, so too does Torah; just as I have learnt that my relationships deepen when I am honest with my friends, so too have I learnt to be honest with, and bring all of who I am – in its full complexity and brokenness – to Torah.
The true beauty of these texts is that it works both ways too – our relationship with, openness to and attentiveness towards Torah in study can teach us how to enter relationships in which we can be open to the other person and lovingly attentive.
Shavuot sameach – see you at Sinai. Mazel tov!