(Note: according to the Reform Jewish and Israeli calendars, we are reading Parashat Bemidbar this week. For the Orthodox communities, it is Bechukotai. This commentary on Bamidbar also reflects on Shavuot).
How can I forget the day that I was to be married to my beloved husband? Of course, every wedding has its memorable moments.To me the moment suspended in eternity was when my beloved chattan (groom) pronounced the words that sanctified me unto him according to the Law of Moses and Israel and when he - amongst all the pomp and circumstance of the day – slid a simple, unassuming gold band on my finger. From that moment on, my heart sang, we were covenanted to each other.
One of the world’s greatest love stories is the relationship between God and the Jewish people; a love story that we revisit year after year at Shavu’ot, the symbolic marriage between God and Israel.
This saga also had humble origins—with Abraham, a shepherd from Ur Kasdim. And, like most love stories, there was an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth. In our case, this took place in the desert, after a spectacular elopement from Mitzrayim.
Parashat Bamidbar recounts this formative period in the covenantal relationship. The parashah sets the stage: “on the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt…” (Num. 1:1) only to continue with a seemingly strange demand: “take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses…” (Num. 1:2)
Hence, Moshe and Aharon are instructed to count the people and administrate them, the overarching theme of the parashah. Like the Omer period itself, we’ve done a lot of counting during these last weeks.
According to Rashi the census may not be strange at all. This famous early Medieval commentator explains that God counted the people out of His great love for them. What better way to cement a relationship than to pay close attention to detail; to the needs of your love and to take constant note of their presence? Or as the 19th century poetess Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in Sonnet 43:
‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’
The Haftarah on Hosea ties in beautifully with this theme, and expands it.
The eighth century (BCE) prophet Hosea was the first prophet to phrase the covenantal relationship between God and Israel in marital and monogamous terms.Chastening the Jewish people for their idolatry, he compares this to adultery and hereby creates an oft-repeated refrain of monotheism as spiritual monogamy. However, Hosea also offers them healing their relationship through the forgiveness of God.
Hosea persuades his audience by appealing to metaphors of both a romantic past and a promising future.
Love in the wilderness is one of the nostalgic metaphors that the prophet Hosea draws on. Through him, the Holy One Blessed be He reminisces that He
‘will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness and speak to her tenderly… there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt’ (Hosea 2:16-17).
Hosea is proposing something awe-inspiring.
God is eager to take His beloved bride back into His (or Her!) arms, just like those romantic early days of their relationship, but moreover, God is yearning to develop their relationship. Can we imagine that in a time of universal peace, brotherhood and spiritual closeness it is possible that we will have an entirely new and fulfilling relationship with the Holy One? Where we are betrothed again in ‘righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy’ so that we may ‘know the Lord?’(Hosea 2:21-22)
It is a daring metaphor that Hosea employs and compelling in its spiritual audacity. Maybe the metaphor allows us to superimpose divine love onto human love.
If we are created ‘b’tselem Elohim’ — in the image of God — and are betrothed to God in sacred covenant, then maybe we can extend that same covenant of love to other people.
It is unsurprising then that this same rousing passage is recited during the ritual of laying tefillin (phylacteries). As we say these verses and wrap the strap linking the Torah to our hands around our fingers, we emulate the chuppah. We are invited to marry God each day anew, in a relationship that allows our full potential to come to fruition.
As a kallah (bride), my moment suspended in eternity did not end after my chattan slipped the ring on my finger. I proceeded to gently take his hand into mine and to slip a gold band around his finger.
I too covenanted him to me—in righteousness and justice, goodness and mercy.
When we ready ourselves to commit to the covenant at Shavu’ot and to sign up for Torah (our ‘ketubah’, wedding contract) I can only wish the very same for all of us—both in the realm of earthly love and in the realm of God’s presence: may we fall in love with each other and our sacred, compelling, inspiring tradition time and again.
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Photo: Folkert Gorter