Apr. 28th, 2010

estherhugenholtz: For discussing Torah and mitzvot (V'ahavta)

Haftarah for Bamidbar: Hosea 2:1-22

I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You

How can I forget the day that I was to be married to my beloved husband? Of course, every wedding has its memorable moments. There’s the whispered holiness of the mikveh the day before, the silken-soft rustle of dress and veil, the lilting scents of perfume and bouquet. More importantly, the hugs and kisses of loved ones in celebration punctuate my memories. Of course, there is dancing and song and laughter. The giddying experiences of being hoisted upon chairs during the Hora and the sweetness of sanctified wine upon eager lips.

To me, however, the moment suspended in eternity was when my beloved chattan 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.

Of course, a wedding is the culmination of an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between two people. Most great love stories have spectacular endings yet humble beginnings. So too for my husband and myself. What is there to tell? We met in synagogue!

One of the world’s greatest love stories is the relationship between God and the Jewish people. This saga also had humble origins—with a shepherd from Ur Kasdim. And, like most love stories, there was an intense process of emotional and spiritual growth between God and Israel. 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 parasha.

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 is not only interested in chiding the Jews in the name of God but also offers them healing their relationship through the forgiveness of God. The divine voice oscillates between anger and love, like a lover spurned or husband betrayed.

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).

Not only is Hosea a prophetic mouthpiece for God’s desire to enter and maintain a covenantal ‘marriage’ with Israel, but he also becomes an actual conduit for that desire. The prophet is forced to take the prostitute Gomer daughter of Diblaim as his wife and accept the fruits of her womb as his own children, regardless of which unknown man sired them. His children he shall name ‘Lo-Ruchamma’ (Unforgiven) and ‘Lo-Ammi’ (Not My People) as an embodiment of God’s feelings of betrayal by Israel on account of their idolatry. In essence, Hosea lives—body and soul—in the experience of a broken relationship that must—and will be—fully restored.

When Israel will return to God in unwavering loyalty and worship of Him alone, this relationship will be restored. With inspired Messianic fervor, the prophet voices God’s desire:

‘And in that day—declares the Lord—you will call Me Ishi, and no more will you call Me Baali. For I will remove the names of the Baalim from her mouth, and they shall nevermore be mentioned by name. In that day, I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the air and the creeping things of the ground; I will also banish bow, sword, and war from the land. Thus I will let them lie down in safety.’ (Hosea 2:18-19)

 The pun on ‘ba’al’ is obvious to the attentive reader. Ba’al is the Canaanite fertility god at whose sacred groves the Israelites knelt in idolatry. But ba’al—meaning ‘master’— is also the Hebrew word for husband. A husband in antiquity was indeed the ‘master’ of his wife: he acquired her for a bride-price and had legal jurisdiction over her.

Yet here, Hosea is proposing something awe-inspiring. Not only is God eager to take His beloved bride back into His arms but moreover, He is yearning to develop their relationship. God appears to says through his faithful prophet that in the Messianic Era, Israel and God will not relate to each other in old terms but in new ones. Not through a model of patriarchy shall God be served, but perhaps through a model of marital egalitarianism. The poignantly neutral word ‘Ish’—man—is substituted. 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 Him in sacred covenant, then maybe we can extend that same covenant of love to other people. Maybe it will enable us to look at our partners, our husbands and wives with new eyes. Maybe it allows us to blend and redefine our notions of the masculine and feminine, of God the King of Kings and as His Shechinah on a model of God betrothing us all. Is it a coincidence that Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) that holiest of love songs speaks of such a love between lovers and allegorically between God and humanity? Of a love where the partners are equals yet at the same time entirely devoted to each other.

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.

Together we live our lives in a tender and sacred covenant where my husband is not my ‘ba’al’ but my ‘ish’.

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.

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Esther Hugenholtz

January 2011

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