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This week's poem: Shine (B'ha-alot'kha)

Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage

I taught the last lesson of the night at our tikkun, which I called Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage. I began by talking about two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah, and heaven and earth as witnesses -- that's the one I've encountered most often.) I talked about what it's like for me to be celebrating two anniversaries this weekend, ten years of marriage and this ongoing relationship with the Source of Blessing, and how the two intersect and interact for me.

Together we looked at a handful of texts, including this one from Zohar:

Rabbi Shimeon used to sit and learn Torah at night when the bride joined with her spouse. It is taught: The members of the bride's entourage are obligated to stay with her throughout the night before her wedding with her spouse to rejoice with her in those perfections (tikkunim) by which she is made perfect. [They should] learn Torah, Prophets and Writings, homilies on the verses and the secrets of wisdom, for these are her perfections and adornments. She enters with her bridesmaids and stands above those who study, for she is readied by them and rejoices in them all the night. On the morrow, she enters the canopy with them and they are her entourage. When she enters the canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them, crowns them with the bride's adornments. Blessed is their destiny. (Zohar I:8a)

The bride in this context is Shekhinah, the immanent / indwelling aspect of God; the spouse is the Holy Blessed One, the aspect of God that's wholly transcendent. We're the bridesmaids, attending the Shekhinah on the eve of her marriage; all who study Torah on erev Shavuot strengthen her and cause her to rejoice, and in return YHVH crowns us with the Shekhinah's jewels beneath the chuppah at dawn.

We also read this, from Michael Strassfeld's The Jewish Holidays:

One of the most beautiful images of Shavuot of that of the marriage between God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.) Developing this image, Pesach is the period of God’s courtship of Israel, and Shavuot celebrates the actual marriage. Sukkot, then, is the setting up of a bayit ne’eman—a household faithful to Judaism.

Even the midrash’s problematic imagery of God holding the mountain of Sinai over the Israelites’ heads while saying “Accept My Torah or else!” is transformed in this romantic symbolism as the mountain becomes a huppah—a wedding canopy for the marriage.

My handout also included Rabbi Simon Jacobson's essay The Cosmic Marriage (which we didn't discuss, but I wanted to include because it's thought-provoking, if hetero-centric) and The Shavuot Marriage Contract by Philip Goodman which talks about the Sephardic custom of beginning the holiday by reading a ketubah which formalizes the relationship between God and Israel.

We also read and discussed a few of my favorite poems about marriage: a Wendell Berry poem which I posted a few years ago, Marge Piercy's Reshaping Each Other, and Rumi's This Marriage. Each of these was written about a human relationship, but we chose to try reading them as though they'd been written about relationship with God, which yielded some fascinating perspectives. The exercise reminded me of the extent to which our relationships with our human beloveds are always a reflection or refraction of our relationships with the divine Beloved, and vice versa.

We closed by reading Hosea 2:21-22, the verses recited each day as the final twists of tefillin are affixed to one's hand. "I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness, and in compassion." Those are the marriage vows that Ethan and I spoke to each other ten years ago, so I get a little shiver every time I say them. The verse recited upon donning tefillin continues, "And I will betroth you to me in faithfulness, and you will know God."

The verse is talking about a knowing that inheres in deep identification-with the other. It linked beautifully back to the first lesson of our night, in which we explored the kabbalistic prayer said before the tikkun leil Shavuot begins. That prayer makes clear that our study is undertaken for the sake of the unification of the Holy Blessed Name and the Shekhinah -- a union of transcendence and immanence. During the tikkun we study God's names in all of their permutations (whether via the traditional assemblage of texts, or via the more interpretive dance through Torah in which my liberal community engages) in order to bridge the binary between God-far-above and God-deep-within. That's the kind of knowledge Hosea's talking about.

One of the women in the circle spoke about the leap of faith involved in taking the first step down the aisle when she married her husband many years ago. It's a truth of relationships and of spiritual practice, too: one doesn't begin a marriage by saying, "okay, so, tell me everything that's going to be entailed in this relationship over the next X years, and then I'll decide whether I'm up for it or not." One begins a marriage with an existential yes! Just so in our relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- remember, Torah tells us that the Israelites' response to God was na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear." Action comes first. We take the leap of enacting our relationship, trusting that our understanding of one another and our bond with one another will deepen as the years go by.

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