Day Ten: 26 Tammuz
The Divine Romance
Maimonides, in trying to explain the love of a human for God, compared the relationship to the romance between a man and a woman.29Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Repentance” 10:3. The desire, the flirtation, the temptation and the passion can all be translated into the context of the divine. This explains traditional readings of Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, as a sustained metaphor for the love between God and humanity played out as a human romance in the orchards and spice hills of Israel. Carrying the comparison further, we consider the pain of heartbreak, the anguish of a woman scorned or a man left alone after a longstanding relationship. The investment is wasted, the love thins and the pain scars. God plays this out with the Israelites, too, when they betray their romance with their ultimate Partner.
One such romantic break-up took place when Jerusalem went into exile during the reign of King Jehoiakim, the son of King Josiah. Jehoiakim was a ruthless king, immune to Jeremiah’s words of warning. He shredded Jeremiah’s scroll of chastisement with a knife and threw its predictions into the fire. Jeremiah then prepared the Israelites for the exilic consciousness of life outside the Holy Land.
In the third chapter of Jeremiah – another one of the haftarot read in these weeks – we find the comparison of Israel’s idolatry to adultery. One of the greatest unspoken fears we have in love and marriage is that of betrayal. We age, and we worry that perhaps we are not as attractive or as interesting as we once were. If the marriage grows stale, will he look elsewhere? Will she find real happiness with someone else? Anxiety about rejection looms large in the dark chambers of the heart.
The Israelites’ lack of faithfulness is contrasted to God’s everlasting hope that they will one day return. The rebellious Israelites are an adulterous wife. This comparison not only created a literary mirror through which Israel could view its actions, it was also a metaphoric way to communicate God’s loss.
[The word of the Lord came to me] as follows: If a man divorces his wife, and she leaves him and marries another man, can he ever go back to her? Would not such a land be defiled? Now you have been with many lovers; can you return to Me? – says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:1)
It is a simple and earnest question and one filled with grief. It takes two to make a relationship. What happens to trust when one partner is untrue but then wants to return to the marriage? Is trust possible?
The husband in this metaphor wants an exclusive relationship with his wife. He longs for the kind of intimacy that can only come with trust, but cannot be sure of his wife’s fickle behavior. “I thought: After she has done all these things, she will come back to Me. But she did not come back…” (ibid. 3:7). Our heart goes out to this man. He is so desperate for his wife’s love that despite her lies and betrayals, he is willing to take her back. We the readers do not believe she is worth it. But our judgments aside, she does not return to him anyway.
In Malachi, the tears of women whose husbands took other wives are absorbed into the altar of the second Beit HaMikdash: “The Lord is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse…let no one break faith with the wife of his youth” (Malachi 2:14–15). Relationships should grow and intensify over time. Be wary of those who invite new partners into their lives and dismiss the devoted spouses of their younger days.
Martin Buber wrote in I and Thou, “Every real relation with a being or life in the world is exclusive…is single and confronts you. It fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing else exists; but all else lives in its light.”30Martin Buber, I and Thou (London: Continuum, 2004) p. 63. This beautiful image of a relationship as a lens through which we view all else is expanded by Rabbi Louis Jacobs in Jewish Thought Today: “In every I–Thou relationship there is the special intimate meeting with another that makes everything else peripheral to the person encountered for as long as the relationship lasts.”31Louis Jacobs, Jewish Thought Today, Volume iii in the Chain of Tradition Series (Springfield, nj: Behrman House, 1970), p. 18.
Buber speaks of intimacy. Beyond simple affection or emotional closeness, the relationship Buber points to is one of such profound attachment that life is almost continually seen through the lens of another. When a relationship reaches this level of intimacy, it does not mean that nothing exists but love or that there is total self-abnegation, but that all “lives in its light”: everything is colored by the love for another human being. It is a powerful and animating force that gives people their very reason for living.
We find the intensity of the love described by Buber hinted at in a chapter earlier on in Jeremiah, in specific reference to the relationship between human and God at its peak: “Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me into the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). In love, we are willing to risk all and enter a universe of uncertainty, a wilderness that brings us no fear because we live in partnership. We are not alone.
Yet love can change from this kind of co-dependency to anger, resentment and loss when one partner betrays the other. The unit that we thought of as one was not one at all. People who suffer the unexpected infidelity of a partner feel that more than trust has been violated. Their knowledge of the world, their beliefs and assumptions, are profoundly shaken. “But I thought I knew her.” Once these foundations begin to shake, the whole world seems to totter. “Perhaps every relationship that I have is not what it seems.” Rather than blame the other, there is self-recrimination. “How could I not know?” “What did I do wrong?” We hear this reflected in God’s words through the prophet: “I thought: After she has done all these things, she will come back to Me. But she did not come back…” (ibid. 3:7).
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, writing about relationships and the notion of covenant, observes that,
The great covenantal relationships – between God and mankind, between man and woman in marriage, between members of a community or citizens in a society – exist because both parties recognize that “it is not good for man to be alone.” God cannot redeem the world without human participation; humanity cannot redeem the world without recognition of the divine.32Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum, 2002), p. 203.
In true love, not only are we willing to risk all for an uncertain future, we are willing to forego our own emotional protection to take back that which is temporarily lost. In that rawness of vulnerability, we test the limits of compassion. As does God.
Kavana for the Day
This season of Jewish tragedy and betrayal is a time to review and renew flagging relationships. If you are in a marriage, list the three things you can do right now to strengthen intimacy. No matter how long you have been married or how well you know each other, you can still find ways to enhance trust, share kindnesses and offer unexpected love. We repair what is broken with enduring love and trust.