Americans always speak about freedom; but for Jews the most important freedom is to be able to choose to make commitments. Shavuot comes before July 4th.
In June 1964 I became a Reform rabbi. In December 1966 I became the husband of my wife: Judy. These are the two most important events in my life.
A rabbi is a religious educator, and becoming a rabbi testifies to an individual’s academic mastery of traditional Jewish religious texts. A husband is a lover, and becoming a husband or wife testifies to an individual’s ability to give himself/herself totally to another individual in a committed partnership relationship Brit.
Brit -a committed partnership relationship- is a central principle in Jewish theology. According to the Bible the relationship between God and Israel is similar to a marital partnership.
God said to Moses: “Speak thus to the house of Jacob, and tell this to the children of Israel… Now if you listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the peoples, for the whole earth is mine. You will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation. These words you shall speak to the people of Israel” (this is the proposal) “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all these proposals as God had commanded him. All the people answered together, “All that God has proposed, we will do. (the acceptance, similar to the “I do” at a wedding) Moses brought this answer back to the Lord.” (Exodus 19:5-8)
A brit, a loving committed partnership, requires at least two individuals who have the desire and the ability to make a choice to commit themselves to one another; to choose and to be chosen. This is what God and Israel did at Sinai. However, while God chose Israel, Jews are not THE chosen people; they are A chosen people, the first of several monotheistic religions. A parent can have many children but only one is the firstborn. “These are the words of the Lord, Israel is my first-born son.” (Exodus 4:22)
The Jewish people was the first community to enter into a sacred relationship with the one God, but they are not the only ones to do so. “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Jacob) and your descendants.” (Genesis 28:14) In later centuries other communities were formed that Jews see as our younger siblings.
That process will continue until all nations have a sacred relationship to the one God of Israel. “Each nation will walk in the name of its God, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (Micah 4:5) Thus, even in the Messianic Age, other nations will be free to faithfully follow their vision of the one God of Abraham, as Jews, Christians and Muslims do to this very day.
But why were Jews the first chosen people? God’s love isn’t based on popularity or large numbers. “It was not because you were more numerous than any other nation that the Lord cared about you and chose you, for you are the smallest of nations; it was because of the Lord’s love for you, and his oath to your ancestors.” (Deuteronomy. 7:7-8)
Israel was chosen because God loved their ancestors: “… the Lord cared for your ancestors loving them, and chose their descendants after them from all nations, as you are this day.” (Deuteronomy. 10:15) “I will fulfill my covenant between myself and you (Abraham) and your descendants after you, generation after generation, an everlasting covenant, to be your God, yours and your descendants after
you.” (Genesis 17:7)
It is hard to explain rationally why I fell in love with my wife and not with some of the other lovable women I dated before I met Judy. All I know is that it happened only with her. Indeed, I do not think I really understood at that time how truly wonderful she was and how lucky I was to be her husband.
But within a few years I began to view my good fortune to be married to my wife as a sacred gift from God. This feeling has continued to grow stronger and stronger over the decades we have lived together.
I do not believe that my wonderful marriage partnership is the result of my being the best husband, or the best person in the world. I am far from that. And although I believe that my wife is a gift from God, I do not believe she is the best of all possible wives.
Our partnership is however, the best for us. In the same way, being a chosen people doesn’t make you better, but it does make your relationship special.
Being in a committed loving relationship results in more giving (Mitsvot), more receiving (Torah, Prophets and sages) and more grief (because each cares about the other). “For you alone have I cared among all the nations of the world, therefore I will castigate you for all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2)
Although the prophet Amos says that God only cares for Israel; he also says “Israelites are like Ethiopians to me” (Amos 9:7), This seems to be a logical contradiction; but it reflects the difference between an emotional relationship like love, which is always felt to be unique, and a rational understanding that others also have unique relationships that are similar to your’s.
Thus, while Israel can’t adore any other God; God can and does redeem other nations. “Are not Israelites like Ethiopians to me? Says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Crete and the Aramaeans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7)
Israel has been chosen to be an agent of holiness and enlightenment:“You are the children of the Lord your God…You are a people holy to the Lord your God (see Leviticus 19) and the “Lord has chosen you out of all the nations on earth to be his special possession.” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2) “I will make you a light for the nations” (Isaiah 49:6)
So other nations will also be blessed through their own religions that were sparked by Israel’s covenant with God at Sinai, thus fulfilling the promise to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.
While making a choice to commit is a decision; choosing is a process. I know the exact day when I and my wife were married. I do not know the day, the week or even the month, when I fell in love with her. A wedding is a specific event that can be observed. Forming a loving commitment is an ongoing process that must be experienced.
This is why the only Jewish holy day that does not have a proscribed specific date is Shavuot; a day commemorating the beginning of the partnership-marriage covenant commitment between God and Israel.
One day, propelled by my growing love for my beloved, I proposed marriage. Two weeks later, she finally said ‘Yes’. Four months later we were married. During fifty two subsequent anniversary celebrations our love has continued to grow. Experiencing each additional anniversary is more significant than our original wedding day.
The consequences of the choice seem more important than the original choice itself; provided the choice was the right one. Yet without choosing to make the commitment, love would be unexpressed and unrequited: a terrible experience for both partners.
Shavuot is a transhistorical experience like Shabbat, and not a historical event like Passover. Both Shabbat and Shavuot celebrate a continual ongoing spiritual process of personally experiencing a day of wholeness and holiness within a sacred framework.
For Jewish mystics every Jewish marriage that is destined to last, is a reenactment of the marriage of God and Israel at Sinai. Shavuot celebrates the anniversary of Israel’s first intimate experience of God, as in “I will betroth you to Me forever”. (Hosea 3:21)
For mystically inclined Jews, every Jewish wedding is a reenactment by two individuals of the holy covenant first entered into by God and Israel at Sinai, when God and Israel first chose each other. God chose Israel saying, “You shall be a special treasure for me,,, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-5). The Jewish people chose God by answering, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8).
Or as the Talmud puts it, “The groom, the Eternal One, is betrothed to the bride, the community of Israel.” (Talmud Pesachim 106b) Torah is the Ketubah (marriage contract) between the two covenanted partners. Mitsvot (commandments) are their daily loving interactions. Torah study and worship are the pillow talk between God and Israel. Tikunim: Kabbalistic mystical exercises, meditations and marital sexuality are the intimacies of married life.
Although Shabbat and Shavuot share many timeless spiritual aspects also they also differ because Shabbat is a highly structured weekly home and community framework; while Shavuot is an highly unstructured annual romantic experience involving vegetarianism, mid night Torah study, and mystical imagery of weddings and lovers.
Also, on Shabbat, disciples of our sages have a religious duty to have sexual intercourse with their wives, (Talmud Ketubot 62b; Talmud Baba Kamma 88a; Zohar 3:69a) but there is no such requirement for Shavuot because every Jew, in every generation, both married and single, can and should feel like he or she is a spiritual beloved and/or a spiritual lover of God.
“I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in loving kindness and in compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord”. (Hosea 3:21:22)
Finally, I want to share an amazing midrash (creative rabbinic interpretation) that offers a great spiritual insight for todays generation of lovers.
Most of our rabbis, who themselves were so committed to loving God with all their hearts, with all their souls and with all their commitment, could not conceive that the Jewish people in those days could hesitate when offered the opportunity to become partners with God.
But the Torah itself faithfully records the frequent mood swings and ambivalences felt by the Jewish people while in the desert on the way to Sinai. God’s proposal was the most awesome offer they had ever received. If many people today have a problem making a long term commitment, what about people who had been slaves only three months earlier.
Some said yes right away to God’s proposal. Others thought about it for many hours before agreeing. After a full day, most of them had made a commitment, but the rest were still undecided. The rabbis said that Moses added an extra day for them; but even then there was still a minority, mostly men who were afraid to commit. By the end of the second day the women had convinced almost all the hesitant men.
Only a very small minority still held out. So would the fear of making a life long, open ended, commitment by an ambivalent few, keep everyone else in the Jewish people from accepting God’s proposal of a lifetime partnership?
Fortunately, God came to the rescue. According to Rabbi Avdimi, son of Hama, son of Hasa, “The Holy One, blessed is He, lowered the [uprooted] mountain over them like a bucket, and said to them, ‘If you accept the Torah, fine; but if not, there will be your grave.” (Talmud Shabbat 88a) Sometimes, the ardor of the proposal makes all the difference.
The Qur’an itself mentions Rabbi Avdimi’s midrash: “We raised the Mountain over you saying: Hold firm to what we have given you, and study its commandments; so that you may attain piety towards God, (choosing to love God) and His protection (as God’s chosen beloveds).” (2:63)
Even if you are first chosen by your Divine lover to get married; you still have to chose by yourself to make the commitment in return.