Torah Commentary: Bamidbar (In the Desert)

Ambiguity and Mystery vs. Clarity & Display – Bamidbar 2011  by Rabbi Zalman Kastel

We crave clarity in an ambiguous world.

In the early 90′s I struggled to decide on a vocation. Did I want to

join the Chabad movement’s team of “Shluchim” agents of the Rebbe to

try to bring Jews back to observance or undertake some other path? As

I sat at a tribute dinner to my grandfather Rabbi Joshua T. Kastel in

Boston shortly after he passed away and heard how much he was loved

and how he contributed as dean of the Lubavitch school there, I

decided that I did not need to decide because the decision had already

been made for me. I had to try to fill his shoes, this was my destiny

and life’s work. Except that it wasn’t. Since 2006 my full time

occupation is focused on the needs of the wider community and

diversity education work .

Clarity vs. Mystery, flexibility and ambiguity

Clarity is sought in matters of the the spirit, purpose, identity and

relationships between people and groups. I have watched in amazement

and despair as groups lap up the “us good victims, them evil, evil

perpetrators” discourse in speeches, print and Facebook, over and over

again, like a toddler listening to a familiar bed time story. This

week Jews read a section called “Bamidbar”, “In the wilderness”. It

begins with a census displaying God’s love  and clarifying the number

of men  wandering in the uncertain landscape. Followed quickly by

another step of clarity and display, the allocation of flags to groups

of Jews .  Yet it ends with some holy objects being shrouded from view

. How do we navigate the balance between the desire for clarity, sense

of place and pride and the flexibility, freedom and mystery that

invariably come at the price of ambiguity?


This question plays out in the lives of so call “new economy” workers.

These are people who work as free agents, constantly moving between

short or medium terms jobs as well as between cities and countries,

enjoying great freedom and flexibility. Some of these workers are now

craving the sense of belonging and recognised identity they left

behind with the company job. Some even work “alone, together” in a

shared work space with other unattached workers. Others express

frustration about not being known as they leave their reputation

behind in one country and start work in the next .

Desert Flags & Belonging

The unconnected worker is advised to build her own “personal brand”.

For the Jews wandering In the desert, the approach was a more

traditional one, with a tribal or collective “brand”. Every Jew

belonged in a particular place in the camp, around a flag with known

colours and images that related specifically to his group of tribes ,

or his tribe  or even his clan or family . “In this way each would

recognise his flag ”.

In this very ordered society, misfits are unlikely to do well. We are

told the background story of the executed blasphemer. He was the son

of a Jewish woman who was raped by an Egyptian . He came to pitch his

tent in the camp of Dan,

they said to him “what is your nature that you would pitch your tent

in the camp of Dan?”

he replied,”I am the (son of one of the) daughters of Dan,

they said “it is written each man…according to their fathers houses

he went to the house of judgement of Moses where things did not go

well for him, he then stood up and blasphemed” .

His case aside, the flags expressed strength stemming from people

knowing who they were. The evil prophet and sorcerer Billam who had

sought to curse the Jews but was thwarted, is said to have looked at

the flags and then remarked “who can touch these people who recognise

their fathers and their families ”.

Definite Purpose

Perhaps what really impressed Billam was that he saw “that each one

stands in his place that is proper and corresponds to his strengths

(as these are manifest) above (in the spiritual dimension)” .

The idea that the flags relate to purpose is linked to a Midrash about

the origin of the flags. When the Jews were at Mt. Sinai they saw

“Twenty-two thousand chariots of angels, each one decked out with

flags, (that) attended the Revelation of the Torah. The Israelites

immediately desired to have flags just like the angels  ”.

The angelic connection is significant, because angels symbolise a

fixed purpose. They are divine messengers created to fulfil one task,

and cannot do any other task other than the specific mission for which

they were created. Their flags, reflected this clear purpose.  Human

beings, however are not limited to serving God in one particular

manner . For humans, a banner is too restricting; it does not reflect

our true free and flexible spiritual essence. Still the Jews desired

the flags and the clarity they represented. This was granted to them .

Perhaps they would have liked Mikey Jordan, a Sydney barista who has

declared a belief in freedom from choice” and provides certainty in

coffee, giving his customers no choice in the matter .  Interestingly,

to the best of my knowledge these flags did not continue to play a

part in the worship of the Jews in later times .

There is plenty of merit in making our unique contribution, best

suited to our talents and interests. The tension here is between a

quest for a predestined purpose which is then followed somewhat

rigidly and what I think is a more dynamic on-going exploration of

what I can possibly do today or in the future that is the most

appropriate and useful.

Coverings and Smoke

The reads ends with another expression of the question of display and

mystery. The Levite tribe whose task it was to carry the holy objects

of the portable desert temple were forbidden to see the objects that

they carried . The holy ark was covered by Aaron and his sons who were

Cohanim (a separate religious class) with two coverings . The effect

of this was that the holy objects would remain “Symbolic objects,

subjects for the mind, for thoughts, not much as actual tangible

objects, and so all the more fill their minds with thoughts of their

meaning ”. The space where the ark was kept was only visited once a

year by the high priest and even then he was enveloped with a cloud of

smoke .


There is comfort, value in definition and clarity, and in finding ones

place and purpose. How attractive it is for many people for everything

to be as clear about it all as the angels. Equally, there is potential

for still greater achievement by embracing the infinite possibilities

inherent in being human, and I think the stress of uncertainty is a

fair price to pay for this. I suggest that this is true both in the

the way we relate to the divine and our fellow human beings, including

those whose beliefs, ethnicity or perspectives on certain conflicts

are different to our own. It might be harder, but it is the more

promising path.


Mark Kirschbaum, MD on Bamidbar:

Perashat Bamidbar

Come In Under the Shadow of This Red Rock

(or, shelter in the Wasteland)

Bamidbar 1:1  And Gd spoke to Moshe in the Sinai Desert within the Ohel Moed (the Appointed Tent) on the First of the Second Month in the Second year from the Exodus from Egypt saying…

This week we begin the fourth of the books which comprise the Torah. This book, known most commonly as “Bamidbar”, “In the desert”, is also known as “Homesh Hapequdim” or as it is conveniently translated, as “Numbers”. In general, we have a return to the narrative of the wanderings in the desert of the Israelites, as well as some commandments, most of which, as pointed out by Ramban, are not of normative force today, though as usual we will attempt to derive emotive meaning from them as we encounter them. The opening perasha, which concerns us this week, has very little narrative or ritual, it consists almost entirely of the census taken of the people on the first day of the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt. I approached this perasha with great trepidation, given the fear I have of numbers since my grade school days; expounding, for example, on actuarial procedures in antiquity did not seem very inviting (OK, I can’t resist. One day the bookkeeper shows up at the office looking completely worn out. “You must have had had some busy evening”, said one of his co-workers. “It isn’t that”, yawned the bookkeeper. “I couldn’t fall asleep, so I started counting sheep. But I made a mistake somewhere, and it took me all night to find it.”).

This perasha consists primarily of this repeat census. The classical commentators wonder why a census is needed at this time. The Ibn Ezra explains that it was necessary in order to best set up the encampment and the flags. Rashi and the Ramban take a different approach. Rashi states that this census represents a counting of love, coming just after the erection of the Mishkan, as the Divine Presence was to rest upon the people. Ramban disagrees, as a census demonstrating love after the Mishkan was built should have been taken one month earlier, when the Mishkan was erected. Ramban’s conclusion, as stated in 1:45, is, well, that he doesn’t really have a good explanation of  why these numbers needed to be related to us. Given this hermeneutic opening, the Hassidic commentators felt the liberty to take these passages in an entirely different direction, not being bound by a “normative” earlier traditional reading. I will present the readings of several authors, among them the Noam Elimelech and two of his disciples, the Or Pnei Moshe and the Maor V’Shemesh.

The opening verse, as presented above, is seemingly a trivial restatement of the date the command for the census was issued. To the mystically oriented, however, there is no such thing as a trivial text; if a time is given, it must come to teach something. Deleuze and Guattari name this kind of relation to time, such an individuation of a time experience as an haecceity; as they explain: “A season, a winter, a summer, and hour, a date have a perfect individuality lacking nothing…concrete individuations that have a status of their own and direct the metamorphosis of things and subjects.” There is the usual sort of indefinite physical time, and then there is a determining measured time, a very different relation to temporality, as reflected in a phrase such as “once upon a time”. To the commentators of a mystical bent, it is not only the date per se that is alive and instructive, but also the descriptions and other terms used to identify these times which produce meaning, becoming the source of important messages about how to lead our lives. The Ben Ish Hai in Baghdad, who is contemporary with the Hassidic masters and shares much similarity in approach with them, explains that the actual numbers presented in this verse, the numbers 1, 2, and 2, or in Hebrew aleph, bet, and bet, form the acronym “Bereishit Bara Elokim”, the first three words of the Torah, as well as the Aramaic word “bava”, which means gate. He insists that the narration of these numbers is of cardinal importance, and offers his own Kabbalistic meanings, which we won’t delve into at this time. What matters is the sense that there is a message here.

The Daat Moshe  notes a series of superfluities in the text. For example, why does the verse repeat  that they were in the Sinai Desert? That would be fairly obvious, where else would they be? This superfluity strengthens his impression that this verse is not merely meant as a caption giving us a time and place.  He explains the multiple superfluities in the verse as encoding within it a lesson on how to attain the spiritual heights that Moshe reached. How did Moshe achieve this state of personal dialogue with Gd? The Daat Moshe explains: by virtue of Moshe’s extreme humility, a humility achieved by being in the emotional state of “midbar”, “desert” an annihilation of the ego brought about by a total openness to all, metaphorically as open to all as the wilderness. By virtue of existentially inhabiting this state of desert-hood, he earned “Sinai”, which numerically in Hebrew is equivalent to “sulam”, ladder, the ladder skyward, that is, by virtue of one’s self annihilation one achieves the heights of spiritual transcendence, and earns the “ohel”, which in Hebrew means ‘tent’ but etymologically also relates to “halo” (as in Job 29:3, b’hilo nero), meaning that he achieves transcendence and enlightenment. Ego negation is a prerequisite for openness to spiritual heights and enlightenment. Yet, bodhisattva like, a Moshe’s ohel is not complete, a Moshe resists climbing this ladder and keeps the light limited to this world, as a lesson for those who seek to learn and emulate this path; thus Moshe’s tent is kept “moed”, literally meaning “appointed” or “reserved”. that is, constricted to this world, available to those not yet on a high transcendent state. This lofty spiritual transmission is delivered via “echad lachodesh hasheni”, literally “the first of the second month”, but here, echad, “one” is famously the numerical equivalent of ahava, of love (the letters add up to thirteen, and it is an important meditation when reciting the Shema prayer, for example). It is through love that chidush, hitchadshut, renewal, is consummated, love renews the hearts of the people, because love means the care for the spiritual state of the sheni, of the Other. Love for the Other brings about a spiritual renewal so dramatic that it can transform even time, even time that has passed; the years of the spiritual poverty brought about by the hegemony of Egypt are now “b’shana hashenit”, shenit (second) being similar to the term hishtanut, transfiguration; even the past gets a second chance and is reconstructed in holiness. This verse we are reading ends with the term “laymor”, “saying”, reminding those who seek spiritual heights that they have a responsibility to speak the truths they learn, to teach the people the routes by which he or she gains this enlightenment, to share this love and light.

As an alternative reading to the latter part of the verse, he also suggests that “b’echad lachodesh hasheni” could insinuate that like the Echad, a term which is also a descriptive name for Gd, through Gd the uniquely One, who we are taught “each day mechadesh, recreates with His goodness”, one can become a “mishneh”, Gd’s aide-de-camp, in reconstructing the world toward the good, in tikkun olam. This can be accomplished by “shana hashenit”. Shana numerically is equivalent to “sefira”, similar to the Hebrew word “sapir”, “sapphire”, which glows from within itself (in other places the period of Sefirat HaOmer is thought of as a way to achieve an inner “glow”). Thus, one who is enlightened, through his or her own light, can bring about this same “shinui”, renewal, in others; this shinui is a result of each individual’s exodus from their own “metzarim”, those gnawing inhibitions which keep one from manifesting their own greatest potential.

In a similar approach, the Meor V’Shemesh reads this verse as symbolic of a process, a bildungsroman of spiritual growth. The MVSh notes that this first verse is constructed in a chiastic form. It begins with “dibbur”, traditionally meaning a public speech act, to Moshe in the Sinai Desert, an open space, which the verse then opposes with “in the Ohel Moed”, a covered space, which many Midrashim specify as referring to a more intimate dialogue, concealed within the tent, ending with the term “laymor”, “saying” the saying of “amira” being traditionally  contrasted with the more commanding “dibbur” as referring to a more personal, softer address.

The Meor V’shemesh explains all of this by resorting to a central theme in Lurianic mysticism.  In Lurianic Kabbala, spiritual growth is not linear but rather dialectic in nature. As explained by the MVSh, the first growth spurt, Katnut Rishon (Kaplan, translates this term as “first constricted consciousness”), is one of childlike, brute thinking, total nonceptualization. When one suddenly becomes “conscious”, achieving “Gadlut Rishon”, First Expanded Consciousness, action are performed with total commitment, in full vigor, prayers and studies in full voice. As the adept becomes more sophisticated and knowledgeable, as life reveals its complexities and doubt becomes a prominent aspect of life, there is a retreat to “katnut sheni”, the Second Restricted Consciousness. Overcoming this, and returning to a Second Expanded Consciousness, one can then encounter spiritual praxis again, this time without the childish shows of force, sans clamor, in sotto voce. All this, according to the Meor V’shemesh, is alluded to within our verse. The verse begins with term Vayidaber, signifying commanding speech, loud and forceful. After the humility that contemplative thought and life experience engender, metaphorized as “midbar”, the desert, the wasteland, one can achieve the state of “chidush hasheni”, this renewal, this evolution into Gadlut Sheni, where all action can be done covertly, intimately, as an “amirah” in the personal space of the “Ohel Moed”.

The Or Penei Moshe, also a student of the Noam Elimelech, puts his focus upon the term, Ohel Moed. These two words Ohel and Moed, teach us how to relate to our lives. The reason people are haughty and arrogant, he explains, is that their relationship to time is based on a mistaken sense of immortality. We forget that we are mortal and that death waits for us at some point. The moment the individual realizes that one’s time is limited, that life must end in death, then there is a total transformation of the person’s commitment and being toward life. This is what the phrase “bamidbar Sinai b’ohel moed” means to teach us. “Ohel”, “tent” symbolizes the sky, stretched over the earth like a tent, stretched over, beyond, not-in-this-world, transcendent. “Moed”, on the other hand,  translates as “time”, with the full phrase Ohel Moed thus connoting: “there will be a time in which one will be not-in-this-world”, our lives are pointed skyward, beyond or after the world we live in now. Becoming conscious of this, alters life entirely- one achieves the state of “midbar”, recognition of ultimate annihilation leading to a lack of attachment to the ego. Once the immature illusion of immortality is overcome, the individual is open to Sinai, there where the Torah is given. Thus, through conscious awareness of  the individual’s transience, new transcendent possibilities of meaning regarding life appear. Interesting how this anticipates by about one hundred years, the following signal paragraph of twentieth century thought:

Death is a possibility of Being that each Dasein must itself take over. With death Dasein stands before itself in its most proper potentiality for Being. What is involved in this possibility is nothing less that the being-in-the-world of Dasein as such…When Dasein stands before itself as this possibility it is fully directed towards its very own potentiality for Being…As potentiality for Being, Dasein cannot surmount the possibility fo death. Death is the possibility of the unqualified impossibility of Dasein. Death thus reveals itself as the most proper nonrelational insurmountable possibility… (M. Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, section 50, p. 250).

Both the Meor V’shemesh and the Or Pnei Moshe were students of the Noam Elimelech, R. Elimelech of Lizensk. Thus it is interesting how the Noam Elimelech’s teaching on this verse is much more tragic and radical than those already presented. He explains that in the giving of the Torah specifically at Sinai, we are taught the extreme humility necessary to actualize the Torah’s message. The Torah was deliberately given at Sinai, as the midrash teaches, Sinai being a smaller hill, not the most lofty of hilltops, in order to relay this message. However, this type of extreme humility, this ego annihilation, runs the risk of being a psychologically destabilizing experience, one that can quickly bring on a debilitating depression. Thus, Sinai is linked to Ohel Moed in this verse, meaning that along with the depressive Sinai postion one must surround themselves (thus the term Ohel, tent) with Moed, which here is translated as festival, the combined phrase meaning a “joyful environment”. Here, I believe, in 1788, first appears the phrase more frequently associated with Breslov, that is, that it is a “mitzvsah”, a commandment to be “tamid b’simcha”, to maintain joy (I suppose I should point out that in an earlier source, in Shaar Hakavanot of the Ari, we find that it is forbidden to pray while in depression, because it eventually causes prayer to become unpleasant for the person, and the Likutei Amarim (Tanya, chapt. 26) proposes a form of cognitive psychotherapy, given that depression is of no value, one must create imaginative techniques to get rid of it).

We are commanded, then, to maintain joy as a bulwark against depression, which is so readily a fate for a soul that recognizes the Divine in the world. But the self-punitive soul may ask itself, how can I maintain joy when I know that I have sinned and am not worthy of joy? Thus, the verse continues, “b’echad lachodesh hasheni”- every individual (echad) soul is twice born- the first time at birth, the second renewal (which is like a total rebirth) at the time of repentance, which is a change of life equivalent to the exodus from Mitzrayim, from those inhibitory cathexes which accompany sin.

The Noam Elimelech also presents another reading which to me reveals a level of sensitivity to human suffering, particularly meaningful to those of us who deal with the gravely ill on a daily basis- he points out that even a parent who sees the suffering of their child, may attempt to ameliorate the child’s pain by offering candy or food or whatever they have at their disposition, but they know that they can’t ever really remove the pain and the trauma or undo the loss caused the beloved infant. Gd is aware of the sublime tragedy of the human condition, R. Elimelech explains, and Gd means to inform us that communication to humanity is not from some exalted and removed Olympus, but from within the midbar, from within the desert wasteland of our human existence itself. From within that world, through a relationship with Torah, with Gd’s speech act, we can erect an Ohel Moed, a shelter, an envelopment of joy, within the sad tragic realities of the human condition.

Taking into account the Shem MiShmuel’s  explanation for this census, being that is was meant to teach us that each and every individual “counted”  is as important as the “people” as a totality, that every individual life is part of the Text, then we find, derived from a seemingly trivial passage, a profound and affecting set of teachings, which are at the core of the Hassidic hermeneutic project.


Reflections on the


by Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman


“And the Children of Israel shall be as numerous as the sand by the sea”

The first three chapters of the Book of Hosea, from which this

week’s haftarah is taken (Hosea 2:1-22), revolve around the metaphor of

Israel as an unfaithful wife.  In a certain sense, one might call this a

kind of inversion of Song of Songs.  In the classical midrashic reading

of the Song, God and Israel are seen as the pair of lovers, whose

romance is portrayed in lyric, idyllic terms, in the midst of a natural,

rustic setting.  The same analogy is used here, by the text itself, but

rather than an idyllic romance, we have infidelity and betrayal,

jealousy, and finally—because the lover is somehow attached to his

beloved no matter what—forgiveness, reconciliation and a (hopefully

long-lasting) “happy” ending.

In the opening chapter of the book, which is not read as part of the

haftarah, the prophet is asked, as a symbolic act, to take “a wife of

harlotry.”  (Incidentally, the various terms usually translated into

English as “harlot,” “harlotry,” “whoring,” etc.—zonah, zenunim,

tizneh—do not refer to prostitution in the modern sense of a woman who

sells her sexual favors for money, but to any promiscuous woman,

especially an unfaithful wife.)    Both she and the children she bears

him are given various symbolic names, indicative of the alienation of

the people from its God (his son is called lo ami–“not my people”;  the

daughter, lo ruhama, “not pitied”)

The second chapter opens with the verse quoted above, referring to

the multitudes of the Jewish people.  It is this single verse that

serves as the basis for the connection of the haftarah to the Torah

portion, which focuses upon the census of the Israelite people in the

desert.  In any event, this verse marks a turning point away from the

negative tidings of the previous chapter;  from his point on, the

prophet heralds the beginning of Israel’s redemption, its reacceptance

as “my people,” as “the sons of the living God” and “she who is an

object of compassion.”

Nevertheless, God still has a quarrel with “their mother”

(although, in terms of the interpretation of the metaphor, the identity

of the children and of the mother is not entirely clear).  She is

neither a real wife, nor a real mother, being not only unfaithful, but

also ungrateful.  She mistakenly believes that all she has—“bread and

water, wool and flax… grain, wine and oil”—come from her various lovers,

i.e., the Be’alim, the pagan gods who she has worshipped;  yet in truth

everything she has comes from God (v. 10-11).  It is only when the

others turn their backs on her that she decides to return to her first


God’s reaction is two-fold.  He first gives vent to his jealousy,

punishing her, shaming her, “ceasing her festivals and new moons and

sabbaths,” displaying her shame and lewdness in the eyes of her lovers

(vv. 12-15).  But afterwards, because of his own inner connection to

her, He has no choice but to take her back:  “I will seduce her, and

take her to the wilderness, and speak to her heart… and she will respond

as in the days of her youth” (vv. 16-17).

This portrayal of a “second honeymoon” concludes with two

interesting verses. 2:18 is a complicated double entendre:  “In those

days you shall call me ishi (“my husband” or simply “my man”) and no

longer call me ba’ali (“my husband” or “my Ba’al”).   Thus, on the

simplest level, we have here a reference to the religious infidelity

implied by the worship of Ba’al, a word also meaning “husband.”

But some contemporary Israeli feminists would like to see this verse

as suggestive of a more egalitarian relationship between the sexes;

even in everyday Hebrew discourse, the term ishi is seen as vastly

preferable to ba’ali, with its connotations of ownership, of

acquisition.  The latter, through its derivation from the verb bo’el,

also relates to the sexual act, seen as one in which the man is the

actor, making the woman “his,” while the woman, in the very grammatical

usage, is seen as passive, niv’elet.  The use of ishi, by contrast, is

more or less a counterpart to “ishti.”  (This usage also has vaguely

Edenic overtones;  back in the Garden Eve was initially called Woman

[ishah] “because this one was taken from man [ish]” (2:23).

The haftarah concludes with two verses “I shall betroth you to me

forever… with righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and mercy…. I

shall betroth you to me with faith, and you shall know the Lord” (vv.

21-22).  These verses, which convey both an ideal relation between man

and woman, as between human and God, serve liturgically as a kind of

“motto” for the mitzvah of tefillin.  After weekday, after reciting the

blessing(s) and donning the tefillin, the phylacteries worn by

traditional Jews during morning prayer, these verses are recited while

winding the straps around ones middle finger.  The tefillin straps thus

become a kind of wedding ring, symbolizing ones nuptial-like attachment

to God.


Parashat Bemidbar

Numbers 1:1–4:20

May 28, 2011 / 24 Iyyar 5771

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, director of the Center for Pastoral Education and the Helen Fried Kirshblum Goldstein Chair in Professional and Pastoral Skills, JTS.

The midrash teaches us that God destroyed the world several times before creating our world (Bereishit Rabbah 3:7 and 9:2). Famously, after the flood, God establishes a covenant with Noah, Noah’s sons, and all living things. God says: “I will maintain My covenant (briti) with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). When we read this verse in light of the midrash, we understand that God came very close to destroying the world again, but managed to enact a symbolic destruction, providing some people and some of the living creatures with a way to survive. This covenant is the vehicle for keeping humanity and all of creation connected with the divine even when rupture looms as a possibility.

In this week’s Torah and haftarah portions, the specter of rupture looms repeatedly. First, we are reminded of the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu. Though they had entered into a sacred pact to serve God in the intimacy of God’s holiest places, they got it wrong—they “offered alien fire before the Lord” (Num. 3:4)—and died as a result. Their missing the mark led to their deaths and a transfer of the sacred role from the older to the younger sons. Similarly, our parashah recounts the undoing of the sacred place held by the firstborn sons, chosen to be dedicated to God when they were saved from the 10th plague, the plague of the slaying of the firstborns. While God simply asserts that Moses should substitute the Levites for the firstborns (Num. 3:41), we must notice that, once again, a special relationship of service has been abrogated and a new group has replaced the original one.

Finally, in the haftarah, Hosea tells the story of Israel the Unfaithful, through the vehicle of Gomer, his harlot-wife. While there is much in this haftarah to suggest that rupture is imminent, the haftarah ends with the words of a covenant renewed:

And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy (chesed v’rahamim),
And I will espouse you with faithfulness (b’emunah);
Then you shall be devoted (v’yadaat) to the Lord. (Hosea 2:21–22)

Growing up, I always felt deeply confident that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was inviolable. No matter what we did, God would always be connected to us, bound up in our fate. I have always found this promise tremendously reassuring. But when I read these texts, I start to feel an anxiety that the possibilities of rupture are real. The power of Hosea’s words is precisely the knowledge that the binding of God and Israel cannot be taken for granted. We cannot read the verses I have quoted without having an awareness of the danger of that covenant being dissolved. Surely the naming of Gomer’s son makes the reality of the severing of relationship very clear. “Then He said ‘Name him Lo-ammi (not my people); for you are not My people and I will not be your [God]‘” (Hos. 1:9).

Given that Hosea’s story focuses on the relationship between God and Israel through the paradigm of marriage, the haftarah quite naturally leads me to think about the reality of covenant in terms of divorce. The Jewish wedding incorporates the possibility of the rupture of the marriage, by way of either divorce or death, through the vehicle of the ketubbah. Theketubbah‘s original purpose was to protect the woman in case of divorce or death. One might ask: why must the specter of separation enter into the joy of the wedding day? While that desire to flee from reality is understandable, I find it heartening that Judaism does not indulge us in this way. Even on the day when we commit ourselves to our beloved, we must acknowledge that the union cannot rest on the reassurance that the covenant is permanent. We must make provisions for proper treatment of one another even in worst-case scenarios. It is only when we make room for those possibilities that we can make the difficult choices that will enable us to live in right relationship. Only when I know that divorce is real, can I stop and listen to my partner when he or she is frustrated with the same fight we’ve had over and over. Only when I know that death is real can I make choices about how to live in the face of overwhelming limitations. A marriage that cannot envision that the marriage itself is a fragile arrangement is not a marriage that can be challenged to make difficult choices when crises emerge.

So I return to the verse from Hosea, “And I will espouse you forever.” How does that espousal work? Judaism guides us in making this process concrete. Every day (except Shabbat), when Jews wrap tefillin (phylacteries), we say these verses as we wrap. The wrapping and reciting become a meditation about recommitting ourselves to the hard work of being espoused. I cannot be passive. I must act. So I affirm, “I will espouse you with righteousness and justice.” There’s a promise in there that my actions will lead to just desserts. So then I say, “And with goodness and mercy (chesed v’rahamim).” These attributes reassure me that even though I must focus on what I can do, the reality that follows my actions is tied up in God’s boundless love and mercy, the boundless love and mercy of the other. Even when I err, rupture is not decidedly what follows. So then I say, “And I will espouse you with faithfulness.” This faithfulness, emunah, draws on the idea of trust and steadfastness. When we live with a balance of all these attributes, then we can be faithfully bound to one another and to God. This sense of balance enables us to say “veyadat et Adonai,” which I would translate as “then you shall know God.” The sacred partnership with another human being echoes our sacred partnership with God. When we know another person in loving relationship, and respect that we cannot take that relationship for granted, then we become motivated to make the choices that keep the relationship vital. We must do the same in our relationship with the divine.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, co-chair with Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in San Francisco and Berkeley, California. He is the author of eleven books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book, Embracing Israel/Palestine, is available on Kindle from and in hard copy from He welcomes your responses and invites you to join with him by joining the Network of Spiritual Progressives (membership comes with a subscription to Tikkun magazine). You can contact him at
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