Redemptive Relationship, Part 3: Articulating Commitment

Rabbi Aviva Richman

Parashat Yitro

In the last few parashiyot, we have been exploring the Exodus as the story of how Israel and God fell in love through the lens of a midrash on the Song of Songs. The first formative moment was when we were still in Egypt, teaching us about those crucial moments of care and presence even while in the very midst of an oppressive context.1 Then, we saw the reconciliation of children and parents at the Sea of Reeds, and how both generations discovered God and each other through their mutual relationships.2 The final scene to explore is Israel and God at Sinai, which our tradition depicts as a kind of wedding where we entered into covenant.3

In this marriage metaphor, the Torah is an articulation of clear, specific commitments and obligations on both sides, analogous to a kind of ketubah or contract. While the use of this image is widespread, in fact there are deeply divergent pictures of what this wedding actually looked like. Some traditions depict Israel blindly agreeing to the relationship with God, even—especially—without knowing the detailed nature of all the commitments involved. Others show Israel as being totally informed of the details of what was expected, signing on only afterwards. Exploring these two different versions of Sinai allows us to surface the importance of informed, affirmative consent between two active subjects as the bedrock of any relationship of intimacy. At the same time, it reminds us that, in the closest and deepest relationships of our lives, we can never fully know what might be required of us.

Built on the same verse from Song of Songs as the other two versions of our love story, the midrash brings us to the “tzeil - shadow” of Sinai. It relates that we “blossomed like a lily” with “good deeds,” likely the mitzvot of the Torah. Finally, instead of “song” (as in the previous scenes), we erupted in the statement of “na’aseh ve-nishma - we will do and we will listen.”4 This statement is often understood as our willingness to accept the Torah even before we know what commitments it entails. Given the power dynamics of traditional marriage, the image this midrash may evoke is that of Israel as an idealized loyal and obedient bride.

Other midrashim in Shir HaShirim Rabbah show Israel with a more active role. Another verse from later in the same chapter of Song of Songs is also interpreted through the Sinai experience:

שיר השירים ב:יד

יוֹנָתִ֞י בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֗לַע בְּסֵ֙תֶר֙ הַמַּדְרֵגָ֔ה הַרְאִ֙ינִי֙ אֶת־מַרְאַ֔יִךְ הַשְׁמִיעִ֖ינִי אֶת־קוֹלֵ֑ךְ כִּי־קוֹלֵ֥ךְ עָרֵ֖ב וּמַרְאֵ֥יךְ נָאוֶֽה:

 

Song of Songs 2:14

O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your appearance, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is comely.

 

This verse, at first glance, evokes the bride as a passive object of desire and beauty, where the speaker, the male lover, admires his female lover’s face. But when the midrash applies it to Sinai, putting it in God’s mouth, it transforms the female object of beauty to an active participant—one who “sees,” not just one who is seen.

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה ב:לז

ר"ע פתר קרייה בישראל בשעה שעמדו לפני הר סיני,

"יונתי בחגוי הסלע" - שהיו חבויין בסתרו של סיני,

"הראיני" וגומר - שנא' "וכל העם רואים את הקולות" (שמות כ:טו),

"השמיעני את קולך" - זה קול שלפני הדברות, שנא' "כל אשר דבר ה' נעשה ונשמע" (שמות כד:ז),

 

Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:37

R. Akiva interpreted the verse as applying to Israel when they stood before Mount Sinai.

“My dove in the cleft of the rock”—because they were sheltered in the cover of Sinai.

“Let me see [your appearance]”—as it says, “And all the people saw the thunder” (Exodus 20:15).

“Let me hear your voice”—this is the voice that was before the Ten Commandments, as it says, “All that God said we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

 

In both the Song of Songs and Sinai, the sense of sight (Hebrew root ר.א.ה.) is central: the speaker is taken with the lover’s “appearance” (מראיך), and the Israelites “saw” (רואים) the thunder (Exodus 20:15). But this same root for “sight” functions in totally different ways. At Sinai, the Israelites are not simply seen by God, they use their eyes to see God. By putting these two verses together, the midrash changes the meaning of “appearance” from passive to active, where God essentially says, “Let me see your seeing.” In this reading, God doesn’t want to gaze on the passive Israel’s face, but to see them returning the gaze, so to speak, in the theophany at Sinai. The relationship between us and God is not, therefore, a unidirectional, objectifying gaze from the powerful “male” groom towards the passive “female” bride, but instead a mutual gaze between the two lovers.

Yet, there is a dark side to this midrash. While initially it refers to Israel’s gaze when God first appears at Sinai, and the optimistic statement “we will do” whatever this relationship involves, the midrash continues to refer to another act of sight and voice that takes place after God speaks at Sinai. There, Israel’s “sight” and “speech” express fear and wanting to stay away from God.5 It is as though they didn’t realize what they were getting into, and once they know more they would rather step back than step into relationship with God. This is the version of Sinai where Israel, swept up in the romance of the moment, jumps into the relationship without knowing its terms and what will be required of them, and then experiences hesitation and fear.

In a totally different version of Sinai, we see that God made sure Israel knew exactly what they were signing onto beforehand.6 A messenger went to every individual sharing laws in the Torah in great detail, then asked explicitly for consent. Only after an individual consented to these details, the messenger asked explicitly, “Do you accept God?” This model is one of informed, affirmative consent—but certainly no less romantic. Coming to expound the verse “He kisses me from kisses of his mouth” (Song of Songs 1:2), the scene ends with the messenger giving a kiss after the offer has been fully accepted (or, in another version, God’s words themselves giving the kisses). The “kisses of God’s mouth” are the words of mitzvot. Reviewing the details of these utterances about commitments and obligations doesn’t “kill” the romance, but creates it.

Imagine how this plays out if you map it onto the interpersonal. The idea is that before asking “will you marry me” we need to detail the commitments that entails, and affirmatively consent. “Yes I will wash the dishes you leave in the sink. Yes I will pay the bills you would forget to pay.” The details of love are not taken for granted.

It feels important to lift up the power of these two different models for intimate relationship, and to be aware of the limits of each. The latter model—where one takes the time and attention to articulate all of the commitments involved in a given relationship—may feel more responsible. Falling blindly in love without any sense of what commitments it entails, on the other hand, can be naive and damaging. The Rabbinic tradition that goes so far as to say that at Sinai we were coerced into accepting the Torah shows the extreme dangers of this model, that is not at all interested in determining whether someone knows or wants what is actually involved in entering a relationship (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88a).

On the other hand, the “informed, affirmative consent” model also has its limits. In many of the deepest relationships in our lives, we could never know in advance what kinds of demands this relationship will make on us. Being able to articulate all of the terms of the contract may sound comforting and responsible, but it is not always—and maybe not ever—possible in the relationships that require our full and ongoing presence. We should take Sinai as a model for both. It is absolutely necessary to articulate all that we already know about the commitments we expect or require. At the same time we have to realize that making this kind of leap into close relationship involves demands and presence that are both prior to and beyond these delineations. Maybe the redemptive work in a relationship is the very act of attempting to articulate the commitments we need and can give, and also being ready and present for the unknown.


Part 1 on Parashat Bo, “When Nothing Seems to Change,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/redemptive-relationship-part-1.

2 Part 2 on Parashat BeShallah, “Leaving and Coming (Back) Home,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/redemptive-relationship-part-2.

3 See, for example, Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8.

שיר השירים ב:א: דָּבָר אַחֵר, אֲנִי חֲבַצֶּלֶת הַשָּׁרוֹן, אֲנִי הִיא וַחֲבִיבָה אָנִי, אֲנִי הִיא שֶׁהָיִיתִי חֲבוּיָה בְּצִלּוֹ שֶׁל סִינַי, וּלְשָׁעָה קַלָּה הִרְטַבְתִּי מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים כְּשׁוֹשַׁנָּה בְּיָדִי וְלִבִּי, וְאָמַרְתִּי לְפָנָיו (שמות כד, ז): כֹּל אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר ה' נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע. / Shir Ha-Shirim 2:1: Another interpretation: “I am a rose (havatzelet) of Sharon[, a lily of the valleys].” I am she, and beloved (havivah) am I; I am she who was beloved in the shadow (tzillo) of Sinai, and in a short time I bloomed with good deeds like “a lily” in my hand and my heart, and I said before Him: “All that God said we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

שיר השירים רבה (וילנא) פרשה ב:לז: "כי קולך ערב" - זה קול שלאחר הדברות, שנאמר "וישמע ה' את קול דבריכם וגו' הטיבו כל אשר דברו" (דברים ה:כה)... "ומראך נאוה" שנא' (שמות כ') וירא העם וינועו ויעמדו מרחוק. / Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah 2:37 (ctnd.): “For your voice is sweet”—this is the voice that was after the Ten Commandments, as it says, “God heard the voice of what you spoke… [and said:] ‘all they have spoken is well’” (Deuteronomy 5:25)... “and your face is comely”—as it says, “When the people saw, they trembled and stood from afar” (Exodus 20:15).

שיר השירים רבה פרשה א:ב
ד"א "ישקני מנשיקות פיהו" - אמר רבי יוחנן: מלאך היה מוציא הדיבור מלפני הקדוש ברוך הוא, על כל דיבור ודיבור, ומחזירו על כל אחד ואחד מישראל, ואומר לו: מקבל אתה עליך את הדיבור הזה? כך וכך דינין יש בו כך וכך עונשין יש בו כך וכך גזרות יש בו וכך מצות וכך קלים וחמורים יש בו, כך וכך מתן שכר יש בו. והיה אומר לו ישראל: הן, וחוזר ואומר לו: מקבל את אלהותו של הקדוש ברוך הוא? והוא אומר לו: הן והן, מיד היה נושקו על פיו.

ורבנין אמרין: הדיבור עצמו היה מחזר על כל אחד ואחד מישראל, ואומר לו: מקבלני את עליך? כך וכך מצות יש בי, כך וכך דינין יש בי, כך וכך עונשין יש בי, כך וכך גזרות יש בי, כך וכך מצות יש בי, כך וכך קלין וחמורין יש בי, כך וכך מתן שכר יש בי. והוא אומר: הן והן, מיד הדיבור נושקו על פיו - לאדקולאין בן הדימה (= לאו דוקא אלא כן הדימם) - ולמדו התורה הה"ד (דברים ד, ט) "פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך", דברים שראו עיניך איך היה הדבור מדבר עמך.

Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2
Another interpretation: “He will kiss me the kisses of his mouth”—said Rabbi Yohanan: A messenger would carry the Utterance (Dibbur) from before the Holy Blessed One, for each Utterance [of the Ten Commandments], and would go about everyone of Israel and say to them: Do you accept upon yourself this Utterance? It has in it these laws, these punishments, these decrees, these mitzvot, these leniencies and stringencies, and these rewards. And the Israelite would say to it: Yes. Then it would say to them: Do you accept the divinity of the Holy Blessed One? And they would say to it: Yes and yes. Immediately, it would kiss them on their mouth. But the Rabbis said: The Dibbur itself would go about everyone of Israel and say to them: Do you accept me upon yourself? I have these mitzvot, these laws, these punishments, these decrees, these mitzvot (sic!), these leniencies and stringencies, and these rewards. They would say: Yes and yes. Immediately, the statement would kiss them upon their mouth—(this isn’t meant literally but this is how God made it seem to them)—and taught them the Torah. This is what is written, “Lest you forget the devarim that your eyes saw” (Deuteronomy 4:9), that your eyes saw how the Dibbur spoke with you.