“My brother will never get married,” a friend told me, “he believes that marriage is like death.” I am going to be completely honest with you all. His brother is in fact correct. Looking at Jewish law and custom, we see that these two life-cycle events are very closely related. We have seven days of sheva brachot following a wedding and seven days of shiva. Our wedding day has a special power to atone for our sins, as does the day of our death. Some chatanim wear a kittel, the same clothing they will be buried in. Even the word for bride in Hebrew, kallah, comes from the word kliyah, destruction.
This week the Jewish people receives a marriage proposal that is as scary as death. It comes, however, with such a great romantic potential that we accept it:
“You saw what I did in Egypt, carrying you on eagles’ wings and bringing you to Me. Now if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be My special treasure among all nations, even though all the world is Mine. You will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me…” (Shemot 19:4-6)
“You shall be My special treasure among all nations” seems to imply that G-d loves us Jews more than all the other nations. Some people have interpreted this verse as racism. In the eyes of our Sages, the covenant at Mount Sinaiis likened to a marriage between G-d and the Jewish people. Imagine a marriage proposal where the man professes his love to the woman with the following words: “I love you as much as I love every other woman in the world.” Marriage is all about particularity. Any gentile who wants to join the Jewish people can join, the love between G-d and the Jewish people belongs also to the convert, but that is because he has signed up for this preferential treatment.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch sees a different message in the words. In marriage, there is a special love between spouses, but there is another particularity. Only a spouse can cheat on his/her spouse. When the other nations of the world run after idols, G-d can go easy on them. They aren’t cheating on him, he never “married” them. However, when Jews run after idols they are cheating on G-d, idolatry is adultery. For Hirsch, the special relationship is that we are punished more than all the other nations. So indeed this is a very frightening as well as a very romantic marriage proposal.
The marriage proposal comes with an expectation. We are to “be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me”. A kingdom of priests seems rather unrealistic. Priests need lay people that they can be priests to. The implication is that the lay people here are all the other nations of the world. Every Jew will be a role model for the gentiles, bringing them closer to G-d. A holy nation, on the other hand, suggests a nation that turns in on itself and builds up its own holiness, its connection to G-d, through special laws that separate it from the other nations. The word for holy, kadosh, also means separate. We are to be both separated and a role model, a nation apart and a light to the nations. We are to be the vehicle for the final redemption of the whole world.
It is a heavy commitment and an amazing opportunity that our ancestors sign up to, somewhat like getting married, which as we said, is akin to dying. There is one subtlety, though, that my friend’s brother overlooks. Us Jews believe in life after death! Not only that, we believe in a better life after death. So it’s well worth getting married. It seems that our ancestors at Mount Sinaiunderstood that point too.