September 21, 2000
Relationships with God
Parshat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)
When John and I married, our invitation featured a verse from this week's Haftorah (Isaiah 61:10-63:9): Yasis alayich Elochayich kimsos chatan al kalah, rendered freely as "Come join in the sanctification of our joy"; literally, "As a bridegroom rejoices in a bride, so your God will rejoice in you" (Isaiah 62:5). This verse became a favorite years ago when its daring, electric comparison hit me: Human love provides the standard for God's love of the Jewish people. Instead of urging human lovers toward heaven, we Jews cannot imagine any-thing more deeply, joy-ously loving than what committed human part-ners feel for each other. We envision God learning love from human lovers.
Whether God is the bridegroom or the bride, I invite you to pause and summon a feeling of being loved in that way by God. Holding this feeling close offers an important preparation for the High Holy Days, which always follow upon this haf-tarah. Experiencing ourselves as God's partner in a marriage-like covenantal relationship can provide the stamina and courage to acknowledge sins without being devastated in the process. Of course, we also address God as "Avinu Mal-keinu," invoking parental protection and nurturing. But I for one do better with a model of spiritual caring that leaves me in an adult role and that stresses intimacy, even passion. So there we are, God and I, encountering one another one-on-one in a manner that parallels my marriage.
Apart from closeness to God, we all exist within our own skins, each with thoughts and feelings that no other person understands or even knows about. Yet if we are fortunate, we also live enmeshed in relationship - within concen-tric circles of connection and of meaning. The union of two may expand to include children or others, so that we fit within a household and an extended family. We belong to profes-sional networks and are American citizens or residents; depending on our degree of involvement, we draw strength and meaning from those identifications.
Belonging to the Jewish people is like being a member of the American Bar Associa-tion, the Goldberg family or the United States. But there are also differences - differences that make our identities as Jews more pervasive, more endur-ingly meaningful and better capable of providing an overall framework for our lives. We rejoice, learn and are sustained within a circle that is larger than our family, more holistic than our profession, and more concretely embedded than our nation. Being Jewish trans-cends time and space, stretching the boundaries of our individu-al lives and rendering us, in some sense, eternal.
"You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God - your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, each person of Israel, your children, your wives [husbands], even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer - to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God... I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day."
So begins Parshat Nitzavim, the first of this week's double portion. Written thousands of years ago, it reaches across the centuries to grab us in Septem-ber 2000 in Southern California. It speaks to me - whom good fortune has embedded within a loving marriage and family, university and rabbinic net-works, and democratic civic structures - inviting me into the grand, eternal circle of Jewish life. Grand and eternal, yes; but also charged with the intimacy, immediacy and joy experienced by Isaiah's bride and groom. Torah and haftarah, Jewish people and Adonai - these join to sustain and enlarge me as I move towards Rosh Hashanah. May you, I, our people and all the world be inscribed for a good New Year.
Susan Laemmle is dean of religious life at the University of Southern California.
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