Rabbi Michael Barclay
Yitro: The Ultimate Wedding
“I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine”
---Song of Songs 6:3
For months and sometimes even years we prepare for our wedding day. Our engagement period is filled with planning the service, party, food, music, and more. For some people, they start planning their dream wedding even as children. As a Rabbi, I constantly need to remind couples that the wedding day is not the goal, but the beginning of the rest of their lives together. It is the start of something entirely new that will, with God’s help, last forever.
This portion, in which we read about the giving of the Ten Commandments, is the wedding day between God and the people of Israel. The Ten Commandments are in fact the ketubah, the wedding contract between us and God.
All too often people think of the Ten Commandments as rules and laws, but they are so much more. Written in the structure of contracts of the time (and now), these are the love vows that God offers us to be in an eternal relationship. Shortly before the giving of the Ten Commandments, God says, “you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples” (Ex. 19:5). His words are a preface for the love contract He is about to present to us at Mt. Sinai.
This contract is structured just like the stages of any relationship. A young man sees a woman at a party. He goes over and they introduce themselves to each other by name. Conversation ensues, and they tell each other their backgrounds, what they do, etc. As their relationship develops, they become more in love, and you can see it in their faces. Months later, we need only to look at their faces and can see the state of their relationship. If the relationship is strong, they can be on opposite sides of a room but their faces always look towards each other. If, God forbid, the relationship is not healthy, then this too we can see on their faces as they peruse other potential partners at the event. As their relationship becomes even deeper, they make agreements. Who will cook and who will clean; how and where can they hang out with their single friends; will they have children and more become the agreements that cement their relationship together.
Then Ten Commandments are a Divine expression of this process. The first statement by God is simple, and like all the statements are analogous to a relationship agreement. “I am YHVH” (the personal name of God) is just like the young man introducing himself by name. “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is a mirror of the young couple telling each other what they do, and their priorities in life. Is this first statement that different from, “Hi, I’m David and I am an attorney who loves golf”?
Usually mistranslated, the next commandment begins to show us the unique relationship we have with God. Most translations say, “you shall have no other gods before me”, but the Hebrew has a subtle and important teaching not found in that translation. The Hebrew words are, “lo y’hiyeh l’cha” (there shall not be for you) “elohim acherim” (other gods) “al p’nay” (on your face). The literal translation of the text is not about having other gods before or beside you, it is a clear commandment not to have other gods “on your face” (Ex. 20:3).
The implication is clear: our relationship is to be intimate and primary, with no one and nothing to come between us and God.
The rest of the Ten Commandments teaches us how we are to function as a couple in the world: they are our further relationship agreements with God. They are the agreements about how we are to always act so that our Divine relationship is strengthened in every moment, and so that we don’t sabotage the relationship. Like the agreement between any partners, they are based on an eternal covenant of mutual love that must sustain itself in the midst of the challenges of the external world.
These words are so primary, and are truly the ketubah between us and God. The holiday celebrating this union and the gift or Torah is Shavuot. In the observance of that holiday we find yet another hint as to the accuracy of the love and wedding analogy.
On Shavuot, we traditionally read from a text called “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” (Rectification for the Eve of Shavuot), which includes excerpts from the Torah, Bible, Talmud and other sacred texts. But the last piece in this holy book that we read on Shavuot are the Seven Wedding Blessings. These words are said at every Jewish wedding, and are also said on Shavuot as a reminder of how strong, intimate, and deep our relationship with God is, and that the Ten Commandments are our wedding contract together.
May we all be blessed to rely on our partner of God, and to fully feel the love that God has for each one of us. And may we all return that love to the Divine and feel the joy and the depth of the relationship in every moment.
This teaching is given in honor and memory of Murray Siegel, Mayer ben David HaLevy who died on the 16th of Shvat, 5782. A pillar in our community and the entire world through his wisdom, kindness, and charity; may his memory be a blessing and his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
January 20th, 2022
19th of Shvat, 5782