Long before John Grey wrote his best-selling book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus," prior even to those planets' creation, a different kind of book on relationships was written.
Released in the year 2000 B.C. (before creation), it has, to date, sold well over six billion copies, topping the charts as the best-seller of all time. This non-fiction work chronicles the first romance ever; one which took place between the Author and His beloved bride, the Jewish people. The wedding day was set for the sixth of Sivan. The venue was Mount Sinai, the menu was dairy, and the invite list included all the cosmos. They married on that historic day; the marriage has lasted three thousand years and counting. There were many hiccups on the way, as any good marriage would have, and much work was necessary to ensure its survival.
The couple can never come to a consensus regarding the naming, and the significance, of noteworthy milestones in their relationshipIt is through the lens of this union that all future ones can be seen, for they all are rooted in that very matrimony. Over the millennia, scholars have examined this relationship from every angle, and have used it as a source of countless relationship tips. Understanding the dynamics of this cosmic relationship can greatly benefit every marriage.
Interestingly, though, this relationship has, from its very inception, been plagued by a quarrel between the spouses. As is common with many couples, they find themselves continuously and constantly arguing the same argument. In this instance, the couple can never come to a consensus regarding the naming, and the significance, of noteworthy dates and milestones in their relationship.
Let us chronicle the history of this disagreement.
Love at First Sight
The relationship took root during the bride's difficult sojourn in the land of Egypt. That is when, like a knight in shining armor, the Groom rode into her life and saved her from the clutches of a tyrannical ruler. Since then they celebrate what you might call their very first date on the fifteenth day of Nissan, a holiday on which they relive and re-experiences the love at first sight they experienced on that fateful date.
As far as the name of the holiday is concerned, however, the bride and the Groom don't exactly see eye to eye. While disagreements are not an uncommon phenomenon amongst young couples, the point of difference between this couple is very uncommon indeed. In the Torah, the Groom chooses to name this holiday Chag Hamatzot, "the Holiday of Matzot"; the bride prefers the name Pesach, or Passover.
The name "Holiday of Matzot" recalls the unswerving loyalty the bride had to her Groom. Matzah is a product of the dough that had no time to rise due to the hurriedness of the exodus. It speaks of the bride's readiness to travel into the wilderness, far away from civilized life and its comforts and stability, with no knowledge of her destination and how she might reach it. Only someone deeply in love would follow her loved one the way this bride followed her Groom. As such, the Groom prefers the name "Matzot," to highlight and forever be reminded of His beloved bride's unshakable faithfulness.
In admirable disagreement the bride chooses to call it PassoverIn admirable disagreement the bride chooses to call it Passover, in commemoration of her Groom's unconditional allegiance to her, His undeserving betrothed, which He demonstrated when He "passed over" and spared the bride's homes during the course of the Plague of the Firstborn.
The Jewish nation had sadly been influenced by Egyptian culture and practices which were steeped in polytheism and idolatry of the highest order. In fact, Midrashic tradition has it that when G‑d informed the Angel of Death that the Jewish people were untouchable, an angelic commotion was raised: "Both the Egyptians and the Jews are idol-worshippers; how can you redeem one and punish the other?" What even the angels failed to understand was the extent of G‑d's love for His bride—a love, which transcended rhyme and reason, good and bad, and astonishingly even withstood unfaithfulness.
This was a love of no condition, and it is this love that the bride seeks to highlight on the night when she recalls His passing over her—in spite of angelic protestations.
What to Name the Anniversary?
This exact difference of opinion resurfaced come the following holiday, celebrated on the sixth of Sivan. The Groom dubbed the festival "Shavuot," while the bride, in her prayers, refers to it as Z'man Matan Toratenu—the "Time of the Giving of the Torah."
Shavuot means "weeks," and refers to the Biblical command to count seven weeks from Passover onwards, the conclusion of which is celebrated with a holiday. According to the Kabbalists, this physical count is paralleled by a spiritual count, whereby each day is not just counted but is made to count, as we progress on a spiritual journey of self-refinement. Each day of the Omer we labor on internalizing our spiritual gifts. As we progress with our character elevation, we become deserving and worthy of the gift – the Torah – that we receive on Shavuot each year.
The Groom seeks to underscore our commitment to His service. This is what He celebrates. And that's why He calls the day "Shavuot"; recalling the seven-week period of love and devotion embarked upon by His affectionate bride.
In His estimation, this holiday has nothing to do with His act of giving and has everything to do with the bride's devotionIncredibly, nowhere in the Torah is it mentioned that this holiday is at all related to the giving of the Torah. This important piece of information was conveniently left out by the Groom. In His estimation, this holiday has nothing to do with His act of giving and has everything to do with the bride's devotion.
The bride, however, maintains the opposite: the holiday has nothing to do with her and has everything to do with Him. She feels that no matter how much she accomplishes in the seven weeks, her finite service cannot possibly earn her the infinite treasure of light that G‑d generously gifts her with each year. Hence she's fond of calling it "the Time of the Giving of Torah."
Huts vs. Clouds
Come Sukkot, and like a seasoned old couple they are blessedly still at it.
The Talmudists argue about the definition of the word "sukkah" mentioned in the Torah: "So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot [literally: booths] when I took them from the land of Egypt." One opinion is that the words sukkah is figurative, and actually refers to the encompassing Clouds of Glory that accompanied and sheltered the Jews during their sojourn in the desert. These clouds miraculously provided the nation with protection from the elements as well as enemy fire, leveled mountains to make traveling easier, and even washed, dried, and starched their clothing! The other Talmudic opinion is that the booths referred to are literal. We recall the wooden huts in which we dwelled while in the desert.
Here you may wonder: if the verse is referring to wooden huts, what then are we celebrating? G‑d providing us with shabby huts in the desert calls for a celebratory festival?
Well, by incorporating the Talmudic principle of "One master says one thing and the other says another, yet they aren't arguing" (or to employ a different Talmudic truth: "Both opposing opinions are the words of G‑d") we can bring our love story full circle.
The voice of a Groom who never tires of retelling the story of how and why He first fell in loveThe bride maintains that the sukkah is symbolic of the Clouds of Glory. She sits in her sukkah and recalls her Groom's miraculous and benevolent behavior towards her. It is the sweet and tender voice of an adoring bride as she tells her close friend about her Groom's love.
The Groom, however, begs to differ. The sukkah, He protests, is quite literal. "Look," He says, "look at how My bride sacrificed herself for forty years—willing to live in shabby decrepit huts, so long as the path she treaded led to Me." As He conveyed through His messenger Jeremiah: "I remembered for your the kindness of your youth, the love when you were a bride, your following me in the desert, in a land not sown."
This is the voice of the Groom who never tires of retelling the story of how and why He first fell in love.
It pays well to remember the secret of our successful marriage to G‑d, and it would do us wonders to apply this formula in our relationships with our own beloved husbands and wives, the beautiful offspring of that holy union.
I'd call this type of disagreement between couples the perfect argument. It's the charming dispute of spouses constantly seeking to set the other above themselves.
This is how a marriage flourishes.
I've actually tried arguing with my wife in this manner, and believe it or not it turned out to be fun. The best part about it? They were arguments that neither of us minded losing.
Note from the author:
The idea expressed above is based on the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the one who explained why G‑d refers to Passover as Chag Hamatzot, while we persist on calling it Passover.
An essay by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks inspired the thought regarding Sukkot.
I believe that this idea, the "recurring fight" between G‑d and His people, finds expression in many other areas too. Two more examples would be the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the mitzvah of tefillin.
The best part about it? They were arguments that neither of us minded losing...We commonly refer to the first day of the Jewish year as Rosh Hashanah, whereas in the Torah it is referred to as "the Day of Shofar Blasts." The biblical commentator Rashi explains that the New Year is thus named to recall the Binding of Isaac, in whose stead a ram (from whose head we take the shofar) was offered. In order to recall the sacrifice of Isaac, and thus highlight the quality of the Jewish people, G‑d made shofar blowing central to the holiday's celebration and even named the holiday after this mitzvah.
We, on the other hand, call it Rosh Hashanah, expressing our purest belief that G‑d will again be gracious and once again give sustenance and existence to all of creation. As the new year approaches, the mystics teach, the worlds' continuity hangs in the balance. On Rosh Hashanah G‑d grants creation another year's worth of energy and vitality—which is then dispensed to all the days of the year. And so we call this day Rosh Hashanah – the "head" of the new year – just as the head contains the body's life-force which is then distributed amongst all the limbs.
On Rosh Hashanah we also coronate G‑d as our King. By extension, chassidic teachings see the blowing of the shofar as a symbol of this coronation, similar to trumpets used to announce the crowning of a new king. So the shofar we blow crowns G‑d. But the shofar He hears is our crown—for G‑d hears the shofar and remembers Isaac's binding; the paradigm of Jewish sacrifice throughout the ages.
As for tefillin, we are told that G‑d fulfills all the mitzvot—including the mitzvah of tefillin. In our tefillin we have parchment scrolls that proclaim "the Lord is our G‑d, the Lord is One."
What is written in His tefillin? The Midrash answers: "Who is as great as the Nation of Israel?!"