In this world it was a betrothal, as it is written, "I shall betroth you to Me forever" (Hoshea 2:21), and G‑d gave them the moon only, as it is written, "This new month shall be to you..." (Exodus 12:2). But in the days of Moshiach there shall be the marriage, as it is written, "Your husband, your maker" (Isaiah 54:5), and then G‑d shall give them everything, as it is written: "And the wise shall shine like the brightness of the heavens, and they who bring righteousness to the many as the stars forever" (Daniel 12:3).

Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 15:30

We inhabit a reality defined by two basic states: being and naught. A thing either is or is not, is either manifest or repressed, in motion or at rest, positive (charged with energy) or negative (not charged with energy). Even the most complex phenomena are the sum of so many gradations of presence and absence; after all is said and done, everything boils down to the confluence of so many times yes and so many times no. The "no"s delineate the parameters of a thing, establishing what it is not, while the yesses fill the space of these parameters with the essence of what the thing is.1

The binary nature of creation is a reflection of the fact that the Torah, the blueprint into which "G‑d looked and created the world" (as the Zohar Puts its), has a positive and a negative side. "I am the L-rd your G‑d," the most fundamental of the "positive commandments" (mitzvot assei), is complemented by "You shall have no other gods before Me", the essence of all divine prohibitions (mitzvot lo taaseh); "Love your fellow as yourself" is the positive counterpart to "You shall not hate your brother in your heart." The Torah commands to create life and forbids destroying it; it commands to aid the needy, and forbids pressing them for their debts; it instructs to eat unleavened bread on Passover, and forbids all leavened foods for the duration of the festival; and so on.

The institution of marriage, as defined and legislated by the Torah, also includes both an affirmative and a negative component. According to Torah law, a marriage consists of two distinct steps. First comes the kiddushin ("consecration', also called eirusin, betrothal2 ): the groom gives the bride something of value (by common practice, a ring), in return for which the bride consecrates herself to him, with the effect that she becomes "forbidden to the rest of the world." From this point on, for another man to have relations with her constitutes adultery, and to dissolve the kiddushin requires a get (writ of divorce), as for a full-fledged marriage. Yet the purpose of marriage is not to preclude the rest of world from living with her, but to effect a union between two people. This is the function of the nissuin ("marriage") achieved by the chupah (wedding canopy), yichud (private seclusion) and sheva berachot (seven marriage benedictions) which renders man and wife "one flesh."

In other words, the kiddushin defines the parameters of the relationship, clearing a space in which it might exist, while the nissuin fills this space with the substance of the relationship itself.

Manning the Borders

As we said, kiddushin and nissuin are two distinct phases in the marriage process. Indeed, originally, the kiddushin would be held at an earlier date, after which the bride continued to live with her parents as the couple prepared for the nissuin, which was usually held one year later. (It was only in recent centuries, when the tribulations of exile undermined the stability of Jewish life and often caused the sudden dispersion of communities, that it was deemed unwise to create a marriage-bond between a man and woman who would not actually be living together. Hence the present-day practice of conducting the nissuin immediately following the kiddushin, passing through both stages of marriage in a single ceremony.)

Our sages tell us that at Mount Sinai, where G‑d revealed Himself to us and gave us the Torah, we consecrated ourselves to Him as His bride. This, however, was only the kiddushin stage of our marriage. Our bond with Him shall be complete only in the era of Moshiach, at which time G‑d and Israel shall unite in nissuin.

This is not to say that our relationship with G‑d today is an exclusively negative one — as noted above, our commitment to Him includes positive commandments as well as prohibitions. But today we are only capable of establishing the parameters of the relationship, not of realizing its quintessential substance.

Today, our relationship with G‑d is defined by our commitment to Him and by our striving to unite with Him, but without the tactual experience of the union itself. We yearn for Him as a bride yearns for her betrothed, but whose most rapturous feelings are but a faint intimation of post-marriage love.

For thirty-three centuries, we have been creating the space of our marriage with G‑d and zealously defending its borders. We have remained faithful to Him in the face of all the cultures and "ism"s that have sought to seduce us. We have established our identity as His people, consecrated to Him alone. Now we are ready for the real thing — for an actual experience of the divine as the most intimate truth of our lives.