A Curious verse

Many verses in the Torah are difficult to translate, but the following line spoken by Moses to the people of Israel as part of his last will and testament is a real mystery.

“You spoke G‑d this day, to be your L‑rd . . . And G‑d spoke you this day, to be His people.”1

Can you make sense of this verse? If you’re struggling with it, you’re in good company, because so did many of our sages.

Four Translations

In this essay we will explore four of the many translations offered by the sages, and in the process we will discover that the Torah is difficult to decipher not because it makes little sense, but because it makes so much sense that it overwhelms the senses.

1. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi translates this verse in the most literal sense. G‑d treated us wonderfully, which inspired us to “say”—proclaim—Him our G‑d; and we behaved in a laudable manner, giving G‑d cause to “say”—proclaim—us His nation.2

2. Rashi, the famed 11th-century sage, suggests that the word translated as “spoke” actually means “selected.” We selected G‑d on this day from among all the idols, and G‑d selected us from among all the nations.3

3. Rashi then offers a second suggestion, which frames the verse in the context of glorification. We glorified G‑d by agreeing to be His nation, and G‑d glorified us by making us His treasured people.4

4. Onkelos the proselyte renders the word as chatav, which can mean to cut or carve a block of wood. This may be understood in the spirit of the Talmudic dictum, “You have made me a single block . . . and I shall make you a single block.”5 Through the Torah, a bond is forged with G‑d that renders Him and us a single unit.6

On the surface, these four interpretations have a random feel to them. How does the word “said” come to mean “select,” “glorify” or “bond”? Is there a link between these seemingly disparate translations?

Upon analysis, we discover a common thread that maps out the history of our relationship with G‑d, and offers insight to the progression of a successful relationship.

Four stages

Relationships can be said to progress along a path of four stages: proclamation, selection, glory and unification.

As my experience is in the rabbinate, let’s use an example from the rabbinate. When a congregation prepares to search for a rabbi, they begin with an exploration of the candidate’s virtues. They peruse his resume, and if they like it, they invite him for a trial period. If they are satisfied with the candidate they will have cause, as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi writes, to proclaim themselves ready to enter negotiations.

The second stage consists of formally hiring the rabbi. As Rashi puts it in his first interpretation, the congregation selects the rabbi from among all candidates, and the rabbi selects the congregation.

The third stage unfolds as the years pass by and the rabbi grows into his position. The rabbi and congregation realize how well they suit each other. As in Rashi’s second suggestion, the congregation glories in their rabbi’s success, and the rabbi in the congregation’s growth.

Along this trajectory of growth, a point arrives, often when the rabbi has served the pulpit for several decades, that he comes to identify with the congregation and they with him. One no longer asks why this rabbi belongs to this pulpit; it is understood that the pulpit and the rabbi have grown into each other. As Onkelos renders it, they have become a single block.

In Marriage

You can trace this trajectory across the entire spectrum of relationships. It is true of a CEO at a Fortune 500 company, and of a clerk at a mom-and-pop shop. It is also true of marriage.

We begin the marriage process by matching our prospective spouse against a checklist of virtues that we carry in our heads. If the candidate lives up to our expectations, if he or she is exactly what we are looking for, or close enough to it, we embark on a courtship.

If the courtship progresses, we take it to the next level and propose. This is the second stage, the stage of selecting each other. The third stage evolves with marriage. The relationship unfolds as we learn more about each other, and enjoy the person we have grown to love. We complement each other and are made better by each other. We glory in our spouse, and our spouse glories in us.

After several decades of marriage the relationship reaches a point of melding, where husband and wife become one. If one should ask either party why they are married to each other, the answer shortly after marriage might involve a litany of compliments and admirable traits. After two or three decades, the answer is much simpler. Why am I with her? Because she is my wife. Why is she my wife? Because she is. That’s the way it is, and it can be no other way.

With G‑d

Our relationship with G‑d progressed along the same four stages. The first stage began when our nation consisted of just one couple: Abraham and Sarah. G‑d liked our moral standards and sacred comportment; we liked that He protected and provided for us. We proclaimed our interest in each other, and thus concluded stage one. This is consistent with the first translation of the verse we cited above.

The next stage occurred at Sinai, when we selected G‑d to be our L‑rd, and He selected us to be His people. This was stage two, consistent with the second translation of the verse we cited above.

The third stage evolved over millennia. We built a majestic Temple for G‑d, where we glorified Him, and He glorified us by rendering us a powerful nation in a land flowing with milk and honey. This was stage three, consistent with the third translation of the verse we cited above.

The last stage is the one we experience with G‑d today. If someone were to ask you why you are a Jew, you are not likely to explain about Exodus and Sinai. You are more likely to reply that you are a Jew because you were born to a Jewish mother. We have grown into Judaism, and it is now our identity.

We can no more stop being Jewish than we can stop being ourselves. This is stage four, consistent with the final translation of the verse we cited above, and the highest form of relationship to which one can aspire.

Three thousand years ago our ancestors, poised to enter the Holy Land, were taught how to pursue their relationship with G‑d. It was a single statement, filled with foresight and depth. In a single word, He taught us how to create a bond that would last forever.