Among the laws detailed in our Sidra is a section about divorce. The Rebbe analyzes the concept of divorce, both as it applies between man and wife and between man and G‑d. It pursues certain paradoxes in the Talmudic tractate on divorce (Gittin) and in the very name given in Jewish law to the document which finalizes the separation. The paradoxes share the tendency to hint that though divorce is, outwardly, a separation, this is not its true nature. Chassidic thought, with its emphasis on discovering the essence of G‑d and man, must pursue this problem to its core: Since the essence of the universe is G‑d’s unity, can separation ever be real and ultimate?

1. The Scroll of Divorcement

Our Sidra mentions the subject of divorce,1 and it calls the document which effects the separation, a “scroll of divorcement” (sefer keritut). This name embodies two opposites. “Divorcement” conveys the idea of separation. Indeed it is taken legally to imply2 that the document must be unconditional in its terms, leaving no ties between the man and his former wife. The term “scroll” however implies that it should conform to certain rules of a scroll of the Law, a Sefer Torah; that it should, for example, be written on ruled lines and its length should be greater than its width.3 The Sefer Torah is itself a symbol of unity. In Rambam’s words, “The whole Torah was given to make peace in the world.”4 The divorce scroll must, in addition, be written on a single sheet—another token of “oneness.”5

The same contrast is implicit in the custom that the document should be written in twelve lines “corresponding to the twelve lines which separate the first four books of the Torah from one another”6 in a Sefer Torah. Again we have the idea of separation, and again the comparison with the Torah, the word of the One G‑d and the bringer of unity to the world.

2. Marriage and Divorce

The paradox of divorce is also apparent in the close connection between divorce and marriage in Jewish law.

Marriage is, of course, the idea of unity and togetherness: “Therefore shall a man… cleave to his wife and they shall become one flesh.”7 And yet the Jewish laws of marriage—the three ways in which it may be contracted—are derived from the very passage in our Sidra which deals with divorce.8 And on the other hand, the tractate of the Talmud devoted to divorce (Gittin) concludes with an admonition against it: “The School of Shammai say, a man may not divorce his wife unless he has found her guilty of unchastity.”9 Even the School of Hillel, who accord greater leeway to the husband, do so only in the case of a second marriage. And the Talmud concludes, “If a man divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears.’’10

The same opposition to divorce is to be found, in an oblique way, in the opening of the tractate Gittin as well. It begins, “The bearer of a scroll of divorce from (a husband in) a foreign country (i.e., outside the land of Israel) is required to declare, “In my presence it was written and in my presence it was signed.”11

This is a strikingly unusual opening. The more expected approach would be to start with such basic rules as, when may a divorce be granted (with which, as we saw, the tractate ends), how it is to be drawn up, how delivered and so on. Instead we find as our opening law, a particular case rather than a general rule. Moreover, it concerns a side-issue: It does not concern divorce itself but the rule of sending a divorce by a messenger. And it is, further, an unusual case, where a divorce-document is being brought from abroad.

The explanation is that when Rabbi Judah Hanasi compiled the Mishnah he chose this particular passage to open the laws of divorce, to make a point about the very nature of divorce itself. “The bearer of a divorce from a foreign country…” tells us that divorce has its origins in the “foreign country” of the spirit. Without that, there would be no separation between husband and wife. Rabbi Judah Hanasi was hinting, with this opening sentence, at the unnaturalness of divorce. And after detailing all its laws, he reminds us with the closing paragraph (of the Mishnah of Gittin) that still “A man may not divorce his wife, unless….”

3. Israel and G‑d

All this has its wider spiritual significance. The marriage of man and woman is the metaphor for the relationship between G‑d and Israel.12 At Sinai the bond between them was forged. We use the same word to describe G‑d’s commandments and the marriage vow: “Who has consecrated us with His commandments,” and “Behold you are consecrated to me by this ring, according to the Law of Moses and of Israel.’’13

Subsequently, in exile, Israel experienced the counterpart of divorce from G‑d. The Talmud14 tells us the story that the prophets asked the community of Israel to repent and return to G‑d. They replied, “If a husband divorces his wife, has the one a claim on the other?” This reply, that since G‑d had divorced Israel by sending them into exile, He had no further claim on their loyalty, the Talmud calls a “victorious answer.”

But how could it be victorious? The Talmud itself concludes otherwise, by quoting Isaiah: “Thus saith the L-rd where is the scroll of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have sent away?’’15 And indeed, how could there be a divorce between G‑d and Israel? The law is that divorce is finalized only when the scroll has been handed over, leaving the husband’s possession and becoming the property of the wife. But nothing can leave G‑d’s possession. The universe is His.

The answer lies in the beginning of the tractate, that divorce has its source in the “foreign country” of the spirit. For G‑d inhabits the “foreign country,” the realm beyond our comprehension. And sometimes, in our eyes, He seems distant. It is then that the possibility of separation takes root in our minds, separation between man and G‑d (and between husband and wife).

Yet in reality it is not so. For when G‑d said, “I will surely hide My face”16 he conveyed the truth that even when His face is hidden we can still discover the “I,” the Essence. The divorce between G‑d and Israel is an appearance. The reality is a bond that is never broken.

4. In a Foreign Country

The apparent departure of G‑d to a “foreign country” is a result of Israel’s own departure. For all events in the realm of the spirit are a consequence of what we do in this world.

A “foreign country” means, in the context of the Talmud, a place distant from the land of Israel, and from which there are certain difficulties of passage to the land of Israel—a sea-crossing or something similar.17

To translate this into spiritual terms: The land of Israel, the land of Divine grace, represents the desire and will of G‑d.18 And when a man is far from that will, and there are obstacles between him and it, (his mind and heart cannot cross the sea of separation) then he is in a “foreign country.” This is the point at which G‑d, too, moves away. For when man travels away from G‑d, G‑d moves far from man.

5. The Messenger

Perhaps we might then imagine, that if G‑d can hide His face and can travel to a “foreign country” out of man’s reach, He can cast off His people with the finality of divorce, G‑d forbid.

But against this the Mishnah tells us, “the bearer of a divorce from a foreign country must declare, ‘In my presence it was written and in my presence it was signed.’” In other words the bearer must testify that he is not himself the husband, only his messenger.

In historical and spiritual terms, this means that the foreign powers who have defeated Israel and sent her into exile, are themselves ultimately aware that they are only G‑d’s messengers, that they have no final sovereignty over Israel, that Israel remains still, and always G‑d’s own people. Consequently, the divorce document has never really left the “husband’s” possession, and is not a true divorce.

6. The Holy Wedding

We have found two facts about the relationship between G‑d and Israel: That outwardly Israel is divorced by G‑d, and that inwardly, their bond is never shaken. To understand this further, we must explain the nature of the marriage between them.

In Jewish marriage, although it is the husband who consecrates his wife to him, and not the other way round,19 it can only be with the woman’s knowledge and consent.20 On Sinai, at the holy wedding of G‑d and nation, G‑d revealed His love for Israel to arouse their love for Him,21 a love which expressed itself in their famous words of commitment, “We will do and we will hear.” Even though this love was initiated by G‑d, it took root in their souls, until it became the crucial fact of their existence. So much so that as Rambam has written (in his Hilchot Gerushin),22 every Jew “wishes to do every commandment and to keep himself far from transgression” and he sins only when this essential desire is hidden by some compelling inclination. The love of the Jew for G‑d is constant. It may be momentarily eclipsed, but it still burns even in concealment. So, as it were, is the love of G‑d for Israel. The shadow of exile may eclipse that love, but it does not extinguish it.

Thus exile is not divorce. It is the hiding of love. This is why when exile is ended and love reveals itself again, G‑d and Israel will not need a new Sinai, a second wedding. For the first was never ended.

7. Love Outward and Inward

There is another and deeper point. It is not merely that the exile of Israel from G‑d is only an appearance, not a reality. In addition, exile reveals an even deeper love between them. Before the separation, it would have been possible to suppose that G‑d’s love was conditional—it depended on Israel’s obedience to His will. But in exile, G‑d’s grief (“even the altar sheds tears”) expresses a love without conditions, a love which belongs to the essence of both G‑d and the Jew.

Thus the tractate Gittin ends with the words, “She is your companion and the wife of your covenant,” to show that in the last analysis the apparent divorce of Israel from G‑d only serves to reveal that she is unchangeably the “wife of His covenant.”

8. The Meaning of Exile

Now we see the significance of the fact that though a Sefer Torah may be written on several pieces of parchment sewn together, a divorce must be on a single sheet.

For exile, that apparent divorce, shows an even greater unity between G‑d and man than did the Giving of the Torah.

Sinai was witness to a revealed love. But revelation is prone to the changes of time. In exile, what remains is the essential love, which though it may sometimes be hidden, is always constant and alive.

This is why the passage on divorce in the Sidra of Ki Tetze is always read in the Seven Weeks of Consolation after the 9th of Av.

It is to show that the apparent forsaking of Israel by G‑d is not real. That, instead, it takes us to a more inward and lasting covenant of love. And—as the Talmud follows its tractate on divorce (Gittin) by the one on marriage (Kiddushin)—so our spiritual exile will be followed by a revealed expression of the essential love between Israel and G‑d.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. IX pp. 143-151)