Va-Ethanan: On renewing vows between God, Israel

Shabbat Nahamu


Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Isaiah 40:1-26

Standing under my chuppah some weeks ago, I learned a remarkable piece of Torah. In that setting of such exquisite power, one of our rabbis recalled the teaching that the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai was in fact a wedding ceremony between the people of Israel and God.

The rabbi wanted us all to consider a relationship between God and Israel that is as powerful, as loving and intimate, as committed and unshakable, as a marriage.

If Sinai was the day of the wedding, then Tisha B'Av is a time of profound estrangement between those lovers, God and Israel. On Tisha B'Av, this past week, we revisited our memory of the many tragedies our people have faced.

While one traditional theology holds that some of these tragedies occurred because our people were unfaithful to our union with God, for most of us the sense of responsibility and blame is reversed: Why did God allow those horrors to happen to us, a people God supposedly loves? Either way, this is a time of painful distance, of two partners utterly failing in their loyalty to one another.

Tisha B'Av was the time of estrangement. This Shabbat, Shabbat Nahamu, is the time of reconciliation. Tradition has it that this parashah, Parashat Va-Ethanan, always falls in the liturgical calendar just after Tisha B'Av. According to one view, this is because Torah study is forbidden on Tisha B'Av, so that this parashah, with its majestic recapitulation of the giving of Torah at Sinai, is the perfect way to reconnect with Torah, after a day so dark as to preclude contact with Torah.

If we are to take the Sinai-as-wedding imagery seriously, then this parashah emerges as a perfect reconciliatory text in another way as well. In this week's text from Deuteronomy, Moshe – in evocative, dramatic language — recalls the events of the Revelation at Sinai. The language seems specially chosen for its rhetorical power. But it also evokes the special intimacy between God and Israel.

"You who cleave to the Lord your God are all alive today" (Deut. 4:4). Cleaving to God, staying close, at one, means life itself. The imagery is as immediate as the language of human love. This Shabbat, having gone a long way from the sense of closeness with God, we return: It is yet another of the cyclical renewals that allow our union with God to last through time.

"Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire" (Deut. 5:4). This is no abstract encounter. Strikingly different from other descriptions in Torah of God hiding the divine face to maintain distance from Israel, this is an image of direct communication, of immediacy. And we read it this Shabbat, to tell God and ourselves: We are back together, even after the most terrible times of doubt and distance, and our union is forever.

"For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: Of all the people on earth God chose you to be God's treasured people. It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord desired you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples, but it was because God loved you and kept the oath made to your ancestors" (Deut. 7:6-8).

Imagine this language translated into the vow between two partners and it becomes readily apparent that this is a powerful declaration of love. This is, indeed, the language of kiddushin, of betrothal, of a sacred promise of fidelity and commitment.

All of this is God's promise, repeated this Shabbat, just when we have been traumatized by the memory of some terrible betrayals. Just when we have reached the precipice of feeling entirely alone, this dramatic piece of Torah revisits God's promise of eternal love, tenderness, desire and commitment.

This is a very old relationship, this marriage of ours to God. We have been through times of torturous estrangement. And again and again through history, we as a people have recommitted to this ever-present yet problematic God.

This Shabbat we reconcile once again with this partner of ours, recalling the day of the marriage, recommitting ourselves once again. May this reunion give us strength.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at