My Arranged Marriage—to the Torah
On Shavuot, as Jews commemorate our marriage to God at Sinai, I look back on the commitment I made as a young man
Sometimes I wondered: How does the Torah feel about me? I was no great shakes as a human being, certainly not as a Torah scholar. I had never done anything to sacrifice myself for the Torah. I was nothing special, and yet I had the audacity to grouse, kvetch, and complain.
Yet in a difficult marriage one does these things. One copes (what’s the alternative?), one grumbles and grouses (it’s your fault), one accepts (it’s my fate), one fantasizes (what would it be like had I not married her/him?). Brooding and self-absorption can become a habit.
I became preoccupied for the longest time with the notion of a “surprise” life, doing something my father and the Torah didn’t expect or condone. This musing developed out of an unnamed feeling, a spirit-ghost that arose in me even as I received my father’s words and the words of the Torah. First it was a noiseless sound, more like a vibration with no voice and no words, and then gradually it became a whisper but it made its presence louder and louder until it became a preoccupation, almost an obsession.
Yet even as I fantasized of belonging to another nation and tribe, in truth, I yearned for no one else. I could have left the Torah a thousand times, as the reins of my father naturally loosened as years went on. In my professional circles, in psychoanalysis, many of my closest colleagues gravitated toward Buddhism, and still others found comfort in a nonreligious spirituality, something that is a little more syntonic with psychoanalysis than, say, with a dogmatic Judaism. I did not follow.
So here we are. Still married, but with wide open spaces between us. Aviva Zornberg writes in her masterwork The Particulars of Rapture that the Torah is given as a “plaything” to the world. God asks us to play with the words of the Torah in lieu of a close relationship with him such as one might have with a person. That is to accept distance and loneliness in a relationship with him. Instead, we are invited to play with his words, to seek him out in his verses, his majesty (“In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth”) and his mysticism and mystery (“And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. And man became a living soul.”), his laws and morals (“Thou shalt not steal”), and his desire for us (“The Lord set his heart in desire and love upon your fathers and chose their descendants”).
This invitation to play has led me more often than not on any given night of the week—to the bais medrash. But the journey to get there is not easy. Sometimes before I leave the comfort of my office or home I feel split inside like two halves of an old married couple. “The bais medrash again? Surprise me! I dare you to do anything different—to be different.” The other side answers, “The bais medrash is a surprise. Come with me. You will see. It is a good place.” Like husband and wife, these two sides of me bicker and have grievances, but though they may be at opposite sides of the room, they find a way to each other. I arrive at the study hall. I open the Talmud. First a feeling, then a knowing look, a strong memory, followed by a caressing remark, then by an actual caress. I read the words, I think a new thought. I see a new thing. It feels good. One pulls the other. Caresses lead to kisses and grievances recede to the wayside. Here still is a marriage, and here still is love.
I was young once. Now I am middle-aged. Yet I am back where I started 40-some years ago. I am studying the Mishnah: How does one shake the lulav—how does one do the naanuim? The words of the Mishnah are as fresh as when my father gave them over to me. Suddenly, I am surprised at the force of it all. An indeterminate arc ignited millennia ago and relived through my father; I am still at it—with more force than I ever had. Perhaps the greatest surprise is that I, like so many others, still work to understand: How does one shake the lulav? What do we do with an egg that was laid on a holiday? As we commemorate our marriage to the Torah on Shavuot, we are doing and we are listening and we are learning still.
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The holiday is significant for me as a convert, so I created a fish dish that blends my Italian heritage with my Jewish identity