The Revolutionary Road to Marriage

Parashat Shemot
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Revolutionary Road to Marriage

There’s a game a friend and I used to play in rabbinical school. It was called: ‘open the Torah in two random places and then create a connecting ‘d’rash’ between the two texts’. Clearly, this is evidence of seminarians’ nerdiness but this ‘midrash making’ has ancient Jewish precedence. Our Rabbinic tradition is brimming with connecting interpretations to squeeze even more meaning out of the terse words of our Torah.

Today I am going to reinvent that game in a slightly different guise. It’s called ‘how do you tie a random parashah in with an upcoming simcha?’ Today, Simon Marcus and Becky Teiger are celebrating their recent engagement to be married with our community: a community they are so dedicated in building up through their myriad of volunteer (over?) commitments. Our community is as strong as the members who build it and it is important for us to celebrate all the contributions, large or small, that all our members make. All the more reason to celebrate when amidst the flat-packing, toilet-painting, board-meeting, cake-baking, office-sitting, supper-cooking, tech-supporting… a new love blossoms.

So how do you tie in the upcoming simcha of an engagement and wedding with the Torah portion that describes the rise of a genocidal Pharaoh, Egyptian slavery and the murder of the firstborn? I have my work cut out for me.

So let’s focus on the following verse at the beginning of Chapter Two:

Vayelech ish mibeit Levi, vayikach et bat Levi. V’tahar ha’ishah, va’teled ben. V’tere oto ki tov hu.
‘A man from the House of Levi went out and took a daughter of Levi as a wife. And the woman conceived and bore a son and saw that he was good...’ (Ex. 2:1-2)

The verse continues to discuss how she hid the child Moses for three months before surrendering him to the Nile, but that part we all know, so let’s go back to this brief romantic interlude and see what we can learn from it.

The Torah gives us this backstory because she wants to tell us (or at least hint at us) about the circumstances of the birth of Moses. When we read the Torah, we have to read it with the keen eye of the ‘darshan’ or ‘darshanit’—the interpreter and teacher—and be a bit of a literary and philosophical detective. The Torah is infamously terse in her language: what is she saying by omission as well as through admission?

The Torah could have said, ‘Moses was born and his mother hid him in a wicker basket’ and that would have sufficed. Why is it that the Torah wants us to know more detail: about the parents’ familial and tribal backgrounds, how they met, how or when she conceived and most of all, that he ‘tov hu’, was a ‘good child’.

Because marriage is a revolutionary act.

It sounds strange doesn’t it? Marriage, the oft-claimed province of social conservatives, the moral high ground of puritans and the driver of a profitable industry of sentimentalism… revolutionary?!? We all know the stereotype of the happily-married, heteronormative family unit with the white picket fence. There doesn’t seem to be something revolutionary about what we could call, rightly or uncharitably (that’s up to you to decide), the ‘cornerstone of patriarchal society’.

And yet, despite all these reservations, and the patriarchal bent of the verse (‘vayikach ishah’—‘and he took for a wife’), there is something very bold, visionary and radical, counter-cultural even, to commit your life, your trust and all you have to that one other person.
In the time of Moses’ parents, the stakes were elevated: a genocidal despot wanted to eradicate the Israelite community and the Talmud tells us (in Tractate Sotah 12a) that even a great man like Moses’ grandfather, Amram, panicked under Pharaoh’s decree, divorcing his wife. So afraid and so beleaguered was the community that they did not dare create or increase their families. Inadvertently, they chose death over life, choosing safety over continuity, a dreadful heart-wrenching choice.

The same Talmudic midrash, however, tells us that Miriam interceded. She said that by divorcing their wives, the men made Pharaoh’s decree all the harsher by eliminating the potential of new life altogether. So, the Midrash tells us, the wives found a way to procure income, buy wine, go out into the fields and seduce their husbands. Meanwhile, the Talmud tells us that Moses’ parents remarried in a solemn and celebratory manner, with angels accompanying them under the chuppah, their wedding a rare source of joy and light for an enslaved people. Out of this re-union, Moses was born, the child at once so loved by his mother and promised to Destiny, a child of which the Midrash says his face shone with light.

Marriage is revolutionary.

Marriage is about taking risks, and allowing ourselves to fall in love as well as be hurt. Marriage is about a constant tikkun, repair, of our relationships and a transformation of the self in the process.  Marriage is about welcoming the potentiality of goodness in our lives, through actual or metaphorical children—the products of our love, creativity, devotion and bravery. Jewish marriage is not just about saying a proverbial ‘I do’ under the chuppah but is about saying ‘I do’ to the existential building-project that marriage is: to build a life together, to build a future together, to build a community together. To buck the trend, to offer hope in a world that can seem so bleak and dark, to grow love in the small but oh so important corners of hearts and to share its light, far and wide.

Simon and Becky, your wisdom, maturity, devotion and love for each other shine forth brightly. Your patience and humour, integrity and sensitivity in your commitment to each other and to our community is self-evident. We wish you a long, long life together, not only filled with flat-packing, toilet-painting, tech-supporting and cake-baking but with meaning, joy and the space to be inspired by Judaism’s ancient, life-affirming, counter-cultural message of love and hope.

Mazzal tov, Shabbat shalom!


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