Understanding the "Marriage" of God and Israel at Sinai | Aleph Beta

The Marriage Of God And Israel

Did Israel Marry God At Mount Sinai?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The Bible talks about a "marriage" between God and Israel at Sinai, but what does that really mean?

In Parshat Yitro, we read the most important piece in the narrative of the Jewish people, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, when the nation of Israel and God are 'married.'

Curiously, before that story, we have two short stories about Yitro, Moses's father-in-law, first when he throws a feast to celebrate the salvation, and then when he advises Moses to set up a court system. How do these stories relate to both Moses's first meeting with Yitro and the marriage between the people and God?

In this video, Rabbi Fohrman connects these stories to uncover a clue to understanding how we, too, can keep the marriage between God and Israel today.


Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Yitro.

In this week's parsha we have the revelation narrative, the story of the Torah's deliverance at Mount Sinai, from God to the Jewish people. And if you have been around the block a few times, you may have heard that encounter between God and the Jewish people as being analogized to that of marriage, almost as if God were the groom, the Jewish people were the bride, and the Torah was the ring.

It's a romantic notion. Is there actually any evidence from the text that would support this romantic notion?

How Do We Understand How God "Married" Israel at Sinai?

The text itself, of course, doesn't seem to overtly cast the story of revelation as a kind of marriage between God and the Jews. But if you look carefully, I do think that we find some fascinating evidence to this analogy.

I want to study with you a prologue, of sorts, to the revelation narrative: an encounter between Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, and Moses, that immediately precedes the story of revelation.

At the end of this encounter, Moses tells Jethro that he is teaching the laws of God to the Jewish people. And I want to focus on what the significance of that might be, that idea of 'Moses the lawgiver,' as it were, teaching the laws of God to the Jewish people. Because that, of course, is what revelation is all about.

Let's take a look at what happens immediately before Moses teaching the law to the Jews.

Chapter 18, "vayishma Yitro," Jethro hears about all the wonderful things that God did for the Jewish people, how God saved the Jewish people from the hands of Egypt, and Jethro comes to visit Moses. He brings along with him Tzipporah and Moses’ two children Gershom and Eliezer.

And as you hear Jethro sort of rejoice in this salvation, the word that appears over and over again is, in fact, the word salvation; it's all about saving. "Vayichad Yitro al-kol-tova asher asah Hashem l'Yisrael," Jethro rejoiced for all the goodness that God did for the Jews, asher hitzil otam mitachat yad Mitzraim, that God saved the Jewish people from Mitzraim; over and over again this notion that God saved the Jews, God saved the Jews.

And immediately after Jethro rejoices about this great act of salvation, he convenes a feast. "Vayikach Yitro choten Moshe olah u'zvachim l'Elohim," he brings offerings to God, and he invites people to join him in these offerings. "Vayavo Aharon," Aaron comes, "v'chol ziknei Yisrael," all the elders of Israel come and join him. They all eat bread, "im-choten Moshe lifnei Elohim," with the father-in-law of Moses, before God.

Interestingly, there is only one person – one significant person – not on this guest list or who didn't show up for some reason. It was Moses. Why wasn't he there? Aaron was there. The elders of Israel were there, Jethro is there, God is even there. They are consuming these offerings before God, but Moses is not there. Why not?

Interestingly, the next verse tells us of Moses’ whereabouts. "Vayihi mimacharat vayeshev Moses lishpot et-ha-am," the next day, Moses is sitting, and he is judging the people from morning until night. And Moses’ father-in-law comes up to him and says what are you doing? Why are you sitting there all alone, and the people are coming and asking you things from morning until night? You can't do it; you won't be able to stand up to all the stress, all the pressure.

Moses explains, "ki-yavo elai ha-am lidrosh Elohim," the people are coming to seek out God, they are coming to me, they are asking me questions, I am telling them God's law. Jethro says, no, no, no, that's not a good idea. You need a whole administration, you need intermediate Judges to help you. "Vayishma Moshe l'kol chotno," and Moses listened to the voice of Jethro, took his suggestion, instituted the intermediate judges.

Now if you think about all these elements, we can play our favorite game: Where have we heard this before? Because there was another time where we encountered Jethro, another time when Jethro heard about a great act of salvation, another time when Jethro made a feast. And when was that other time? It was the very first time we ever encounter Jethro. It was back in Exodus, chapter 2.

What I want to suggest is that Exodus chapter 2, if you read it carefully, is a kind of parallel narrative to Exodus chapter 18; and once you see how these events line up, it actually creates a startling conclusion. Let's look at the events carefully.

Biblical Connections: Salvation and Marriage

The first time we meet Jethro, Jethro also hears about a great salvation. Chapter 2, verse 17, "Vayavo ha-ro'im vaygarshum vayakam Moshe vayoshi'an." Moses saved the daughters of Jethro from harassment at the hands of these shepherds.

Interestingly, the word 'saving,' "vayoshi'an," is the same word that later on is used to describe the way God saved the Jews. After the great victory over Pharaoh's armies at the Red Sea, the words of the Torah that sum it all up, "Vayosha HaShem et-Yisrael mi-yad Mitzraim," God saved the Jewish people from Mitzraim. Here too, we have that word, except this time, Moses is the savior.

There is a kind of irony here of course. The daughters of Jethro will describe Moses as an 'ish-Mitzri hitzilanu mi-yad ha-ro'im,’ they tell their father, an Egyptian man saved us from the hands of the shepherds. An Egyptian man does the saving the first time around, the second time around, it is God doing the saving, from the hands of Egyptian men.

Of course, the first time around, the Egyptian man is Moses, who comes upon these women and saves them. Jethro hears about them and says, "Lama zeh azavtem et-ha-ish?" Why did you just leave them there? "Kirenu lo vayochel lechem," call him and let's eat bread together. Fascinating!

In both stories, what we might call it Jethro 1 and Jethro 2, Jethro hears about a great act of salvation and then make a feast. And who does he invites to the feast? He invites the savior to dine. In Jethro 1, Moses saved his daughter. He invites Moses to dine with him.

In Jethro 2, God has saved the Jewish people, and Jethro offers offerings to God, invites God to dine, so to speak, with everyone, to rejoice with everyone. But there is only one difference between the stories.

The "Savior" Marries the "Saved"

You see, in the first story, Jethro makes this big feast and invites the savior. But the second time around, someone didn't come to the feast. Moses himself didn't come to the feast. Moses was doing something else. He was judging the people. And Jethro became angry at him. What are you doing? You are supposed to be at the feast!

Why wasn't Moses there? If we look at the next event in both Jethro 1 and Jethro 2 we may understand. Because what happens in both stories, what happens in Jethro 1?

After Jethro hears the great news of how his daughters were saved, after he makes this great feast and invites everyone to join, the next thing that happens is "vayoel Moshe lashevet et-ha-ish vayiten et-tzipporah bito l'Moshe," he gives Tzipporah, his daughter, to Moses, in marriage. The savior marries the saved.

Well, what's going to happen in Jethro 2? After Jethro hears about the great act of salvation that God performed for the Jews, after Jethro convenes a great feast to celebrate it, the next thing that should happen is the savior is going to marry the saved. And in fact, the very next thing we experience is Moses judging the people. Why? Why is he judging them? Why are you doing this all alone? Jethro says.

I am doing it, Moses says, because it's not just a menial administrative task. "Ki-yavo elai ha-am lidrosh Elohim." The people are coming to seek out God! This isn't just about administering small claims court.

"Ki-yihyeh lahem davar," whenever the people have any sort of dispute, "ba elai u'shafat'ti beyn is u-beyn re'ehu," I come and I judge between one person and his fellow, "v'hoda'ati et-chukei Ha-Elohim v'et Torato," and I make known the laws of God and his Torah.

You see, the disputes between people aren't just about the disputes. It's about the people's way of reaching out to God.

How Israel Keeps Their "Marriage" with God Today

How do people bring God into their lives? People are mundane beings; God is so transcendent and spiritual. How do we bring the transcendent God into our mundane lives?

We bring God into our mundane lives. Whenever there is a dispute, one person or the other, they're excited; there is a chance to understand how God will look upon this. And when they understand that, they bring God into their lives.

They're coming, as Moses says, "lidrosh Elohim," to seek out God and I am facilitating that connection. When they get the resolution of the dispute – God's view of what should be done – there is a connection made, a connection between God and man.

In each story, Jethro hears about a great act of salvation. In each story, Jethro convenes a feast and breaks bread to celebrate that salvation, and in each story, the savior marries the one they saved.

In the first story, Moses marries the daughter of Jethro, and in the second story, God is the Savior, and the one God marries is the Jewish people, and the ring is the law.

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