Sermon: Nitzavim-Vayelech: Five Weddings and a Covenant

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 22 September 2014

It has been a summer of rather extraordinary Alyth weddings for me.  Since July I officated at five weddings all of them rather different from the norm.


First of all four of them were organised over Skype.  Our past youth leader Danielle Black lives with her now husband Ethan Segal in New York, Mikey Franklin and his bride Sonia Shpilyuk in Washington DC, Gabi Jaffe and Avi Nagel were living in Beijing as we organised their wedding, Nolanne Chang and Mathew Bessman in San Francisco.  All of them had connections to this Synagogue from childhood or otherwise and so wanted to be married by us in the various venues around London that they had chosen.  Getting to know the couples across continents before each of them came to London made for a remarkable intimacy as we spent time much talking with each other effectively in their homes.


Then the final wedding of my summer which took place a couple of weeks ago, that of Jessica Elgot and David Heinemann started more conventionally, meeting here at Alyth, as both lived in London, but the setting for the Chuppah itself was anything but conventional.  It took place in a clearing in a wood in the Yorkshire Dales with a Chuppah frame made from tree branches and all the guests sat on hay bales in the very fortunate sunshine.  I got to say two things that I will probably never say at a wedding again.  “We have just finished the Baedekken in the bride’s yurt.” – and it was indeed a yurt that she was getting ready in.  And that the bride and groom are on their way from the Druid Temple – there was a Victorian temple folly a short distance from the clearing.


The five couples were unique and the places where they married, this forest clearing, a deconsecrated chapel in Oxford, Finsbury Town Hall, a grand hotel ballroom in London, a conservatory in Kew Gardens, reflected their own tastes and enthusiasms.  But there was of course a constant.  The form of the Jewish wedding.


Jewish weddings are a micrcosm of the relationship between God and the Jewish people as we hear in this week’s Torah portion and Haftarah.  They are the creation of a contract between consenting parties.  Their success is conditional upon the two partners keeping to the terms of the contract.  For the wedding it is recorded in the Ketubah, the marriage document.  Only one of these couples was happy simply to use the standard Ketubah which Alyth provides, the other four wanted to work on the wording so that it truly matched their hopes for their relationship.


They included phrases like:


We promise to support and encourage each other as we strive, individually and together, to fulfil the hopes and promises of our lives, and above all to do everything within our power to permit each of us to become the persons we are yet to be.


We pledge to be equal partners, loving friends and supportive companions as we walk life’s path together.


We vow to challenge each other to achieve intellectual and physical fulfilment as we search for spiritual and emotional peace.


Now don’t be cynical, those of you couples with a bit more mileage on the clock.  These promises, full of hope and genuine intention are no less idealistic than the hope expressed in our Torah portions of the past weeks of a society where all lend freed of interest to the poor and destitute, where every home is built with consideration for the safety of anyone who happens to be there, where workers and suppliers are always paid on time, where everyone sees it as their duty to give from their wreath to the stranger the orphan and the widow.


Though the breaking of a glass under the chuppah is the most dramatic symbol of the Jewish wedding it is not really the highlight.  The highlight of a Jewish wedding is the exchange of rings between the couple and their signing, witnessed by two non-relatives, of the ketubah which shows that they both of their own freewill wish to enter into a brit ahavah, a covenant of love with each other for ever.  The couple publicly shows that they are willing parties to a contract which will enable their relationship to have lasting meaning and resilience.


The relationship between God and the Jewish people portrayed in the metaphor of a marriage is found throughout the bible.  Every one of this summer’s wedding couples had, somewhere in their Ketubah or wedding invitations the phrase from the biblical Song of Songs “Dodi li v ani l’dodi” – my beloved is mine and I am my beloved’s.   Our Rabbis have for millennia interpreted the Song of Songs so that the two lovers are God and Israel.  In our Haftarah today Isaiah makes the same metaphorical comparison (Isaiah 62:4-5)  “For the Eternal takes delight in you…and as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride so will your God rejoice over you.”


You could imagine that this metaphor fuels the controversy of Jews considering themselves as God’s chosen people but to do so would be to misunderstand what Judaism thinks a marriage is.  It is not about choosing each other – it is about mutually agreeing to be bound to each other, based on clear conditions and requiring obligations on each side.  We are not the chosen people but the choosing people.


That is what is happening in the Torah portion today – Nitzavim Vayelech.  Like a bride we are portrayed as standing, Nitzavim, all of us, men, women, children, rich and poor, leader and follower, both there at the time and for all of the Jewish future, ready to choose to accept or reject the terms of God’s and our Ketubah – which is the Torah and its implications for our lives.   When we reach the end of the season which begins tonight at our Selichot service a few week’s hence at Simchat Torah, we will read a Ketubah between Israel and God then symbolise our wedding joy by dancing with the Torah.  In my previous Shul, Finchley Progressive we read the Torah on Simchat Torah under the Synagogue’s Chuppah, with the Lulavim from Sukkot bound to the poles as decoration.


This section of the Torah shows us as a people choosing to enter into covenant with God, accepting the Torah as our Ketubah.   Yet the mere creation of a Ketubah doesn’t really tell you how a couple will behave. It only tells you their intentions at the point when they create it.    Each and every one of us who accepts Judaism as their code for life is personally responsible for upholding or failing to uphold the terms of Torah in its widest sense.


Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur asks each one of us to review our own behaviour, our own ways of being in relationship to each other and in relationship to the duties of our Jewish religious life and to see if we have upheld the decency, care and compassion and constructiveness in the world that Torah asks of us, in order that our relationship with God, as our long standing bridegroom is good and healthy.


The great thing about the Ketubah between God and the Jewish people is that most of the terms are actually about how we treat each other and the people amongst whom we live.  So much so in fact that Yom Kippur atonement with God is only granted to those who have first made sincere efforts to repair the relationships which they have with other people.  Judaism is a humanitarian religion.  Our Ketubah with God is full of conditions about how we treat our human family – not only our own but also and equally the stranger.


As we are together today just five days before Rosh Hashanah, before the work of atonement really begins in earnest – it is time for us to choose well.  It is time for us to take our Ketubah out of the filing drawer, dust it down if it is framed on the wall.   Consider now how you and I have lived up to Torah.  How have you and I put into action the guiding principles of our Jewish way of life.  How have you and I repaired the relationships close to us and the world around us in the past year?


For those of us with a paper Ketubah with our own partner – why not take the risk of getting it out having a look at it together and seeing if you as a couple have lived up to the terms that you agreed to how ever many years ago.  This season is about moving that bit closer to who you set out to be.