A man and his wife entered the dentist's office.
Marriage is when a man and woman become as one; the trouble starts when they try to decide which one.
I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury. -- George Burns
There is an enigmatic Talmudic passage explaining a peculiar phrase in this week's portion (Yisro): "They (the Jewish people) stood in the bottom of the (Sinai) mountain (1)."
What is the meaning of the words "in the bottom of the mountain"? (A more appropriate sentence would have been, “they stood at the bottom of the mountain,” or “near the bottom of the mountain,” not “in the bottom of the mountain”!)
The Talmud explains (2) that the Jews were actually standing inside the mountain, in the bottom of the mountain. "G-d enveloped them with the mountain as though it were an upturned vat, and He said to them: 'If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, this will be your burial place.'"
"I want a tooth pulled, "the man said."We are in a big hurry, so let us not fool around with gas or Novocain or any of that stuff."
"You are a very brave man," remarked the dentist. "Which tooth is it?"
"Show him your bad tooth, honey," said the man to his wife.
The event at Sinai is viewed as the marriage ceremony between G-d and the Jewish people (2*). Imagine you would hear of a groom who, on the day of the wedding, placed his bride under an elevator and declared: "If you marry me, great; if not, the elevator will come down on your head." What would you feel about such a groom? And how would you feel about such a relationship?
Couldn't G-d have found a more "romantic" way to convince the "bride" to marry Him?
What is even more puzzling is the fact that according to the biblical narrative (3), the Jewish people had already expressed their willingness to accept the Torah before this event. Why was it necessary for G-d to coerce them into something they had already agreed upon (4)?
Let us present the explanation offered by one of the greatest spiritual masters, the founder of the Chassidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov (5).
There are days when we are emotionally in touch with our inner human depth and our inner G-dliness. At such times we are inspired to live deeply, to love deeply, and to fulfill the mission for which we are alive.
But then come the days when we feel estranged from our souls. We are emotionally numb, experiencing ourselves merely as self-centered and materialistic creatures seeking to satiate nothing more than our momentary cravings. We are not in the mood for G-d or the deeper truths of existence. We are too busy or stressed to even contemplate the inner meaning of what it means to be alive. At such times of spiritual alienation, we often succumb to mundane and selfish behavior. Since we feel disconnected, we act as though we are indeed disconnected.
In a creative way, the sages are suggesting, Judaism at its moment of inception, confronted this basic human condition of inner fragmentation and uncertainty. By G-d forcing the Jewish people to enter into the relationship -- even though they had agreed already -- He demonstrated to them that their relationship was not based on the fact that they were consciously passionate about it. Even not on the fact that they embraced it volitionally. The relationship was an inherent and an essential condition (6). Man, in the Jewish imagination, is an innately spiritual and divine creature. "Even when you are not in the mood for me," G-d was saying, "our relationship is as strong as ever. You can act on it."
By placing the mountain on their heads, G-d was demonstrating that the essential relationship between Him and the Jew was not dependent upon the Jew being “up to it,” excited about it, and enthused by it. Even when I am not in the mood of serving G-d, yet I serve Him regardless knowing that this is the truth, a genuine and authentic relationship it is. At the very inception of the relationship, G-d made sure to establish the truth that our oneness was not dependant on the feelings about that oneness.
(In Yeshivishe terminology – for those familiar with this jargon – also a life style based on “Kabalas Ol Malchus Shamayim” has a "chalos" shem relationship, and is not considered a failed relationship).
In the Jewish tradition, the marriage of each man and woman reflects the cosmic marriage between G-d and His people (7). There are the days when we feel truly grateful for our spouses and experience deep love toward them. At such times we crave to give of ourselves to our spouses and make their lives happier.
But at other times we become cold and apathetic. We just want to do "our own thing" and simply are not in the mood for the relationship. Often, a spouse may even evoke negative emotions in the heart of the other, resulting in a feeling of estrangement and detachment.
In the majority of cases, it would be a sad error to act upon those feelings of detachment. For the Kabbalah teaches (8) that a wife and husband are essentially "two halves of a single soul." At their core, they are one. Thus, when a couple enters into marriage, it needs to recall what G-d reminded us at the day of His marriage: Whether we are in the mood for each other or not, we are one.
Such a commitment could save many marriages when they encounter rocky times. After all, it saved the marriage between G-d and the Jews.
1) Exodus 19:17.
2) Shabbos 88a.
2*) See, for example, Mishnah Taanis 26b; Shemos Rabah end of section 15.
3) Exodus 24:7.
4) This question is raised among many of the Talmudic commentators. See Tosfos, Eitz Yosef, Pnei Yehoshua, Shabbos Shel Mi and BenYehoyada to Talmud Shabbos ibid. Midrash Tanchumah Noach section 3. Daas Zekeinim Mibbalei Hatosafos on Exodus 19:17. Maharal Tiferes Yisroel ch. 32, Gur Aryeh on Exodus ibid. and Or Chodash p. 45. Sources noted in Pardas Yosef to Exodus ibid.
5) 1698-1760. This idea was transcribed by his famed disciple, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Pulnah (Ben Poras Yosef Parshas Vayeishev. Cf. Nesiv Metzvosecah Nesiv HaTorah 1:28). For alternative explanations see referenced noted in previous footnote as well as in Torah Or Megilas Esther p. 96c; 118c.
6) Cf. Tanya chapters 14, 16, 18-19, 25, 28, 41, 44.
7) See commentaries to Song of Songs. Maimonides' Laws of Teshuvah ch. 10. 8) Zohar Vayikra p. 7b.