According to National Statistics On-line – and I quote: ‘Between 2007 and 2008, the number of divorces granted in the UK fell by 5.5% to 136,026… the fourth consecutive fall in the number of UK divorces and the lowest number since 1976 (135,960), [and] 25% lower than the highest number of divorces, which peaked in 1993 (at 180,523).’ (www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=170)
And there are some other interesting statistics (ibid.):
’For the fourth consecutive year, both men and women in their late twenties had the highest divorce rates of all five-year age groups’, while: ‘Since 1998 the average age at divorce in England and Wales has risen from 40.4 to 43.9 years for men and from 37.9 to 41.4 years for women, partly reflecting the rise in age at marriage.’
And just in case, we might have imagined that getting divorced was a unique experience in people’s lives, another statistic: ‘One in five men and women divorcing in 2008 had a previous marriage ending in divorce. This proportion has almost doubled since 1981 when 11% of men and women divorcing had a previous marriage ending in divorce.’
As far as the gender balance is concerned, it is interesting to note that, ‘For 67% of divorces in 2008, the wife was granted the divorce. For all divorces granted to an individual (rather than jointly to both), behaviour was the most common reason for divorce.’
The regional variations are also interesting: ‘In 2008 in England and Wales the number of divorces fell by 5.0%… in Scotland they fell by 10%…and in Northern Ireland they fell by 4.8%.’
So, why am I telling you all this? Well, according to the rabbis, Shavuot celebrates the marriage between God and the people Israel. Indeed, there is a lovely Sephardi custom of reading the K’tubbah, the marriage document between the Eternal One and Israel on Erev Shavuot. I’m sure we have all heard the word b’rit, ‘covenant’, used in connection with the events at Mount Sinai. As we read in Yitro and Mishpatim, the two portions that recount those events, the two parties entered into a covenant. And so, in the section we are reading this morning from Yitro, God proclaims to Moses (Exodus 19:3b-6a):
Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bought you out on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will read listened to my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; you shall be to me a kingdom priests and a holy nation.
And then, at the end of the next portion, Mishpatim, we read (Exodus 24:8)
Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said: ‘Behold the blood of the covenant which the Eternal One has made with you in agreement with these words.’
A covenant is, as we know, is a contract. The same section from Mishpatim tells us that when ‘Moses took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; they said: all that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will listen’ – na’aseh v’nishma (ibid. 24:7) – that is, they assented to the covenant. But the agreement that the ex-slaves entered into in the wilderness over 3000 years ago did not just bind their generation to God. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, forty years later, those who had not been present at Mount Sinai also entered the covenant with the Eternal. And that’s not all, as we read at the beginning of Nitzavim (Deuteronomy 29:13-14):
Neither with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath; but with those that stand here with us this day before the Eternal God, and also with those, who are not here with us this day.
Contrary to the way the narrative of the Torah situates the Book of Deuteronomy in the fortieth year of the wilderness journey, this fifth book, which was reputedly ‘discovered’ during the reign of the reforming monarch of Judah, King Josiah, around 700 years after the events it describes (II Kings 23:1-3), was actually written at that time – which might explain why Nitzavim emphasises that the covenant between God and Israel at Mount Sinai extended through time to include all subsequent generations.
Does that mean that the agreement made back then extends to us as well? Here we are now; in this moment: Are we included in the covenant? Does it matter whether or not we have – each one of us – directly consented to it ourselves? Is today, this day, which the rabbis called, the season of the giving of Torah – Z’man Matan Torateinu – a commemoration of Sinai, or a re-enactment of Sinai? Is that what we are doing here today: entering into the covenant with God on our own behalf? If so, does the fact that there are so few of us here, suggest that the numbers choosing to commit themselves to the Eternal One are diminishing?
Perhaps. One could say, that the fact that Shavuot is the least popular of the Jewish festivals suggests a number of contrary things: that most Jews take being part of the covenant granted, and don’t feel the need to actively reaffirm their commitment to God each year; or, that most Jews consider the covenant irrelevant, even meaningless to their lives; or, that most Jews simply don’t think of their identity as Jews in terms of their relationship with God: indeed, many of the Jews, who feel this way, may even attend Shabbat services on regular basis. But the problem with Shavuot is, that apart from eating cheesecake and the early summer harvest theme – which is, frankly, rather theoretical to most urban Jews – there is no getting away from God on this particular festival; unlike Pesach, there are no elaborate rituals to distract us.
There are probably a host of passive reasons why most Jews don’t come to shul on Shavuot morning to stand up and listen to the Ten Commandments. But maybe, something else is also going on – something more troubling; perhaps, at least for some Jews, the covenant is not simply irrelevant, it has been broken – rather like a marriage can be broken. I’ve lost count of the number of Jews who have told me that they don’t believe in God because of the Sho’ah; as far as these Jews are concerned, God has broken His side of the bargain: all that beautiful poetry about being ‘brought out of Egypt on eagles’ wings’; where were those eagles’ wings, when our people being rounded up and murdered? Rabbis can provide some good rabbinic answers to this question: the Orthodox theologian, Eliezer Berkowitz, in his book, Faith after the Holocaust, argues that while God is ‘long-suffering’ – erech apayim – towards the wicked, their victims, inevitably, suffer. It is also interesting to note that, according to Sh’mot, the first portion of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites toiled in the house of bondage through the reign of more than one Pharaoh, until the Eternal One ‘remembered’ the covenant he had made with their ancestors, ‘took notice’ of them, and decided to liberate them (2:23-25).
But the point about people’s broken faith, like a broken marriage, is that there are no clever answers, or ways of explaining away painful truths: the reality screams abandonment and betrayal. The fact is, six million of our people – including over one million children – were herded onto trucks and trains, gunned down in forests, gassed by their thousands day after day; and God, the same God, who brought us out of Egypt on eagles’ wings was powerless – or, worse, decided not to act. And those, who argue that somehow, the establishment of the State of Israel, might never have happened, if that if it had not been for the Sho’ah, maybe right, but does that mean we should regard Israel as some sort of consolation prize? Does anyone really think that the rebirth of the Jewish nation compensates for the loss of one third of the Jewish people?
And alongside all these questions, the really big questions – and the really big reason why Shavuot is the Cinderella of the Jewish festivals: Just because the Torah relates God speaking to our ancestors and liberating them, does that mean that God does speak and act? Just because the Torah tells us that what our ancestors experienced in the wilderness at Mount Sinai was Divine Revelation, does that mean that the Eternal One was revealed to them? Just because the Torah uses the language of covenant, does that mean that our ancestors entered into a covenant with God? These are also the questions people ask. And, because it is not possible to really experience anything second-hand, or to simulate faith in the absence of faith, there are really no answers, no honest answers, anyway. The truth is, no one knows what happened then and no one knows what is happening now – here, at this moment: because, if God spoke then, God also speaks now – and it follows that if God did not speak then, it is unlikely that God does speak now. As I mentioned earlier, according to the Torah, our ancestors responded to the words of covenant by saying na’aseh v’nishma, ‘we will do and we will listen’; they assented in unison – but does that mean, that there were no individual voices? Does that mean that they all heard the same thing in the thunder?
Apparently, as I indicated earlier, the divorce rate has fallen in the last few years. The big difference between a marriage and the covenant between God and Israel is that despite the whimsical notion that the agreement between the Eternal One and our people is like a marriage, a marriage – at least in this country – involves two individuals; currently, one man and one woman – hopefully, before too long, one woman and one woman, one man and one man, as well. But whether or not Civil Partnership is upgraded, Marriage in Britain clearly requires the consent of both parties; ultimately, it is up to each one of us to commit ourselves to God – or not – and to continue our commitment when the going gets tough – or not. We can only account for ourselves.
So, where does this leave the Jewish people? The other sermon I could have given this morning is about to what extent individual Jews still feel part of, and committed to, the Jewish people, and whether or not, there is, indeed, still one Jewish people – perhaps, there are now several Jewish peoples, each with their own identity, values, allegiances and commitments? Perhaps it is fitting that at the ‘Season of the giving of our Torah’, on a day that, ultimately, recalls a mystery, the best thing we can do is ponder who we are, as individuals, and as Jews, as we apprehend that mystery. May the experience of this moment provide us with some of the nourishment we need to explore our questions, as we continue our journeys. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
18th May 2010 – 6th Sivan 5770
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut