The Meaning of Marriage

Late spring in Los Angeles: cool, foggy mornings, with sun breaking through around midday. The strawberries are sweet and luscious; the gardens are full of roses. It’s the season of simchas. Our calendars are crowded with graduations and family parties, but most of all with weddings.

The cascading flowers, the gowns and tuxes, the delectable spread on the buffet tables are only a frame for the most beautiful sight at any wedding: the faces of the bride and groom under the chuppah, or at unguarded moments when they think nobody is watching. You notice the way they look at each other and the way they hold hands and the way they dance together — caught up, for those moments, in a magic circle where nobody else exists.

They speak to each other under the marriage canopy, voices breaking with emotion, promising love and friendship, respect and understanding. They sign their names to promises so vast and deep, they would make you tremble if you really thought about them — but the bride and groom are not thinking at that moment, not thinking at all. They are in a fever of joy; they can hardly breathe; they are caught up in the magic circle.

It is all over in a few minutes: the cups of wine, the ancient Hebrew words of commitment, the rings, the blessings, the sound of shattering glass. But something profound has changed in those moments. A covenant is sealed; two people are set apart for one another.

It’s a long way from the chuppah to the fifth chapter of Numbers, where the Torah takes us in this season of roses and romance. It’s grim reading material for wedding guests, and even more so for a bride and groom.

For this week’s portion takes us to the heart of a troubled marriage. There is an irate husband, wild with suspicion; a wife who may or may not be guilty of adultery; a public ordeal designed to bring to light the truth. The suspected adulteress is tested by being forced to drink the “bitter waters” — water mixed with dust from the floor; water in which the priest has dissolved divine curses written on a scroll. The ritual may be primitive, disturbing, even misogynistic to our eyes. But in its time, it provided a sacred, orderly structure to resolve the crisis, and to manage the explosive emotions evoked when marital trust has been compromised: jealousy, rage, humiliation, a sense of betrayal, grief, the murderous desire for revenge.

Asks one commentator: Why does the Torah permit the Name of God to be dissolved in water during this ritual? And he answers: God’s Name does not really disappear. For whenever peace is restored between husband and wife, the Holy One is present.

And maybe it does make sense to read Naso in the midst of the wedding season. For it reminds us that what matters is not the poetic promises we utter under the chuppah, but the prosaic reality of living up to them in marriage. We get a devastating glimpse of how bitter it can be to lack faith in our partner, how hard it is to forgive and make peace. We’re asked to contemplate what it might mean to have God present in our relationship.

On their wedding day, two people set themselves apart for one another, hands joined inside a magic circle — breathless, tearful, in a fever of joy. And God is in the center of the marriage when it’s many years later and the covenant still stands; when the vast, deep promises have somehow been fulfilled, for one partner lies in a hospital bed, too frail to walk or to get dressed anymore, and the other one is still there; and they’re still holding hands.

“Mistress, know yourself,” says Rosalind in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” “Down on your knees, and thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love.”

Blessed is the Holy One, who comes into our lives through the love of a good man or woman; who gives us a taste of eternity in the steadiness of our beloved; who teaches us faith and constancy and forgiveness through the covenant of marriage.

Rabbi Janet R. Marder is director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Pacific Southwest Council. This summer, she will become Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, Los Altos Hills, Calif.