Hosea, whose words we read in our Haftarah today, is at once one of the most troubling and the most sympathetic of the prophets.
His words are angry, disturbing and sometimes misogynist, as he warns in our Haftarah: ‘Lest I strip her naked, and set her as the day she was born.’ Yet we can understand his anger. It is the anger of a jealous lover whose wife has deserted him and been unfaithful, and who cries out in pain.
Hosea’s relationship with his wife is a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. He uses his love to express God’s love for Israel and God’s pain in being abandoned by Israel. As Abraham Joshua Heschel says, ‘How deeply Hosea must have sensed the pathos of God to have been able to convey such dreadful words against his own people whom he loved so deeply’ (The Prophets, p. 57). We may feel uncomfortable that God is depicted in such human terms, portrayed as angry and jealous, but we can also understand how it must feel to be loved and to be abandoned by the one we love.
Hosea was prophesying in the 8th century BCE, at a time when the northern kingdom of Israel was threatened with destruction. He desperately tried to make sense of Israel’s situation. The people of Israel, God’s people who had been promised that they would prosper on their land, were suffering from war and famine. Why was God not protecting them? In his own marriage, Hosea sought answers. He saw that Israel was also abandoning God, turning to idolatry, and he understood God as being angry, just as he was angry. In this way, he made sense for himself of Israel’s situation.
In our time, we, too, have felt abandoned by God. After the Shoah, we questioned why so many millions of our people had suffered. Unlike Hosea, we were not willing to blame the victims, to explain the suffering of the Jewish people as a punishment for their wrong-doing when so many innocent men, women and children were murdered simply for being Jewish. We have sought other explanations but ultimately are forced to conclude that our suffering remains a mystery. Yet the metaphor of love continues to ring true. Time and again through Jewish history, we have felt abandoned by God. Throughout the centuries, we have been persecuted because we chose to remain true to our faith. The metaphor of love, faithfulness and abandonment works for us as well as for God. Our relationship with God is not a comfortable one. It is a deep love, intense and passionate and often stormy.
The festival of Shavuot, which we celebrate tonight, marks the beginning of that relationship. The rabbis likened the giving of the Torah and the Covenant at Sinai to a marriage, with the Torah like a Ketubah, a marriage contract expressing the terms. At Shavuot, the covenant between Israel and God was sealed. Whilst Pesach is the time of our freedom, Shavuot is the time of the giving of the Torah. At Pesach we became free, but only at Shavuot did our freedom take on meaning. At Shavuot we learnt what our freedom was for - to love God and to keep God’s commandments. Only then, did our existence as a people have meaning and purpose.
Of all the three ‘r’galim’, Pilgrim festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, it is Shavuot which is most central to what it means to be the Jewish people. It has been said, The Jewish people without Torah is like a body without a soul. Shavuot marks the time when we became a people with a soul. Yet of the three r’galim, Shavuot is the least observed. It is something very special to study into the night and discover the wisdom of the Torah, as we will do tonight, and it is also special to stand as we hear the words of the Ten Commandments at the morning service, re-enacting the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Do join us tonight and tomorrow to mark this beautiful and significant festival, which celebrates the marriage of Israel and God.
Our history has been a turbulent one. Sometimes, we have abandoned God and sometimes we feel abandoned by God, but ultimately we have clung to God and remained faithful to God’s covenant despite all that has befallen us. If we look back at our history, through persecution and suffering, we can wonder at the fact that after four thousand years, we are still here, when so many peoples have disappeared. We, can believe that God remains with us, guiding us as in the past. So let us celebrate Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, with joy, recalling the love between God and our people and experiencing it anew.