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Friday, September 19, 2014

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Some thoughts on commitment

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What does it mean today to commit to a person or a mission?

When a couple gets married, are they supposed to be making an everlasting commitment to each other? I wonder what is in the vows made. I no longer see absolute or even determined pledges in these self-styled vows. Do the individuals even expect a commitment that knows no end?

In fact, is marriage supposed to be this type of “’til death do us part” pledge? How deep and long-lasting is the marriage vow? One could argue that as we have extended our lifespans, it’s no longer reasonable to expect marriages to last. Additionally, as long as we practise divorce, marriage is not a terminal sentence. But at what point do we avail ourselves of the emergency exit? If the marriage is intolerable, by all means get out. But if it gets inconvenient, are you going to bail? What level of pledge do we expect from the beginning?

I’m walking down this road not because of any recent divorce events or thoughts, but rather because of the opposite.

People have been remarking on my strength and commitment since my husband’s stroke, and I’ve been shocked by their observations. I see nothing noteworthy in my actions, merely my common commitment to the man I married. Our marital vows included anything that may come our way. We were united together. This was it for both of us. We often wondered about our inability to state why we loved. There was no “because of this or that I love you.” The love was unconditional (hence unending). So if good came or bad, if something was removed or a burden added, the love did not end.

This led me to think about the Israelite declaration of “Na’aseh v’nishmah” – “We will do and we will listen.” Some translate this more smoothly as “we will faithfully obey.” But that loses some of the immediacy of the open declaration. We will do! The details of the laws, the intricacies of the contract to which we are obligated we will hear later. But right now, we are committed to this God, to this relationship. Right now, we are here.

Some of the commentators and teachers marvel at this level of commitment. Is this declaration noteworthy or to be expected?

Think of what the Israelites had just gone through – the Exodus. They had just experienced the might of God delivering them out of Egypt and then appearing in amazing awesomeness at Sinai. What could be more compelling? Of course, they will accept God and the words of God. Of course they will commit at that moment to anything. But is that a deep and long-term commitment? Will that be enough to bind Israel for all generations? Is that the marriage contract God desires?

 We stand now before Passover, getting ready for one of the most overwhelming holidays of our tradition. It is now that we celebrate that show of God’s power and authority. It is here that we see God’s redeeming hand. Passover gets us ready to stand at Sinai on Shavuot, to stand under the chupah and say, “We do. Na’aseh v’nishmah: We will do and we will listen.”

Are we ready to make that commitment? What does it take?

As Jews, it has taken generations of sacrifice and pledges. In numerous and often onerous ways, we have forged identities and commitments to remain as Jews, wedded to an identity in all sorts of conditions. Many look and feel very different, yet somehow have contributed to this vibrant marriage.

On Passover, we state that we were all there, each one of us, being personally redeemed, each one of us personally making that commitment. I will do, and I will listen. I will faithfully obey.

In marriage, both personal and communal, we accept this covenant not because we have no other options, but because we love. This is how I understand that Israelite response, in the context of my own marriage. Their immediate reaction was not one of imposed awe, but of precious awe. They loved, therefore they responded with an outcry of “We are here, we will do. The details can follow.”

Out of this level of love and commitment all generations to come are dedicated, and all generations to come are present. That’s the natural outcome of a committed, loving relationship.

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