Recommitment Ceremony (Jewish Week–First Person Singular)
by Esther D. Kustanowitz
To err is human, clearly. And during the High Holy Day season, even those of us who acknowledge our errant ways and engage in the process of repentance with a pure heart still possess the fatal flaw of our humanity. As soon as the hunger pangs from the Yom Kippur fast wane, we’re back on stage in our tragicomedy of errors, slinging gossip over bagels and lox, and likely violating any Rosh HaShanah resolutions before sunrise on the 11th of Tishrei. Another year goes by, and we’re back in our synagogues, proclaiming our guilt all over again in an endless annual loop—it’s like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
What’s the point in persisting in this annual dance of repentance?
In the literal realm of human marital relationships, some couples, after five, 10, 20 years or so, decide to proclaim to the world that the person they’ve found is the person they still want to spend their lives with. They hold “second weddings” or “vow renewals” or “recommitment ceremonies,” inviting friends to witness the re-consecration of their partnership. But often, such ceremonies are prompted by the discovery of a breach in confidence or respect or another violation of the rules of sanctified relationships. Or perhaps the pair has survived a trauma and feels the need to reaffirm—not just for the sake of celebrating love in the public eye, but to put their own souls at ease—that despite all that has happened, their mate is still the One.
So the two stand there, opposite each other, looking into the eyes of their beloved and looking for a trust and commitment that they may not find. A partner may admit that he or she has made mistakes, and may swear before you and a group of people that from here on in, it’s all faith and devotion. But there’s a part of you that’s unsure: can people really change?
The relationship between God and the Jewish people is often cushioned in the metaphorical language of marital commitment. In Genesis, God made a covenant — sealed in flesh in the form of a brit milah (circumcision), which promised the Land of Israel to Abraham and his children. The terms of the agreement — God gives the land of Israel to the people, and the people will worship God — are reiterated at Mount Sinai. The term that God uses to refer to the people is segulah, which indicates a special, sanctified relationship like marriage.
And a midrash on the Mount Sinai narrative interprets that when the text says that the people stood b’tahteet ha’har, literally “in the bottom of the mountain,” that the mountain was suspended, chupah-like, over the heads of the assembled people — were they to try to end the relationship with God, they would have been crushed. And some suggest that Song of Songs, which describes a physically passionate affair — seemingly between a man and a woman — is a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jews.
When it comes to actual marriage, something I admittedly don’t know anything about, I imagine that certain violations are forgivable and that others are not. At some point the two people who make up the zug (the couple) have to assess whether the relationship is worth it. But in the relationship with God, in which we have no way of really knowing whether God has forgiven us, the best we can do is see this annual assessment as a state of the union between the Jews and God.
The High Holy Day season is a chance to renew our relationship with Jewish life. Every year, we stand with our metaphorically wedded partner under a canopy of recommitment, and promise to marry each other all over again. As our Creator, surely God knows not to expect perfection — our entire relationship has been a bumpy cycle of imperfection: We violate our contract of commitment with God, and God rebukes but quickly forgives.
Still, we do what we can to make positive changes in our lives, to increase our commitment to living as nobly and morally as human beings can. We critically assess our actions and hopefully forgive ourselves as we attempt to curb evil inclinations, in the pursuit of more permanent partnerships, with other people and with God.