In the portion of Ki Tetze, the Torah defines the method by which a man may divorce his wife: “If a man takes a woman as his wife, and if it happens that she is displeasing in his eyes, because he has found something abhorrent about her, then he shall write her a writ of divorce, he shall give it into her hand, and send her away from his home” (Deuteronomy 24:1).
The phrasing – “If a man takes a woman” – that the verse above uses in reference to marriage is similar to the phrasing that the Torah uses to express God’s relation to the nation of Israel: “I will take you as my nation, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). In numerous places, the prophets envision God as the husband of Israel, and when Israel sins, the prophets see their nation as a wayward woman. Thus, God “divorces” the northern kingdom of the ten tribes; they are exiled from their land and are lost. But God stops short of fully divorcing the Kingdom of Judah: “Where is your mother’s writ of divorce, that I have sent her away?” asks Isaiah. Indeed, the Jews of the southern kingdom, like their northern brothers, are exiled from their land; but it is a separation and not a divorce. After seventy years, they will return and rebuild.
Note Isaiah’s unusual reference to “your mother’s writ of divorce.” We might readily understand the imagery of God divorcing Israel, or of expelling the people from their land on account of their sins, just as God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden on account of their sin; but who is “your mother” in Isaiah’s metaphor, and why is she sent away? Also note how Isaiah continues: “. . . for on account of your sins you have been sold, and through your transgressions your mother was sent away” (Isaiah 50:1), a phrasing that brings to mind Shilu’ach Haken – the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her children – a mitzvah also mentioned in the portion of Ki Tetze. It is not only the children of Israel who are taken from their land, but also their mother is sent away.
And so, I ask again, who is this mother in Isaiah’s imagery, sent to fly away while her children are taken from their nest? Most of the commentaries gloss over that question, but the Zohar has an interesting interpretation: the mother who is sent away is the Shekhina, the divine presence in our world. God is often envisioned as residing in Heaven, far above the realm of our existence. But God is also immanent in our world and within us, and His presence – the Shekhina – is palpable to those who are attuned to it. Leading a life of righteousness brings us closer to the Shekhina, while doing evil drives the Shekhina away. Our sins, then, result in a two-fold exile: we are driven from our land, and the divine presence is sent away.
But the separation is not permanent. “Can one spurn the wife of his youth?” asks Isaiah in the Haftarah of Ki Tetze (Isaiah 54:6). “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you back. In a flash of fury I hid my face from you a moment, but with everlasting kindness I take you back in love, said the Lord your Redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8).
© Copyright 2011 by Ben Roshgolin. All rights reserved.
For Israel as a harlot, see Hosea chapters 1 and 2.
For discussion of “divorce” of the ten tribes contrasted with the exile of the southern kingdom, see Radak’s commentary on Isaiah 50:1.
For the consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin, see the opening lines of Tana Devei Eliyahu, where God is seen as giving Man a divorce. Contrariwise, in the Zohar it is not only God who drives Adam out of the garden, but also it is Adam who expels the Shekhina (Zohar I:53b, I:237a).