Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bring on romance! But there's more to marriage / Chayei Sara

Everyone likes a good romance, even the most recalcitrant curmudgeon. Several weeks ago we read Torah’s sweeping statement, Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh (Genesis 2:24). Torah expresses an ideal: that if possible, a person find an ezer k’negdo, a helpmeet – best friend, confident, lover, intellectual partner – with whom to forge a life. (Torah presumes a heterosexual union, but we know that homosexual unions can enjoy the same qualities.) The ideal – finding an ezer k’negdo who is a true soulmate – happens, but less frequently than any romantic (and even hardened realists) would hope.

As Torah chronicles the generations from Adam and Eve through our patriarchs and matriarchs, we find such a union in Isaac and Rebekah.

In this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, Abraham sends his trusted servant Eliezer to Nahor in Aram-naharaim (in Mesopotamia) to find a wife for Isaac from among his own kin. Abraham’s ties to the Land of Israel are deep, but he does not want Isaac to marry a local because they are steeped in idolatrous practices. How is a suitable partner to be found for Isaac? Is there a shadchan (matchmaker)? Rather, Eliezer administers a test of character:
[Eliezer] made the camels kneel down by the well outside the city [of Nahor], at evening time, the time when women come out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ – let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” (Genesis 24:10-14)
Eliezer is immediately rewarded by the approach of Rebekah, whose generosity and graciousness are matched only by her beauty. This is the stuff of romantic legend, and the epic continues in the tent of her father, Bethuel where Eliezer breathlessly tells his tale and Rebekah accedes to the marriage although she has never laid eyes on Isaac.

The scene Torah paints for us of the first glimpses Isaac and Rebekah have of one another is delightfully romantic:
Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to her servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” and the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Genesis 24: 63-67)
In fact, this is the first time Torah has told us of two people falling in love with one another. And it will not happen again soon.

The Rabbis pondered how such a match is made. Could Eliezer have known that Isaac and Rebekah would connect on such a deep level, or was it pure luck? Or perhaps God intervened behind the scenes? We find this whimsical story in the midrash that makes the point that such unions are not easily made, and are a precious thing:
A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yossi how long it took God to create the world. He replied: “Six days.” She asked: “What has your God been doing since then?” Rabbi Yossi replied: “Making matches. This man to that woman, this woman to that man.” The Roman matron replied with surprise: “Is that all? Why anyone can do that!” Rabbi Yossi observed, “It may seem easy to you, but for God making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” But to prove her point, the Roman matron returned home and lined up all her household servants – 1000 men and 1000 women, paired them up and married them off. The following morning they returned to her, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and another wounded, each with its own misery and saying, “This one that you designated for me I do not want.” The Roman matron sent for Rabbi Yossi and said, “Rabbi your Torah is truth and it is beautiful and praiseworthy. You spoke well in all you said.” (Beraishit Rabbah 68 and Vayikra Rabbah 8)
Torah is, above all things, down to earth. Marriage is about respect and loyalty over the long term. It entails creating a household, raising children (if the couple chooses and enjoys that blessing), and sticking around for the duration. And yes, some marriages need to end; Torah provides for this, as well. Torah is no romance novel. By setting the bar where it does, Torah encourages us all to identify what is valuable and enduring in our primary relationships and find strength and support in that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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