Monday, November 21, 2011

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match / Vayeitzei

Mae West famously said, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.”

I met a young woman -- a physician -- on a flight to Huntsville earlier this year. She comes from India. Her parents arranged her marriage, as they did the marriages of her two brothers, also physicians living in America. I asked her about arranged marriages. She shrugged and said they are as good as any other kind. She correctly pointed out that all marriages are hard work, and many love matches don’t survive the vicissitudes of life. The relationship need only be good enough to weather the storms. I suppose she would applaud Charlotte’s words to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.''

I can barely imagine being in an arranged marriage. Torah records many arranged marriages; marriages were arranged for social, economic, religious, and cultural reasons. Yet Torah speaks of Isaac’s love for Rebekah, and Jacob’s passion for Rachel. Song of Songs certainly knows of romantic love. Conversely, marriages today have business elements to them; think of prenuptial agreements. And there are still many arranged marriages today: in India, Pakistan, some Middle Eastern countries, rural Japan, and even in some parts of America. Yet I think: how could someone else choose a partner for me that involves a lifetime emotional, social, and financial partnership; intimacy; and raising children together; not to mention coping with and supporting one another through illness, trauma, tragedy, and anything else thrown in to spice things up? Whether I choose my spouse, or someone else does, marriage is still hard work and love conquers all only in Hollywood -- that is, on the screen, not in the street. (Rita Rudner said, “In Hollywood, a marriage is a success if it outlasts milk.”)
Arranged or not, finding a partner is a challenge. Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68) tells the humorous and sage story of a Roman matron who challenges Rabbi Yose b. Chalafta by asking what his God has been doing since creating the world. R. Yose responds, “Making matches.” “Why anyone can do that!” the Roman matron replies haughtily.” Rabbi Yose replies, “It may seem easy to you, but for God, making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” That night, to prove her point, the Roman matron lines up her household servants - 1000 men and 1000 women - pairs them up, and marries them off. You won’t be surprised to learn that they return to her the following morning, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and each saying, “This one you designated for me I do not want.” Her arbitrary choices, which did not take into account the people involved, are a disaster. Talmud concurs, attributing to Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan these words: “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea (Sotah 2a).”

Many people in love matches say that their beloved is their “beshert,” a charming Yiddish word that means “destiny,” suggesting ironically, as the story from Bereishit Rabbah claims, God chooses our “soul mate” for us. And indeed, in the Talmud, Rav Yehudah explains how it works: at the time a child is conceived, a bat kol (heavenly voice) announces who is going to marry whom. God, the cosmic shadchan (matchmaker), is at work making matches ‘round the clock.

It’s charming. It’s romantic. It’s idyllic. And it’s nonsense. My husband and I met when we were 19 years old. We married at 22. It seemed so easy - we were young and in love, with shared plans and dreams. Who’s to say that 20, 30, 40 years down the line, when we are very different people than we were at 19, that we are still compatible and satisfying to one another? It doesn’t always happen that way, and that’s why divorce is a necessary escape valve. There is nothing dishonorable about divorce, and in many cases it is the most honorable thing to do.

But maybe that’s not what the Rabbis meant when they told the story of Rabbi Yose’s encounter with the Roman matron, and quoted Rabbah b. Bar Chanah as saying, “It is as difficult for God to make a match as it was to part the Reed Sea.” Perhaps they mean to tell us that a good marriage is a miracle, however long it lasts. What are the chances that two people can navigate the rocks and shoals for decades without running aground?

As surely as there are moment of celebration, joy, and ecstasy, there are challenges and stumbling blocks in every relationship. Marriage is hard work, very hard work. There’s no one formula for success, and success is never guaranteed, but the prophet Hosea, speaking of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, provides guidance:
And I will espouse you forever.
I will espouse you in righteousness and justice,
and with kindness and compassion.
And I will espouse you with faithfulness. (Hosea 2:21-22)
Hosea speaks of four components of long-lasting love: Equitable justice, Loving kindness, Compassion, and Faithfulness.

Equitable justice (tzedek u’mishpat) suggests to me that a committed couple puts the needs of the other on equal par with his or her own, and often makes the needs of the other the priority. Rather than making sure “I get what I need from the relationship,” each one makes sure he or she gives what is needed. Equitable righteousness requires us to proactively dispense love and attention, rather than sit around waiting to receive it.

Loving kindness (chesed) is most often the little things: small considerations, kind words, small favors, patience. It’s so easy for us to take for granted the one with whom we’ve been living for a long time. The glow of early romance fades; the chores and pressures of life weigh us down. Yet it’s remarkable how much power a small kindness has, and every day abounds with opportunities for chesed.

Compassion (rachamim) requires us to see the world through the eyes of the other. Genuine compassion requires not mere sympathy, but active empathy. When we understand another’s pain, fears, joys, ambition, and desires, we enter into their hearts, and they into ours.

Faithfulness (emunah) means committing to the relationship by placing it above all others, so that it gets the lion’s share of our energy and effort. In other words, marriage is a 24/7 project, especially in the bad times, and despite the ups and downs that are normal for all relationships.

Hosea’s advice - even when taken and applied - does not guarantee that a marriage will last forever. (Nothing guarantees that except force and coercion, and sometimes even that doesn’t work.) Love is something we work hard to create and maintain, through equitable justice, kindness, compassion, and faithfulness. Love is the most precious and meaningful thing in the world.

Jacob has a love match and an arranged match. I wonder if he thinks Rachel is his beshert. It sure seems that in the mind of Laban, Leah is Jacob’s beshert! I suspect that the reality is that neither is his beshert, but both became his beshert because he works hard to make them so. And maybe the message is that a marriage that works - for however long it works - is a miracle.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


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