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Chayei Sara 5763-2002

“The Torah’s Recipe for Finding a Proper Mate”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the growing issues confronting contemporary American and world Jewry is the challenge of finding proper mates for our single young people. In this week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, Abraham sends Eliezer to Charan to find a suitable wife for Isaac. Eliezer, the Damascan servant, in effect serves as the proverbial Shadchan, the matchmaker.

Many people today perceive of matchmaking as a primitive, backward, and quite medieval practice. The truth is that, often, when we are faced with significant problems or challenges in life, whether financial, social or mechanical, we frequently call in experts for consultation. One of the only areas where we are reluctant to call an expert is matchmaking. And yet, utilizing a third party consultant to provide a young person with a more honest and objective opinion of a prospective mate has a certain compelling logic.

This week’s parasha is a primary source from which we learn much about the qualities that one should look for when seeking a mate.

Rebecca and Isaac really come from entirely different backgrounds. The profound differences are evident at their very first encounter. When she first beholds Isaac, Rebecca, coming from Charan, falls off her camel and covers her face with a veil. Clearly Rebecca feels quite unworthy of Isaac, because, after all, Isaac comes from a noble and esteemed background, the great son of the great Abraham, whereas Rebecca, the daughter of Betuel, comes from an ignoble background. Rebecca really doesn’t feel that she measures up to Isaac. Perhaps that is why Isaac and Rebecca fail to communicate when they have differences regarding how to properly raise their twins, Esau and Jacob. Perhaps this huge gulf in their backgrounds explains why instead of talking to Isaac, Rebecca resorts to subterfuge.

Once Rebecca and Isaac personally meet, the Torah tells us (Genesis 24:67), “Va’y’vee’eh’ha Yitzchak ha’ohela Sara eemo,” Isaac brings Rebecca to the tent of Sara his mother, “va’yikach et Rivka,” and he takes, or betroths, Rebecca, “va’t’hee lo l’eesha,” and she becomes his wife. “Va’yeh’ah’veh’ha,” and he loves her, “va’yee’nah’chem Yitzchak ah’chah’rey eemo,” and Isaac is comforted for the loss of his mother.

The order of this verse is confounding. First, Isaac marries her and she becomes his wife, then–he loves her. Scripture is surely informing us that true, mature love, at least from the Jewish perspective, is something that develops after marriage, not before. It’s not: “I saw him across the room, my blood began to boil, I knew I had to have him.” That’s ridiculous! Who knows what kind of lecher, endowed with a comely, handsome body, is standing across the room? But, if a matchmaker, or third objective party, properly evaluates the couple, and determines that they do indeed have compatible values and qualities, then it is quite likely that the two individuals can get together and mature love will develop.

The idea of Isaac being “comforted for the loss of his mother” is quite interesting as well. In fact, Rashi says, “Na’ahs’ta dug’mat Sara eemo,” Rebecca became similar to Sarah, Isaac’s mother. “Sheh’kol z’man sheh’Sara kah’yeh’met,” as long as Sarah was alive, “haya nayr dah’luk may’erev Shabbat l’erev Shabbat,” there was always a candle lit from one Shabbat to the next, “Oov’racha m’tzuya bah’eesa,” and there was always a blessing in the dough, “v’anan kashur lah’ohel,” and there was always a cloud tied to the tent. “Oo’mee’sheh’mayta, passak!” and when Sara died, it ceased. “Oo’k’sheh’bat Rivka, chazru,” however, when Rebecca arrived, all these elements returned to the home.

The imagery cited by Rashi is crucial–they are in fact metaphors of what mothers and wives bring to a marriage. “The candle is lit from one Shabbat to another Shabbat,” implies that there is an emphasis on light and enlightenment–in effect, an emphasis on learning, Torah learning. In addition to the centrality of learning, however, there is also an emphasis on Shabbat, a day of sacred time for the family.

“A blessing in the dough,” means that there is always sufficient material blessing in the home, implying that even though the material endowments may be meager, the woman is s’may’cha b’chelkah–always satisfied with her lot, and able to teach her family to be satisfied with what they posses.

“There’s a cloud tied to the tent,” symbolizes that the Divine Presence is deeply rooted in the domicile, that there is a constant aura of spirituality present in the home.

One of the highly controversial Mishnayot (Mishnaic passages) that has been severely criticized recently by some Jewish commentators is a famous Mishna that is found at the beginning of Tractate Shabbat (Chapter 2), known as Bameh Madleekin. This Mishnah is recited as part of the Ashkenazic Friday evening prayer service as an addition to the welcoming of the Shabbat prayers.

The Mishna reads: “For three sins women die in childbirth: because they are not careful in neda–the laws of family purity, challah–giving dough from the bread that they bake, ub’hadlakat h’ner–because they fail to light Sabbath candles.”

At first blush, this Mishna appears quite outrageous. However, upon further examination, it is evident that this Mishna is primarily a metaphor, and an important metaphor at that. The message of the Mishna is loud and clear: Women lose their children or their lives, because they fail to provide a proper example for their children.

The Mishna argues that if parents fail to serve as proper models for their children, if they fail to demonstrate to their children family relationships based on sanctity and purity, if they do not evidence healthy relationships between husbands and wives–they may very well lose their children. If parents fail to show a giving quality, if they do not practice frequent and multiple acts of charity–of giving challah, they may lose their children. If parents fail to light the Sabbath candles, if they fail to focus and nurture their family’s spiritual needs, if every day is exactly the same and there is no sacred family time, then they will likely lose their children.

The Mishna maintains that those parents who fail to transmit these three critical values will lose their children–in a Jewish sense, their children will simply never be in a position to acquire those feelings that are necessary to maintain and transmit the legacy of Judaism. These parents will also lose their children in an ethical and moral sense. Parents whose children are bereft of these values–of family love relationships, of feelings of charity, of spirituality and of Shabbat, will soon discover that their children have found other things to fill the void in their lives. And this is precisely what we are taught in this week’s parasha.

When Eliezar was looking for the proper wife for Isaac at the well, scripture says that Eliezer saw a woman (Genesis 24:17), “Va’ya’ratz ha’eh’ved lik’rata,” and the man, the servant, Eliezer, ran toward her. “Va’yomer,” and he says to her: “Hag’mee’ee’nee nah, m’at mayim mee’kah’daych,” pour off a little water from your pitcher. Rashi asks: Why did Eliezer run toward this particular woman? What did he see about her that was so attractive? Rashi maintains, based on the Midrash, that Eliezer saw water coming towards her–that when Rebecca went down to the well to draw for her own needs, the water actually flew from the well and went right into her pitcher. If that is the case, if Rebecca was a veritable miracle worker, why did Eliezer have to put her through the test, by saying that if she gives water to my camels then he will know that she is an unusually kind person, and appropriate for Isaac?

The Rabbi’s offer a remarkable and insightful explanation. The fact that a woman may appear to be a miracle worker, the fact that water comes running up towards her, that the well empties directly into her pitcher, is simply not sufficient reason to choose a particular mate. Miracles do not determine who and what is appropriate–kindness determines, chessed determines. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defines the word “chessed”–lovingkindness–as “love translated into action.” Without chessed, even bushelfulls of miracles would not have rendered Rebecca an appropriate mate for Isaac.

These are the rich and meaningful lessons to be gleaned from our scriptures. These are the lessons that must guide us, especially in contemporary times. These are the lessons to heed in our own lives. They are not primitive. They are thoroughly enlightened, and, in many instances, light-years ahead of contemporary practices and understandings.

May you be blessed.