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Chayei Sarah 5771-2010

“What Shall I Do, My Parents Hate Him?!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chayei Sarah, we encounter the world’s first shidduch (arranged marriage) and the world’s first shadchan (matchmaker).

Abraham is well-on in years and G-d has blessed him with great wealth, but he is concerned about his beloved son Isaac, who is not yet married. Abraham summons his trusted Damascan servant, Eliezer, who is in charge of his entire household, and makes him take a solemn oath.

Swearing in the name of G-d, the G-d of heaven and earth, Eliezer agrees not to take a local Canaanite wife for Isaac. Instead, Abraham instructs Eliezer to travel all the way back to Haran, Abraham’s homeland and place of birth, to select a wife for Isaac from there.

The rest of the story is well known. After Rebecca offers water not only to Eliezer but to his camels as well, the Damascan servant sees this act of kindness as a confirmation of Rebecca’s sterling character and as an omen from Heaven that he has indeed selected the right woman for his master’s son.

Eliezer returns with Rebecca to her home, where he meets her father, Bethuel, her brother, Laban, and the rest of the family. After some negotiation, the members of her family agree to allow Rebecca to return with Eliezer to the land of Canaan, and to marry Abraham’s son, Isaac.

The search for a bride for Isaac is described at great length in Genesis 24, which happens to be one of the longest chapters in the entire Pentateuch, consisting of 67 verses. The chapter is not only long, it is repetitive as well. In fact, various parts of the story of Eliezer choosing Rebecca are repeated three times.

The rabbis in Midrash Rabbah 60:11 cite Rabbi Acha, who states that the casual conversations of the servants of the righteous [Abraham] are more pleasing before the Omnipresent than the Torah of their descendants. This explains why the episode of Eliezer’s search for a wife for Isaac is so long and repetitive, while many essential elements of the Torah are learned only through interpretive allusion. The implication of Rabbi Acha’s statement is that there are many critical elements to be learned from the nuances of the conversations that are recorded in the extensive description of Eliezer’s efforts to find a proper mate for Isaac.

There are, in fact, many fascinating lessons that are to be found in the exchanges between Eliezer and Rebecca’s family. For instance, when Eliezer introduces himself as Abraham’s servant, and tries to convince Rebecca’s family to allow him to take Rebecca back to the land of Canaan, Eliezer refuses to eat until he tells his story (Genesis 24:34-49). He emphasizes the immense wealth of Abraham and the miraculous birth of Isaac, who is to be his father’s sole heir. Eliezer tells Rebecca’s family that he has taken a solemn oath to his master, promising to follow Abraham’s specific instructions when choosing a mate for Isaac. In Genesis 24:37, Eliezer states that Abraham made him swear: “Loh tee’kach ee’shah liv’nee meeb’noht ha’K’nah’ah’nee, ah’sher ah’noh’chee yo’shayv b’ahr’tzoh,” Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell. But, go to my father’s house, to my family, and take a wife from them for my son.

Here we see how crafty Eliezer could be. He subtly changes the instructions that he had received from Abraham who actually instructed him not to take a wife for his son from the daughters of the Canaanites “among whom I dwell.” Eliezer, however, delicately changes that to “in whose land I dwell,” in order not to give the impression that Abraham was critical of his Canaanite neighbors.  Similarly, Abraham did not instruct Eliezer to specifically go to his father’s house and to his family, but rather to the land of his birth, “moh’lah’d’tee” (Genesis 24:4). However, Eliezer was confident that by saying that Abraham specifically intended to find a mate for Isaac among his own family members, he would certainly favorably impress Rebecca’s family.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that all these subtle changes pronounced by Eliezer were purposely made in order to make certain that Bethuel and Laban would not oppose the betrothal, and would give their blessing for the marriage of Rebecca and Isaac.

A critical point that we learn from this portion is derived from Abraham’s emphatic statement, in Genesis 24:3 and 37, “Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites!” In the past (Chayei Sarah 5770-2009), we have discussed the Jewish law that mandates that a woman may not be married against her will. But what about the more general question related to children who refuse to listen to their parents’ opinion regarding choosing a mate, and wish to marry people to whom their parents object? What is the protocol?

The Code of Jewish law, Yoreh Deah 240:25, states that if a son desires to go to a particular place to study Torah because he expects to accomplish more there than in his own hometown, or because of the teachers who are in that location, but his parents object because of the unsavory idolaters who reside there, the child is not bound to listen to his parents. The commentators explain, this is because the mitzvah of studying Torah is greater than the mitzvah of honoring father and mother. The example that the authorities cite to support their position, at least according to the Midrash, is that for the 14 years that Jacob was unable to honor his parents while studying in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber, Jacob was not punished. But for the 22 years that he spent away from his parents when he was with Laban (including travel time), he was punished, by not knowing for 22 years whether or not his beloved son Joseph was alive.

Immediately following the laws regarding Torah study, Rama notes that just as a child may study Torah in a particular location even against the parents’ objections, so may a child choose a marriage partner despite the objections of parents.

The Aruch HaShulchan, in his code of Jewish law, Yoreh Deah 240:45, states that whenever it comes to the performance of a mitzvah, the child need not heed the parents’ objections, even when choosing a mate.

In his extensive marriage guide, Ha’Neesuin K’hil’chatah, Rabbi Binyomin Adler explains further. He writes (chapter 3:8-10) that it is a mitzvah for the parents to marry their children to those partners who are fitting in their children’s eyes. Parents who force their children to marry those whom the children dislike commit a grave sin, and such children need not obey their parents. Thus, when parents oppose the marriage of their child to the child’s chosen mate, their objections need not be heeded.

All this, of course, is when the children wish to marry someone who is fitting and appropriate. However, if someone is not fitting and appropriate and the parents object, children must heed their parents’ objections. If the match to a particular man or woman would cause parents great distress or embarrassment, the children should take into consideration their parents’ feelings and refrain from such marriages. In all cases, it is a mitzvah for the children to consider their parents opinions and try to marry someone whom the parents would also regard favorably.

These laws that allow children to disregard their parents’ advice are particularly remarkable since the Code of Jewish Law forcefully stresses not only honoring one’s parents, but revering them as well. According to the Code’s directives, a child may not call a parent by their first name, may not sit in the parent’s reserved seat or stand in a parent’s customary place in the synagogue. A child may not even openly disagree with a parent, and must do everything in his power to show respect both in public and private. Nevertheless, the Code of Jewish Law states that if a parent objects to one’s chosen mate, the child is free to proceed with the marriage. It is as if the rabbis are saying, “You [parents] have had your chance to live your life, now it is my chance to live mine.” But the objections must be voiced in a respectful manner, and if compromise would eliminate friction, that must be the proper course to pursue.

Once again, we see how the Torah tends to follow a middle of the road policy–-according great respect to the views of the parents, but acknowledging that ultimately the choice of marriage belongs to the people who will be sharing their lives together.

May you be blessed.