An oft-encountered debate among students seeking a life partner revolves around the various criteria that are deemed essential in a spouse. Students often have difficulty pinning down precisely what they are looking for. After some discussion, the laundry list of high expectations is whittled down to a few essentials that invariably center on the seeker’s perceived needs, as in, “I need someone who understands me, someone who makes me feel comfortable, a deep thinker,” and so forth.
In these discussions I sometimes ask the student to remove the “I” from the equation. This is a far more difficult exercise than one might think. It totally reverses the focus. The question now becomes: What type of person do you think you could best service? When the emphasis is on what I myself need to secure marital bliss, the answers are at my fingertips. I know what I need, and what I want. But when the question is how I can best contribute to someone else’s growth and happiness, quite a different list will emerge. This exercise sets the framework for the Torah’s approach to marriage.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah introduces us to the process with which we effect the marriage bond. “When a man takes a woman unto himself,” is how the posuk begins the discussion of marriage-related issues. . The Hebrew word for taking, “yikach,” is defined in the Talmud as the process by which marriage becomes legally binding. Since the verb “to take” is found in another context where it means to take possession of something, we can learn from there that marriage, too, involves the same principle of taking possession. The rite of taking possession is performed by the man through his giving the bride a sum of money, or an item of value such as ring. This is derived from the fact that the word ‘yikach’ occurs in the Torah in connection with Avraham’s purchase of a field as a burial plot.
When Avraham purchased from Efron the famed me’aras hamachpeilah, the cave in Hebron, as a burial plot for his wife, the Torah makes a point of spelling out that it was purchased with money. So, too, say the sages, one acquires a wife by giving her money.
The concept of acquiring a wife through the act of giving her something of value may appear to be demeaning to a woman. After all, is marriage at bottom a financial transaction? Surely, both partners equally contribute to building a home. Why then do the official rites of Jewish marriage involve the payment of money from the husband to the wife-to-be?
The deeper wisdom of the Torah teaches that husband and wife are essentially one soul in the upper spheres. That soul descends earthward, and is invested in two different people with disparate life conditions and contrasting personalities. Through the process of marriage, husband and wife surrender their ego and transcend their difference by devoting themselves to one another. In this manner, they become one unit, ensuring that their souls will remain eternally connected to the Divine, and restored to their state of oneness in the world of souls.
My father, of blessed memory, was a passionate collector of old Hebrew books. Our home resembled something of a library. My father devoted much of his free time to cataloging and researching his beloved collection. The most important part of an old book is of course the title page. Since that is the first page of any book, it is often worn and torn from years of use. An important aspect of a book collector’s job is to restore the title page. My father would excitedly show me many restored title pages from various works. A superb job was one where you could discern the repaired seams only when the book was held up to the light.
My Dad knew a superb craftsman who worked for the British museum, whose restoration work was world class. He would only undertake one book every four years, during which time he would painstakingly craft book fragments together, subjecting them to his unique restoration process. I recall that once, one of my father’s most cherished books came back from his shop. My father’s joy was palpable as he put the sefer up to the light and showed me the incredible restoration work. The seams were almost impossible to detect. The ancient title page looked as if it had just come off the press.
Perhaps we can use the idea of book restoration as a metaphor for our mission in marriage. Two fragmented souls must realign and reconnect seamlessly. This can only be accomplished by each devoting themselves wholeheartedly and completely to one another, When both souls are seamlessly integrated and are restored to their exalted place in the celestial throne, the Divine joy is boundless.
It is for this reason that the Torah’s formula for making a marriage binding is derived from Avraham’s purchase of the me’aras hamachpela, the burial plot for his wife Sarah. The only way a marriage can blossom and flourish is if both partners focus from the very beginning on their immortal connection, always aware that they are two people with one soul, and that after a lifetime, the divided soul will unify at the celestial source.
Thus, as Avraham acquired the burial plot for Sarah, he paid tribute to the fact that their pure and holy connection continued in the afterlife. In this way, our patriarchs and matriarchs set the tone for an ideal and ennobling marriage for all future generations.
Wishing you a wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Naftali Reich Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.