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Jewish Life

Published on November 26th, 2014 | by Chris Bonito

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Torah Portion – Vayetze

By Shlomo Riskin

The Bible presents two models for finding one’s life partner: the Isaac-Rebekah arranged marriage model, and the romantic Jacob-Rachel model. In both instances, there must be “love” (ahava): The Bible informs us that “Isaac brought [Rebekah] into the tent of Sarah his mother, he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her…” (Genesis 24:67); and in our portion, when Laban asks Jacob what remuneration he wants for his work, the Torah records that “Jacob loved Rachel, and so he said, ‘I shall work for you for seven years in exchange for marrying Rachel, your younger daughter’” (Gen. 29:18).

The major difference between these models is that with Isaac and Rebekah, the love came after the marriage, whereas with Jacob and Rachel, love preceded the marriage. In both cases, however, the Bible emphasizes that love is fundamental to relationships.

The Talmud likewise speaks of the “love” component: “It is forbidden for a man to betroth a woman unless he sees [comes to know] her, lest he find in her something unseemly and she becomes distasteful to him; for the Torah teaches, ‘You must love your friend like yourself’” (B.T. Kiddushin 41a); Maimonides rules that the woman also has the right to choose her mate. (Laws of Marriage 19:3).

It is fascinating that Rabbi Yehuda (Judah bar Ezekiel, 220–299 CE) records in the name of Rav that the law of “loving your friend like yourself” applies to husband and wife. This is reminiscent of the magnificent verse regarding the very first married couple, Adam and Eve: “…This time she is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…. Therefore, shall a man leave his father and mother, join together with his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23, 24). The Ramban (Nahmanides) explains “one flesh” as referring to the act of sexual intercourse which unites both individuals; Rashi interprets it as referring to “the child formed by the two parents.” From this perspective, “love” includes the desire to join physically with one’s mate as well as to have children with him/her.

Among the seven marital blessings recited under the nuptial canopy and in Grace after Meals for seven days following the wedding, we find the best description I know of a married couple: re’im ahuvim, loving and beloved friends, drawn from Rav’s verse.

If we can define love as sexual attraction towards a partner with whom we would wish to continue the Jewish narrative into future generations, “friendship” would suggest a relationship of complete and unabashed honesty, mutual respect, and commonly held ideals and values. If all of these criteria are present in a relationship, then I would say the two people are “in love.”

However, one doesn’t just “fall” in love; one must actively work to see that love continues and grows. Love requires nurturing – giving time every day to the relationship, with a sharing of ideas, emotions and events which make two individuals more and more of a united entity. Each must be encouraged to grow and develop independently, but there must be sufficient sharing to allow both people to grow together as one even as they develop themselves.

To return to our portion.

We are told that when the fleeing Jacob arrived in the town where his mother’s family dwelt, he found shepherds gathering together to lift the boulder from atop the well so that they could give water to their sheep. “But when Jacob saw Rachel, he single-handedly uncovered the stone from atop the well and gave water to her sheep…” (Gen. 29:10).

The amazing power of love – love at first sight.

Immediately thereafter, the Bible notes “Jacob kissed Rachel and he lifted up his voice and wept.” Why did he weep? Rashi makes two suggestions. The first is that Jacob cried because he didn’t have any gifts to give her, since Eliphaz the son of Esau had stolen all the gifts that Jacob had brought for his kinspeople. From here, we see that one should give gifts to one’s fiancée and also to one’s wife throughout one’s marriage. Everyone wants to know that they are appreciated. The Rambam (Maimonides) rules that every husband should give his wife a gift on every festival.

Rashi’s second interpretation is even more poignant. Jacob saw that he wouldn’t be buried together with his beloved Rachel, since he would be laid to eternal rest in the “Cave of the Couples” (Ma’arat Hamachpela) and she would be buried in Bethlehem on the road to Efrat. I interpret this to mean that Jacob saw that in the order of things, towards the end of their lives there would be an enforced separation; usually one partner predeceases the other. And the bitter price that one pays for loving is the necessity of an ultimate existential separation.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.


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