“The Torah’s Recipe for Finding a Proper Mate”
(updated and revised from Chayei Sarah 5763-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

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

Many people today consider matchmaking a primitive, backward, and quite medieval practice. The truth is, that many of us, when faced with significant problems or challenges in life, whether financial, social or mechanical, frequently call-in experts for consultation. One of the only areas where there is reluctance 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 an appropriate mate.

Rebecca and Isaac really come from entirely different backgrounds. These profound differences are evident at their very first encounter. When Rebecca (Genesis 24:64), first beholds Isaac, as she is coming from Charan, she 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 noble son of the great Abraham, whereas Rebecca, 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 twin sons, 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 states, Genesis 24:67, וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ, Isaac brings Rebecca to the tent of Sarah his mother, וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה, and he takes, or betroths, Rebecca, וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה, and she becomes his wife. וַיֶּאֱהָבֶהָ, and he loves her. וַיִּנָּחֵם יִצְחָק אַחֲרֵי אִמּו, and Isaac is comforted for the loss of his mother.

The order of this verse is confounding. First, Isaac marries Rebecca and she becomes his wife–only then, does he love 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 these two individuals can successfully meld together, and mature love will develop.

The idea of Isaac being, “comforted for the loss of his mother,” (Genesis 24:67), is quite interesting as well. In fact, Rashi, citing the Midrash, Genesis Rabba 60:16, says: נַעֲשֵׂית דֻּגְמַת שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ , Rebecca became similar to Sarah, Isaac’s mother שֶׁכָּל זְמַן שֶׁשָּׂרָה קַיֶּמֶת, as long as Sarah was alive, הָיָה נֵר דָּלוּק מֵעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת לְעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת, there was always a candle lit from one Shabbat to the next, וּבְרָכָה מְצוּיָה בָּעִסָּה and there was always a blessing in the dough וְעָנָן קָשׁוּר עַל הָאֹהֶל, and there was always a cloud tied to the tent. וּמִשֶּׁמֵּתָה, פָּסְקוּ and when Sara died, it ceased. וּכְשֶׁבָּאת רִבְקָה, חָזְרוּ, however, when Rebecca arrived, all these elements returned to the home.

The imagery cited by Rashi is crucial—these descriptions 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, the importance of mothers (i.e., parents) emphasizing learning, especially Torah learning. In addition to the centrality of learning however, there is also an emphasis on Shabbat, underscoring the importance of having 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 שְׂמֵחָה בְּחֶלְקָהּ–always satisfied with her lot, and able to teach her family to be satisfied with what they possess.

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

One of the highly controversial Mishnayot (Mishnaic passages), that has been frequently criticized by some “enlightened” Jewish commentators, is a famous Mishna that is found at the beginning of Tractate Shabbat (Chapter 2), known as בַּמֶּה מַדְלִיקִין. 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 נִדָּה, niddah–the laws of family purity, חַלָּה, challah–taking dough from the bread that they bake, וּבְהַדְלָקַת הַנֵּר–because they fail to light Sabbath candles.”

At first blush, this statement in the Mishna appears to be quite outrageous. However, upon further examination, it is evident that this Mishna is intended to serve as a metaphor, and a vital educational metaphor at that. The message of the Mishna is loud and clear: Women lose their children or their lives, because they fail to provide proper examples 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 (laws of Niddah), 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 on, 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 in Haran, scripture notes that Eliezer saw a woman (Genesis 24:17), וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד לִקְרָאתָהּ, and the man, the servant, Eliezer, ran toward her. וַיֹּאמֶר, and he says to her: הַגְמִיאִינִי נָא מְעַט מַיִם מִכַּדֵּךְ, “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 made her so attractive? Rashi maintains, based on the Midrash, that Eliezer saw the well water coming toward her–that when Rebecca went down to the well to draw for her own needs, the water actually flew from the well and went directly 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, only 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 toward 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. Samson Raphael Hirsch defines the word חֶסֶד, “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 for us to heed in our own lives. They are not at all primitive. In fact, they are thoroughly enlightened, and, in many instances, light-years ahead of contemporary practices and understandings.

May you be blessed.