What is the most important criterion for finding a spouse? Some thoughts on Parashat Chayei Sarah.
The parashah Chayei Sarah teaches us several fundamental principles about conjugal life, choosing a spouse, and the impact of education and the environment. Abraham sends Eliezer to find his son Isaac a wife from Haran, which is his land of origin, not the Land of Canaan: “But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24, 3-4)
We learn from Abraham’s words and commentaries that he categorically believes that in questions of matchmaking, attention must first be paid to people’s midot – they take priority in his worldview of belief – which is external and can be changed. The midot, however, are the main question, they are imprinted in the human soul and it’s very hard, if at all, to change them. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says: “Worshiping false gods is basically the wandering of the lost mind, and this can be mended. But moral corruption takes over the whole of human existence, into the depth of the mind and the emotions.”
Abraham’s words reveal that there is not necessarily a link between the worldview of beliefs and midot (good qualities). An individual’s worldview of beliefs does not necessarily attest to their positive or negative qualities. Part of Rebekah’s worldview was worshiping idolatry, yet she also possessed good qualities.
Moreover, Abraham believes that the environment in which a person is raised has a far-reaching impact on his character. He does not seek a young woman living in Canaan, and prefers a girl raised in Haran. The environment of Canaan is flawed and degenerate: “and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes” (Leviticus, 18, 3) and it affects the young women’s soul. However we also hear in Abraham’s words that if someone was raised in a problematic setting but was properly educated, and has basically positive qualities – his good education will activate the good qualities.
When Abraham told Eliezer to go to Haran, he was aware – as Rabbi Neriah said – “there should be people in Haran who were brought up like he was.” It would certainly impact on how they raised their children – and so among their children a suitable wife could be found for Isaac, to continue the dynasty of the House of Israel. And indeed, the commentaries tell us that Rebekah has a wet-nurse named Dvorah, who was raised in Haran according to Abraham’s principles, and was educated for good midot – and went with her to the “Tent of Sarah.”
There is consensus in the current research literature that personality qualities are a combination of nature and nurture. It has also been found that there are inter-relationships between heredity and the environment; that is, the environment and education can influence the way in which genetic traits are expressed.
With Rebekah, there was a combination of loving-kindness (hesed), deeply embedded in her personality, and the socialization process she underwent with her wet-nurse, Dvorah, who educated her according to Abraham’s principles. Rebekah, in fact, manages the whole scenario – she exercises commonsense, and female agency, and teaches Eliezer a lesson in being a couple. Her involvement in hosting Eliezer and drawing water for his camels give Eliezer a clear unequivocal message that the most important criterion for finding a partner in the quality of loving-kindness in human beings, reflected in their actions.
From our parasha, we can learn that couplehood must be grounded on the quality of loving-kindness, not on making rules (midat hadin) or keeping accounts. There are in fact two styles of couplehood: one is midat hadin, in which the couple assesses each other – “You did that, I’ll do this,” and the other style with the quality of loving-kindness – “I did this and I did that but I’m not keeping accounts – I give respect, and so should you.” When Eliezer tries to implement Abraham’s request to find a wife for Isaac, he seeks the basic quality on which a shared life must be built. By observing Sarah’s successful and special conjugal relation, he concludes that the foundation and infrastructure for structuring a fine Jewish home, and the special relationship between a couple, is the quality of loving-kindness – “that love of others which is ready to help anyone, everywhere,” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Genesis 24, 14).
Sarah’s loving-kindness towards Abraham is discernible in several events: when she agrees, for example, that Abraham will say she’s his sister, not to endanger his life, and when she lets him bring a child into the world with her handmaid Hagar, after realizing she herself is barren. And so through Eliezer’s unmediated experience in Abraham’s home, he defines the nature of loving-kindness and builds clear criteria for assessment and measuring (“Drink and I will water your camels too” Genesis 24, 14). When he meets Rebekah and sees her special way of behaving, deriving from unlimited loving-kindness, especially when she shows it not only to him but to his camels too, he understands here is someone who can continue the Tent of Sarah.
That was a milestone on the way to structuring a relationship, and a central quality that characterizes the women in Genesis, who teach the men how – in practical terms – one can build a world of loving-kindness, not only as an abstract aspiration but as an authentic way of life.