December 9, 2021 |

What To Look For In A Spouse

The dating scene in ancient Canaan was pretty brutal. There weren't a lot of Jewish girls to go around - even for an eligible bachelor like Yitzchak - and the Canaanite girls, though plentiful, were of loose morals and even looser theology. It is no wonder that the final challenge of our forefather Avraham's life was to find an appropriate wife for his son so that he could carry on the family traditions. This, of course, was no trivial matter. Yitzchak was the aristocratic scion of the family that had innovated monotheism and the Jewish people. Sara, our fore-mother, had been an integral part and equal partner to Avraham[1]; the wife of Yitzchak would need to be not just a companion, but a partner in faith in every sense of the word.

Of course, this doesn't just apply to Yitzchak. Anyone who is dating in order just to find a bread-winner, arm candy, someone to stay home with the kids or a knight in shining armor is deluding themselves. The joining of two souls together is not solely a physical or economic event. It is a cosmic circumstance and, when we marry, we ought to share with each other our most intimate and precious values and goals. Every Jewish couple that builds a Jewish home propagates the future of Judaism; can we honestly know that a 21st century home that shares the values of Avraham and Sara or Yitzchak and Rivka is somehow less important than they were to the future of our people? There may be many aspects of modern dating that are monotonous, frustrating and trivial, but the big picture is that you are making the single largest decision - and hopefully, you only have to make it once - of your life, choosing your partner in charting that life together. No pressure, though...

So, the prospect of Yitzchak starting to date was very anxiety-inducing for Avraham, as it would be for any father. Added to his anxiety is that they had to go abroad to look for a wife. Avraham was already too old to make the trip and Yitzchak was forbidden by God to leave the holy land, so they had to send a messenger, a shadchan. The advantage to this (and it's a good exercise for single people to do) is that it required Avraham to clearly define what he was looking for in a wife for his son, to spell it out for his emissary, Eliezer. I would advocate that YOU do this rather than your father (who may have different ideas), but the basic idea is that you have to actually define what it is you're looking for. Otherwise, you are stuck with the strategy of, as Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: "I'll know it when I see it." Like most things, waiting around without any idea of what you're looking for and then making a snap judgment in the moment is one of the worst possible strategies imaginable. Stephen Covey classifies #2 of his 7 Habits for Highly Effective People as "begin with the end in mind". Know what you want before you start looking. This is what Avraham does in codifying a set of criteria by which his servant Eliezer will select a marriage candidate for Yitzchak. (And it's what single people today should do as well.)

Now, Avraham specifies only two clear points: a) that she should not be a Canaanite and b) that she should be from "my land" and "my birthplace". Though Eliezer indeed goes to the land of Aram to look, he understands this as more than cultural or geographical bias. He articulates specific criteria by which one could identify a woman who is like Avraham and not like a Canaanite. He requires that she be generous and hospitable to strangers (as Avraham was), that she say little and do much (like Avraham), that she do more than is required (like Avraham) and that she display zerizut, or zeal, in rushing to do mitzvot (like Avraham). Rivka excels in all these indicators, to the wonderment of Eliezer, showing that she is compassionate, kind, devoted, God-fearing and independent. When I was 18 and I took the "what to look for in a shidduch" class offered in my Israeli yeshiva (boy, did we think THAT was hilarious), these were among the essential qualities our teacher enumerated. I dutifully wrote them down (I still have them) and forgot all about them until I was fortunate enough to be selected as a husband by my wife. How lucky was I!

It is the big-picture qualities that we should be seeking in our lives[2] and in a spouse. Compassion is such a huge value to look for in a spouse. What must it be like to live with a person who is not compassionate to you when - after living with you for a year -- she finds out the worst and most vulnerable parts of your personality? What would it be like to live with a person who is not compassionate to your children when they are needy, annoying or ill? The lack of these qualities is a major contributor to unsatisfying and broken marriages and families.

However, Avraham indicates one additional criterion that is less obviously stated. When he gets his charge, Eliezer does not ask Avraham any questions about how he will find the woman he's been tasked to find. But he does ask: "What if the woman will not agree to follow me to this land. May I then return your son to the land from which you departed?" (Gen 24:5) Avraham answers that if she does not agree to come with him, he is freed from his oath. In other words, a critical component of the match is her desire to take part in it, to follow Eliezer back to Canaan. Later, when Eliezer and Lavan are butting heads over when and how Rivka will go with him, they do just that: they ask her and she says, with disarming certainty and conviction: "I shall go" (eileich, Gen 24:48.) My wife pointed out to me that this is the answer Avraham would have given to God (if he'd been asked, not commanded) when He said "lech lecha", go to the land that I will show you. Just like Avraham followed God's will and leaps into the unknown, so does Rivka.

Rivka did not think she was just marrying some successful cousin, heir to a desert fortune. She did not think that she should marry him just because Divine fortune seemed to smile on the match. She made a decision that she wanted to be one of our foremothers, she cast her destiny with God and the Jewish people. She knew the stakes were high and she agreed to step up to the plate and accept the challenge. This is another way in which she is like Avraham.

It is also a principle in dating. If the girl (or guy) does not agree to "go with you", free yourself from the oath. It makes no sense to wish that he would go with you, to hope she will change her mind. Even if she is beautiful and kind and he is compassionate, if he is not going to "go with you", the match will never succeed.[3] Even if you share common value and interests, you really like each other, you like the same movies et. al., if you don't have a similar vision of what your future will look like in its essential components, how can you go with each other?

Now, there are two kinds of not going with that I want to mention. One is an inability to commit. If you have great times together, love each other, can see spending a life together, but one of the partners is not fully-committed, not prepared to put the ring on, not ready to drop some of those subtle reservations, there's not much chance that this will work out. I knew a couple that ignored the hesitancy of the husband and one day, five years after they got married, she came home with 2 kids to an empty house. It is always better to know they won't go with you now than later.

The second is religious. If some of the dating criteria that Jews use border on the insane (what fabric is his kippa made out of? Come on!), creating a Jewish life is one of the essential functions of a couple and the family they will hopefully create. Having a firm idea about whether or not your spouse is committed to keeping a kosher home or is willing to put aside real assets for your future children's Jewish education is not ridiculous. It's actually incredibly foolhardy NOT to have these discussions! You should have them even before your dating gets so serious that it becomes very painful to break it off. If you ignore it and find out that you passionately disagree about what it means to be Jewish ten years down the road, the pain can be even worse for you and your children. The Reform movement, oddly enough, commissioned twenty-five years ago a video of intermarried couples who had married without these conversations and were shocked years later (on camera!) to realize how passionately they felt about having/not having a Christmas tree in their homes, about synagogue/church membership, about their very identities. This can apply just as much to a Jewish couple that hasn't yet discovered how they feel about these issues.

I am not saying that people don't change or pursue unique spiritual journeys. Participants at MJE are working diligently on figuring out their Jewish practice and identity every day. But it is naive to think he/she will come with you if he/she doesn't say "eileich". If they don't say "I shall go", free yourself from the oath now.

When I started dating Shira, she was not yet fully observant. Though I certainly played a role in her development as a Jew, her journey to observance had begun before we even met and would have progressed even without me. A fellow Orthodox undergraduate once wanted to date a girl who was not religious and called me to ask how I "did" it and how could he "make" his girlfriend religious too. This is sheer nonsense! I saw a woman who wanted to go where I wanted to go and to chart that course together and didn't let unimportant details get in the way. He not only didn't really know where he wanted to go, but was determined to bring someone else along on that unfocused journey[4]. Shira and I, over the past ten years, have had many long and hard conversations about our place in the Jewish community, about the specifics of our commitments for us and our children to Jewish law and observance. It has not always been easy or simple for us, but we always knew that we were with each other, that we had made the decision to be like Avraham, to be like Rivka, to take the journey, to say to each other "eileich." So may it be for us going forward and so may it be for all the singles out there looking to meet and marry the right one. Shabbat shalom!

Footnotes:
[1] In fact, our tradition teaches that Sara was greater in prophecy than Avraham.
[2] If YOU are not kind and God-fearing, it will be hard for you to interest a kind and God-fearing man/woman. But if you ARE kind and God-fearing and want a swimsuit model (who, you know, should also, by the way, be kind and God-fearing. I mean, why not?) your priorities may still be out of whack.
[3] The alternative to her going was for Yitzchak to abandon the Holy Land and go to her. This is like forsaking your Judaism to intermarry. If she won't come to in my Judaism, I will leave it behind.
[4] Ironically, they might still be a perfect couples for each other, bashert. But even when you are intended for each other, you still have to choose a path or you can ruin it.

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Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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