Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Ki Tetzei 5763
September 6, 2003 9 Elul 5763
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
It takes courage to get married. Divorce statistics attest to the high risk of failure. Yet ours is not the first generation to appreciate the demanding complexity of matrimony. A charming rabbinic tale suggests that the rabbis already deemed every successful marriage a miracle, the blessed product of divine intervention.
The following dialogue, one of many, is reported in the name of R. Yosi ben Halafta, one of the Mishnah's most prominent sages, and an unnamed Roman woman of rank. She asked R. Yosi, "In how many days did God create the world?" "In six," he answered. "And since then," she asked, "what has God been doing?" "Matching couples for marriage," responded R. Yosi. "That's it!" she said dismissively. "Even I can do that. I have many slaves, both male and female. In no time at all, I can match them for marriage." To which R. Yosi countered, "Though this may be an easy thing for you to do, for God it is as difficult as splitting the Sea of Reeds."
Whereupon, she took her leave. The next day the aristocrat lined up a thousand male and a thousand female slaves and paired them off before nightfall. The morning after, her estate resembled a battlefield. One slave had his head bashed in, another had lost an eye, while a third hobbled because of a broken leg. No one seemed to want his or her assigned mate. Quickly, she summoned R. Yosi and acknowledged. "Your God is unique and your Torah is true, pleasing and praiseworthy. You spoke wisely"(B'reishit Rabba, 68:4).
Beyond the obvious self-validating intent of this tale, it does weave a profound view of marriage. The institution is always in jeopardy. Even God is rattled by the odds against sustained success. The ordinary, crafting of a good marriage, is as demanding as the extraordinary, rescuing of the Israelites at the Sea of Reeds. Put differently, matrimony is the extension of creation. God did not finish the task in six days. Marriage is creation in another mode. Without it, the world would be altered and diminished. Hence, God's ongoing involvement. As part of the fabric of the creative process, marriage requires divine attention. By freighting marriage with cosmic weight, the rabbis gave poetic expression to the daunting difficulty of making it work. No need for prosaic analysis. Because the ideal often exceeds our grasp, we wait for moments of grace.
What prompts me to cite this fragment of rabbinic theology is a seldom noticed marriage prescription in this week's parashah. Though not given to easy implementation, its underlying sensitivity cautions against any mechanistic approach to the universal challenge of procreation. The law reads: "When a man has taken a bride, he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt for one year for the sake of his household, to give happiness to the woman he has married" (24:5). Interestingly, the law follows directly on the heels of several injunctions dealing with divorce (24:1-4), as if to suggest that divorce might be averted by nurturing the marriage, especially at the outset. The obligation to do so devolves explicitly on the husband. During the first year of marriage, he is to be unencumbered by responsibilities that would remove him for any length of time from his household. His task is transitive, as Rashi stresses, to make his wife happy and not merely to live happily with her.
In his medieval compilation of the Torah's 613 commandments in order of appearance in the Torah, entitled Sefer ha-Hinukh (a halakhic primer), the unknown Spanish author lists this particular commandment as number five-eighty-two. He explains that freed from distractions, the groom is expected to become physically compatible with his bride, to focus his sexual desires solely on her and to implant her image and deeds in his heart. According to the author, two benefits would accrue from such bonding: the groom would be habituated to regarding other women as off-limits and together, bride and groom would create a wholesome environment for filling God's earth with good children.
I don't think the Sefer ha-Hinukh misstates the intent of the biblical legislation. Whatever economic arrangements attended marriage in the Torah and Talmud, there is no doubt that for the institution to flourish, it requires a large infusion of mutual respect and considerateness. We should not blithely assume that all arranged marriages of an earlier age were loveless. By envisioning a year of uninterrupted courtship after the wedding, the Torah was seeking to blend two distinct personalities into a harmonious union for life. And that is precisely the goal the Torah had set for itself when it coupled marriage with creation at the beginning. After recounting the formation of Eve, the Torah resoundingly declaims: "Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Marriage is a form of restoration. A partnership based on utilitarian considerations can never end our existential loneliness. Yet for husband and wife ever to merge into one, their relationship must be cemented by love.
In this spirit, we are told later, and not by accident, that Isaac's love for Rebecca, his bride from abroad, welled up only after they were married (Genesis 25:67). A love that does not deepen and expand with shared experience is destined to wither.