Parashat Ki Tetze

Our God, Our Matchmaker

Nurturing marriage

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

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"(Bereshit 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" (Deuteronomy 24:5).

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.