Parashat Ki Tetze

Our God, Our Matchmaker

Nurturing marriage

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Interestingly, the law follows directly on the heels of several injunctions dealing with divorce (Deuteronomy 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 582. 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.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

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