November 16, 2006
Finding Mr. and Ms. Right
Parshat Haye Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)
I married young and don't really know too much about the singles scene. But invariably this is the most stimulating part of the paper, because the best comedy and the deepest philosophy are conveyed in these writings.
The writers have two possible reactions that follow the disappointment of a disastrous evening: They either laugh or cry. I applaud the singles who find humor in these awkward experiences. They also probably find a silver lining in other dark clouds within the human experience, and so they're generally the people I'd want to have as friends.
Philosophy is employed when pondering the meaning of all the searching, anticipation and rejection. A mixture of theodicy and nihilism is submitted in a moment of deeper rumination, or perhaps when one is too burned out to joke anymore over one's single status.
Well, singles (and former singles) consider this: Our patriarch Isaac was 40 before he found his mate, Rebecca. His household butler, Eliezer, fetched Rebecca from a faraway land and Isaac blindly relied on Eliezer (and God) to send him the right girl. Isaac was OK with this arrangement because he was a devoutly religious and spiritual person. He accepted his lot in life and knew that everything that befell him was supervised by God.
In the story, we find that at the very moment that Rebecca met Isaac, he was out in the field praying near a well. As soon as he lifted his eyes from prayer, Rebecca appeared in the distance, and they both knew that destiny had brought them together.
One detail is very jarring about this story. The well that Isaac was praying at was called Be'er Lahai Ro'ee, which loosely translates as, "The Well of My Divine Vision." It was the well where an angel had appeared to Isaac's stepmother, Hagar.
Abraham had taken Hagar as a second wife at Sarah's own suggestion. But when Hagar became pregnant right away, Isaac's mother, Sarah, chased her out of the house because she felt Hagar had become too haughty. Hagar thought she would die in the desert, until an angel of God appeared to her by the well and promised that she would be the matriarch of a separate nation, the Ishmaelite people.
If Isaac wanted to pray at a holy site, why not just stay home in Abraham's tent, where angels regularly appeared anyway? Why did he have to go out to Hagar's well? Even more troubling, why choose the holy place of the rival of Isaac's own mother? Why not choose a more "Jewish" holy site, instead of the holy site of the mother of the Muslim people?
Apparently, Isaac wasn't as concerned about choosing a "Jewish" holy site as he was about choosing the appropriate holy site. Hagar's well was the right choice for two reasons.
First, it was a place where God appeared at a time of utter desperation, when Hagar had nowhere else turn. Isaac, realizing that when it comes to finding the proper mate, he had no one else to turn to other than God, chose Hagar's well of desperation.
Second, Hagar was forced to flee Abraham's house because of domestic discord -- one husband and two wives is a tough order even on a good day, and things had really soured between Sarah and Hagar. Isaac realized that this well was a place for God to help mend marital disharmony. The angel's charge to Hagar at the well was, "Return to your matron, Sarah," and so Hagar did. Isaac realized that this was the place to receive blessing with success in one's domestic life.
Our talmudic sages provide one more reason why Isaac was praying at Hagar's well. It was to bring Hagar back to Abraham, who had recently become a widower upon Sarah's death. Isaac realized that his own marital bliss could not be complete if his own father remained a lonely widower. He wanted his father to partake of the same rich and joyous life he had seen when growing up in Abraham's house. He knew that Hagar had been a good wife before, and so he brought her back for a double wedding.
Perhaps Isaac also realized that in order for his own new marriage to be successful and free of his father's well-meaning intervention, he'd have to find something constructive for his father to do in his retirement. All too often, idle parents and in-laws seek to vicariously relive their youth through their children's lives and relationships. Isaac may have wanted to avoid that conflict by giving his father his own youth back with a remarriage to his former wife. So you see, being single was no picnic for Isaac and Abraham either. But take heart: not only did Isaac find his mate later in life, Abraham also found happiness and companionship many years later with his second wife, Hagar.
The right one is out there -- just keep looking.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rabbi of Kehillat Yavneh in Hancock Park and director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.