In the Torah section of Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1–25:18), we read of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. Since this is the first marriage to be recounted in detail by the Torah, we can expect it to yield insights into the essence of the marriage relationship.
A most curious aspect of the Isaac-Rebecca relationship is that for the three years immediately prior to the marriage, Isaac literally disappears. A summation of Isaac’s life leaves us with an unaccountable gap of almost three years: The Torah tells us that he was sixty years old when his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, were born (Genesis 25:26). According to the Midrash, however, the twins’ grandfather Abraham, who died at age 175 (ibid. v. 7), passed away on the day that they reached the age of thirteen (Bereishit Rabbah 63:10 and 63:12); since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 (Genesis 21:5), this would mean that Esau and Jacob were born almost 63 years after Isaac’s birth. In other words, when Isaac turned 60, close to 63 years had already elapsed from the time of his birth. Somehow, he had “lost” three years of his life.
One of the explanations offered by our sages is that before his marriage to Rebecca (at age 40), Isaac spent three years in the Garden of Eden. During this time he led an entirely spiritual existence, so that these years are not counted as part of his physical life.
Although few of us can endeavor to emulate Isaac’s example in its most ultimate sense, the implications are clear: a prerequisite to the marriage relationship is that one must first devote a certain period of time exclusively to spiritual and G‑dly pursuits, with minimal involvement in the material aspects of life.
The Impossible Edifice
Marriage itself appears to be the very opposite of this: a time of increased enmeshment in the material. It is a time when one begins to engage the most physical of human drives; it is also a time when one is forced to begin to involve oneself in earnest in the earning of a living, often at the expense of higher and more idealistic pursuits. In fact, the Zohar considers marriage to be a person’s second birth: first the soul enters into the body and assumes a physical existence; then, at a later point in life, it further “descends” into the physical state by marrying. Nevertheless (indeed, as we shall see, because of this), marriage is the framework within which the most G‑dly aspect of the human potential is realized.
The traditional blessing given to the bride and groom is that they merit “to build an eternal edifice.” Out of the marriage comes the creation of human life—life with the potential to produce yet another generation of life, which in turn can yield another, and so on ad infinitum. The power of reproduction presents us with a logical impossibility: how can a finite entity contain within itself an infinite potential? Indeed, our sages have said: “There are three partners to the creation of man: G‑d, his father and his mother.” G‑d, the only truly infinite being, has done the impossible: He has imbued finite man with an infinite quality. In marriage, two finite and temporal creatures establish an infinite and eternal edifice.
It is therefore no accident that the quality with which man most emulates his Creator is realized only through a “descent” into the material. For so it is with G‑d Himself: the infinite nature of His power is most potently expressed with His creation of the physical universe. A truly infinite being is not constrained by any definitions and parameters: he is to be found anywhere and everywhere, even in the most confining and corporeal of environments. G‑d’s creation of sublime and abstract worlds cannot convey the infinite scope of His power in the same way that His creation of—and constant involvement with—our “lowly” and finite existence can.
The same is true of the power of creation invested in the human being. Because of its divinely infinite nature, it can—and does—find realization in the most “physical” area of human life.
Man has been granted freedom of choice. So, when a man and woman join their lives, it is up to them to do what they will with the divine gift of procreation. They can choose to squander it in a relationship devoid of meaningful content—a relationship in which they become only more enmeshed in their material selves. Or they can endeavor to construct an edifice which is eternal in more than the most basic, biological sense. They can endeavor to build a selfless and giving relationship, and a home and family committed to the timeless values set forth by the Creator of life.
This is the lesson of Isaac’s disappearance from physical life prior to his marriage. In order to ensure that one’s “descent” into marriage yields the proper results, it must be preceded by a period of spiritual preparation. Although man’s mission in life is the positive development of the physical world, one must enter the arena of the material well-equipped with the spiritual vision of the divine purpose and with the spiritual fortitude to carry it out.