Is marriage predestined or dependent on your efforts?

On one hand, we hear of the idea that a person's spouse is bashert, meaning preordained by the guiding hand of G‑d. But this belief raises many questions. Does everyone have a bashert? If yes, why is it so difficult to find one's mate, and why do many never succeed? Is bashert an inevitable absolute, or are there exceptions? We also hear about the need to exert efforts (hishtadlut) in finding a soul mate: If a match is predetermined by Divine decree, to what extent a role does human effort and decision making play in the process?

Who is the ultimate matchmaker – G‑d or man?

Is bashert an inevitable absolute, or are there exceptions?Marriage is a primary theme in Genesis' narrative of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. First – Isaac's marriage, described in elaborate detail, how Abraham sent his servant to find a bride for Isaac, concluding with Rebecca meeting and marrying Isaac. Then, Isaac and Rebecca instruct Jacob to go search for his bride. The Torah then elaborates on Jacob's journey, search and painstaking process of discovering his soul mate, and finally building his family in Charan.

From these episodes we derive many important lessons about love and marriage – relevant today more than ever.

One of the lessons revolves around the nature of love and the mystery of matching couples.

In context of Jacob leaving Beersheba in order to find a wife – the Midrash states: "A person's marriage partner originates from no one else but G‑d," and cites sources in all three section of Tanach. "Sometimes a man goes to his designated mate (as it was with Jacob); sometimes his designated mate comes to him (as it was with Isaac)."

The Midrash then continues:

Rabbi Yehudah bar Simon opened "G‑d sets the solitary into a family."1

A Roman matron asked Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta: "In how many days did G‑d create His world?"

"In six days," he replied.

"And what has He been doing ever since?" she asked.

"G‑d sits and matches couples," Rabbi Yosei told her.

"Is this G‑d's occupation?" she asked derisively, "I could do that too! I possess a great number of men servants and maid servants and would be able to pair all of them off in one hour!"

"You may think it is easy, but for G‑d, it is as difficult as parting the Red Sea," he said.

"When you explained to me that G‑d is busy making matches, you spoke wisely..."After Rabbi Yosei left, the matron formed rows of her men servants and maid servants, a thousand in each row, and said to them, "This man shall marry this woman," pairing them off as she walked down the line for the night.

But when they returned to work the next morning, one had an injured head, one was missing an eye and one had a broken foot.

"What is going on here?" the matron asked.

"I don't want this one," they all said. She saying, "I will not take him"; he saying, "I will not take her."

She sent for Rabbi Yosei and told him, "There is no G‑d like your G‑d. When you explained to me that G‑d is busy making matches, you spoke wisely." 2

The Talmud echoes this belief by stating that before a person is born G‑d designates his and her mate: "A heavenly voice emerges and calls out 'this woman to this man.'"3

On the other hand, the Talmud states that "a man and woman are paired to each other based on their merits."

How do we reconcile these two positions: Is marriage designated by Divine decree or is it based on a person's deeds and merits? Two answers are offered: One particular Talmud explains that the "first pairing" is by divine decree while the "second pairing" is based on a person's merits.4 And this is why "their pairing is difficult like the parting of the sea," because a match based on merits requires special effort to unite two people who were initially not naturally compatible.5 Another Talmud suggests a different answer: Though a natural match is initially made in heaven, human intervention – prayer – can override and change the Divine decree (even regarding the "first pairing"). Thus, "It is permitted to betroth a woman on Chol Hamoed because perhaps someone else will take her before him" due to his prayer's overriding the divine decree.6

A match based on merits requires special effort to unite two initially not naturally compatible peopleHowever, these Talmudic statements require explanation. Indeed, opinions differ on the meaning of our Sages' approach to the matchmaking process. Even the phrase "first pairing" and "second pairing" is subject to several interpretations: Does it mean first and second marriage, or as others argue, "first pairing" is the Divine pre-ordained match and "second pairing" is the one determined by merits.

Here is a summary of the various perspectives and opinions how much human intervention plays a role in match making, ranging from one extreme to the next.7

  1. The Divine decree pre-designates who will marry whom. Human prayer and merit can only help expedite and ease the process. When the time to marry arrives, the soul mates will meet without undue strain or difficulty.
  2. Prayer can nullify the edict entirely, and the person will find a new soul mate (one that was not decreed before birth).
  3. Every one has the free will whether to marry or not, but once the choice is made to marry, the mate will be the one designated in heaven. Through supplications for mercy, another person may marry her first, but their marriage will be temporary.
  4. The Heavenly voice is not a decree, but merely reflects the soulmates natural compatibility. Their inherent nature predisposes them – and makes it easier – to choose each other. But they do so out of free choice; they are guided by G‑d to meet each other based on their merits, not by pre-ordained decree.
  5. All marriages are dependent on a person's deeds. The Divine voice refers to the power to unite matter and form, the soul and the body.
  6. According8 to the writings of the Arizal,9 the first time a soul descends to the world, "a Heavenly voice emerges and decrees: 'The daughter of so-and-so for so-and-so.'" When the time for marriage arrives, the opportunity is immediately granted without strain or difficulty. [Until that time, it is possible that she will be the wife of another man, as was the case with Uriah and Bathsheba.10] Sometimes, however, one does not merit and fails to marry his intended. [In that instance, another who does not have a mate designated for him may supersede him through his appeals for mercy.11] Nevertheless, he is granted a spouse appropriate to his deeds.
    At times, the soul will undergo a transformation (from bad to good or the opposite) and will forfeit the intended mate and marry another spouse, for he is no longer the same soul. At times, the soul will reincarnate so that he can marry his intended. At times, he will reincarnate for other reasons, but because he possesses many merits, his intended is also made to reincarnate with him. Nevertheless, since he sinned and was forced to reincarnate, there are forces that oppose him and prevent him from bringing about that marriage. This is implied by the statement: "Bringing together is as difficult as parting the Red Sea."12
    At times, the soul will reincarnate so that he can marry his intendedIf a person's intended does not reincarnate, he is coupled with a female reincarnated soul that also does not have a partner in this incarnation. Therefore it is very difficult to bring them together since they have a different nature.13 The woman must, however, be compatible with him at their source.14 There are some opinions which maintain that if the intended is not forced to reincarnate, the man takes a wife according to his efforts.15

So, are matches made in heaven or on earth? The answer is both. Like everything in life, we are partners with G‑d in creation. The Divine sends each soul off on its unique journey through life, and designates which soul belong with another. But we humans, through our choices and actions, can change the course for the better (and also, sadly, for the worse).

G‑d created His world in six days. "And what has He been doing ever since? G‑d sits and matches couples." Couples both in the literal sense: creating partners in marriage, and also couples in the broader sense: creating fusion and unity in a pluralistic, fragmented, universe.

Today we do not need to be reminded how difficult it is to create and maintain healthy marriages. Some feel that it is even more difficult than parting the sea. Yet, we have in Jacob's search for a spouse a formidable lesson in overcoming the challenge of building lasting relationships

History is the best teacher: Despite Jacob's harsh challenges – laboring twenty years (!) for his corrupt and cruel uncle and father-in-law, Laban; "by day I was consumed by the scorching heat, and at night by the frost, when sleep was snatched from my eyes"16 – Jacobs succeeded in building the best family that ever existed: The twelve tribes which would give birth to the Jewish nation, and perpetuate the most noble civilization that would forever change history, till this very day!

Know and know well that G‑d's primary involvement is in "making matches"Jacob's journey, directed by G‑d, to find his wife and build a family teaches, inspires and empowers each of us in our own journey to find our soul mate. As difficult as your search for a soulmate may be, know and know well that G‑d's primary involvement is in "making matches." And just as He orchestrated and guided Jacob (and earlier, Isaac and Rebecca's marriage) and the millions of marriages that followed – without which we would not exist today – G‑d continues to busy Himself with making matches today.

But G‑d's efforts require our partnership. Through our virtue and prayer, by being better people, we engage G‑d in the mysterious – and arduous – process of joining souls together, in one beautiful dance that ripples through the cosmos and transforms the world and all those around us.