A key point in the life of a person is marriage. This applies to any human being in the world. For the Jewish people, marriage is also central to one’s identity as a Jew.

In this week’s Torah reading of Toldot, we read about the first intermarriage, which caused great grief to the parents of the Jewish partner. At the same time, we learn something about the beautifully positive dimension of a wedding.

Last week’s Torah reading made clear that Abraham was very concerned that his son Isaac should marry someone from Abraham’s own family, and certainly not a Canaanite.1 We thus see that even at this early stage of development of the Jewish people, there was a definite concern about who one should, or should not, marry.

In this week’s Parshah, we read about the two sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Jacob was a spiritual person, while Esau, by contrast, was a man of violence.

Predictably, it was Esau who married out. The Torah tells us that when he was forty years old he married two women, both from the Canaanite tribe of the Hittites. Esau’s non-Abrahamic wives caused “bitterness of spirit to Isaac and Rebecca.”2 The sages comment that these women persisted in serving idols. It is interesting that Rebecca herself had been born into an idol-worshipping family. Yet as soon as she married Isaac, she dedicated herself to service of the One G‑d, Creator of heaven and earth. By contrast, Esau’s Hittite wives, although they were in Isaac’s home, offered incense to idols. Rashi says that the smoke of this incense caused Isaac’s blindness.3

Later in the Parshah, Rebecca tells her husband Isaac about how worried she feels that their son Jacob might end up marrying a Hittite girl, like Esau.4 There were no other young women in the vicinity. This was one of the reasons why Jacob was sent away from home, northeastwards, to find a wife from Rebecca’s family, as we see in next week’s Torah reading.

An intriguing point is that one of the Hittite wives of Esau is called Yehudit. It sounds just like a Jewish name, and indeed, the Talmud5 says that “anyone who denies idolatry is called Yehudi.” Rashi explains that really she had a different name, but Esau called her Yehudit in order to pretend to his father that she had truly adopted worship of the One G‑d.6

These events took place over three millennia ago, yet they sound quite familiar in terms of our own time. Yet it is also interesting that Esau married a third wife, who was quite different. She was a daughter of Ishmael, and thus a granddaughter of Abraham. Her name was Machalat, which means “forgiveness,” and Rashi comments7 that from her we learn that a bride and groom are forgiven all their sins on the day of their wedding.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments8 that the Torah is hinting that Machalat’s own actions reflected this idea. She was indeed a genuinely fine and spiritual person. So why did Esau marry her? On one level, only because he wanted to look good in his father’s eyes. On another level, comments the Rebbe, Esau too had a spark of good, which explains why his father Isaac loved him. Eventually, through the course of history, that spark of good in Esau and his descendants will be revealed.