Age eighteen for marriage...

Ethics of the Fathers, 5:22


The first marriage to be recounted in detail by the Torah is the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 23-25). As such, we expect it to yield insights into the essence of the marriage relationship.

A most curious aspect of the Isaac-Rebekah relationship is that immediately prior to their marriage, Isaac literally disappears for a couple of years.

A summation of Isaac's life leaves us with a unaccountable gap of over two years. The Torah tells us that Isaac was sixty years old when his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, were born. However, according to the Midrash, the twins' grandfather, Abraham, passed away on the day that they reached the age of thirteen. Since Abraham lived for 175 years, and Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old, Esau and Jacob must have been born at least sixty-two years after Isaac's birth. In other words, when Isaac turned sixty, more than sixty-two years had already elapsed from the time of his birth. Somehow, he had "lost" two to three years of his life.

One of the explanations offered by our sages is that before his marriage to Rebekah, 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.

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 seems 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, our sages have referred to marriage as man'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, because of this) marriage is the framework within which the most Divine of human potentials is realized.

The traditional blessing given to the bride and groom is that they merit "to build an eternal edifice." For out of the marriage comes the creation of life - life with the potential to produce yet another generation of life, which in turn can yield another, ad infinitum. The power of reproduction presents us with a logical impossibility: how can a finite entity (man) 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 man and woman with an inherently infinite quality. In marriage, two finite and temporal creatures establish an 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.

Spiritual Preface

Man has been granted freedom of choice. So when a man and woman join their lives, it is left 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 which never rises above its material nature, and which only further enmeshes them in their corporeal selves. Or they can endeavor to construct an edifice that 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 in Isaac's disappearance from physical life prior to his marriage. To ensure that one's "descent" into the physical world of 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 and fortitude to carry it out.