Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Choosing a Spouse

Parshas Chayei Sara records the first search for a marriage partner in Jewish history. The Ran (D'rasha 5) explains that Avraham sent Eliezer to his birthplace to search for a wife for Yitzchok from amongst his family (Braishis 24:3,4). Though Avraham's extended family worshipped idols, their character traits were still superior to those of the Cannanites. While a proper theological approach can be relatively easily acquired in adulthood, it is almost impossible to radically change one's character. Therefore, the test of a potential mate, both then and now, must emphasize middos.

Eliezer devised a method to test for the midda of chessed. The girl of whom he would ask for a drink, who would then respond - drink, and I will water your camels - would be a worthy wife for Yitzchok (24:14).

The Kli Yakar (24:12) states that the test was not only for chessed, but also for tsnius. He interprets "Hakrei na l'fanai hayom" ("Let it happen before me today") to mean that Eliezer prayed for an unusual occurrence, a mikre, in which a woman who did not ordinarily venture out would appear at the well. The Kli Yakar explains "V'ish lo y'da'a" ("and no man knew her") (24:16) literally - nobody knew who she was because she had never been seen at the well before. For this reason, Eliezer had to ask her directly who she was, as the more polite approach of asking others proved unsuccessful.

In fact, chessed and tsnius are related, as evidenced by a common expression, ayin yafa, quoted twice by the Kli Yakar (24:14,22). The phrase "Kala she'eineha yafos eina tsricha b'dika" ("a bride whose eyes are beautiful need not be investigated") (Ta'anis 24a) is explained as referring not to physical beauty, but to a woman who exhibits the midda of chessed. Ayin yafa describes the characteristic of giving more generously than the norm, while ayin ra'a means giving less than the norm (Terumos 4:3). A bride who is kind to others need not be examined since she possesses the trait which assures that she will treat her husband properly.

Rashi (24:22) comments that Eliezer's gifts to Rivka hinted at the shekalim, the coins offered by Klal Yisroel for a census, and the luchos, the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. The Kli Yakar points out that the shekalim were used to count the people in order to avoid an ayin hara, and that the first luchos were broken because of the ayin hara caused by the publicity at Har Sinai. One who possesses an ayin yafa, concludes the Kli Yakar, is protected from ayin hara. Thus, ayin yafa, generosity, which is the opposite of ayin ra'a, stinginess, protects from ayin hara, and evil eye.

Ayin hara refers to publicly flaunted wealth (see Bava Basra 2b), explicit national census, and even a public Divine revelation. The evil eye caused the loss of wealth, a national plague, and the breaking of the luchos, respectively. The second luchos, which were given privately, lasted, proving that nothing is better than tsnius (Rashi, Shemos 34:3).

Hence, tsnius, the opposite of ayin hara, is related to chessed, the opposite of ayin ra'a. The connection between ayin ra'a and ayin hara is a psychological one. When one wishes to project his superiority, be it material, numerical, and even spiritual in nature, it usually involves putting others down and treating them poorly. The ayin hara of others observing one's public success is thereby related to the ayin ra'a of a publicly successful person towards others.

Of course, the opposite of these traits are tsnius and chessed, respectively, factors in the test of Rivka that continue to be critical in choosing a wife today. And while the specifics of tsnius are undoubtedly affected, within certain bounds, by time and place (see Rambam Hil. Ishus 13:11 and Minchas Shlomo 91, 23), the concept, as well as its particular application to women (see Rashi Braishis 1:28 and 18:9), is as timeless and universal as the Torah itself.

Arguably, the recent dramatic change in the role of women in America has made it more difficult, and more important, for a woman to pass Eliezer's test. When the woman's place was at home, her sense of tsnius was more readily achieved, and her schedule allowed for a greater focus on chessed. The working woman phenomenon makes tsnius more difficult to achieve, and yet more critical than ever to avoid the pritzus of the workplace. Chessed activity, a challenge to an already crowded schedule, is crucial to overcome the influence of the narcissistic society in which we find ourselves.

What middos should a woman look for in a husband? Precisely the same ones, i.e., chessed and tsnius. A man should view marriage as a giving relationship, a lifetime opportunity to shower loving-kindness on his wife (see Michtav Me'Eliyahu I:38,39). Only a ba'al chessed before marriage can be expected to be a proper Torah husband. He must also understand that Hashem demands of everyone both, tsnius, a universal prerequisite for wisdom (Mishle 11:2), along with chessed and its prerequisite, mishpat (Micha 6:8). Only then will he function in life, and in marriage, appropriately.

The twin evils of western society, self-centeredness and self-promotion, make chessed and tsnius difficult, yet critical, goals for a Torah personality. This is certainly true for men, who are even more involved than today's women in the modern workplace. In choosing a spouse, women, as well as men, should focus on chessed and tsnius.

Eliezer begins his fateful mission by praying to Hashem to do chessed and enable him to find the proper wife for Yitzchok (24:12). Every search for a marriage partner must be preceded by tefilla. The single most important decision in a person's life, deciding whom to marry, certainly needs divine assistance.

Indeed, the realization that one is dependent on siyata dishmaya is a humbling experience and makes a person more tzanua, and therefore a better marriage candidate. The request for Hashem's chessed is more appropriate and effective when one focuses on chessed in the choice of a spouse.

Hashem responded to Eliezer's tefilla, and the rest is history. May the tefillos of Am Yisroel for, and especially by, those seeking a marriage partner be answered as well.

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