Rabbi Benjamin Yudin
The Me Generation vs. Generating the Real Me
The middle, and indeed the bulk, of Parshas Chayei Sara is devoted to the episode of acquiring a bride for Yitzchak. What could have been summarized in six or seven pesukim is elaborated by our holy Torah in sixty seven pesukim. Clearly this devotion to every detail of the story is there to teach us many lessons to enrich our lives. A primary teaching that emerges is what to look for in a spouse. Eliezer, whose name is not mentioned even once, does not use the test of theology, intelligence, or craftsmanship. Instead, he tests her character, and specifically in the realm of chesed, to see if she is a giving individual and if she possesses this middah. Rashi (24:14) explains that this characteristic of chesed proves her worthiness to continue the legacy of Avraham. The Kli Yakar cites the Chazal (Ta'anis 24a) who say, "If a bride has beautiful eyes, one does not have to check the rest of her body," and explains this to be taken not literally, but rather to mean that her beautiful eyes describe her ayin yafeh - generous disposition, which is the primary Torah criterion for marriage.
We are living in very challenging times, perhaps best called "Generation Me." The individual man or woman is at the center of his/her own universe. Yes, they have more formal education than previous generations, but this is accompanied too often with a sense of entitlement. Too many appear to shun hard work, felling that, "I deserve a great job with a good salary, but I am not sacrificing my life to do it, and I won't be subservient to my boss either." They reject tradition on a range of issues, from dropping all formality in how one dresses to sexual orientation. Generation Me is less interested in how it's been done in the past and more interested in how and what works best for them. It is thus painfully understandable that the divorce rate in the United States is approximately 40-50% according to the American Psychological Association. When "Me" is the primary factor which is focused on, then the joining together of two individuals who by nature are different is unnatural, hence the divorce statistics.
Dovid HaMelech (Tehillim 111:8) teaches, "smuchim la'ad l'olam, asuyim b'emet v'yashar - they (the laws and values of Torah) are steadfast forever, for eternity, accomplished in truth and fairness." The Malbim understands this verse literally, i.e. to mean that the Torah are pillars of eternal strength and principles upon which we build our homes and society.
Many years ago I was privileged to hear a shiur from the Rav z"tl where he spoke not only of the laws of Torah being eternal, but also the values and psychological insights of Chazal being equally binding and as correct today as when they were enunciated 2000 years ago. He gave the example of the Gemara (Kiddushin 42a) which says, "tav l'meisav tan du mil'meisav armalo - it is better to sit together as a couple than to sit alone like a widow", i.e. a woman would prefer to have a husband with non-trivial imperfections than to be alone. The Rav noted that most often the teachings of Chazal and their insight into the nature of man are part of the same source of smuchim la'ad l'olam.
It is fascinating to note that in our mesorah and hashkafa the ani-me is also at the center of one's universe, but with a different definition of ani-me. The Chazon Ish z"tl (Emunah U'Bitachon 4:14) as well as Rav Shimon Shkop (introduction to Sha'arei Yosher), both point to ahavas atzmi (self-love) as a legitimate priority. After all, Rabbi Akiva taught (Bava Metziah 62a) that, "your life takes priority", and Hillel taught, (Avos 1:14) "if I am not for myself who will take care of me?" However, both of these giants say that the definition of ani-me is different in Yahadus. Unlike the Generation Me that runs on "what's in it for me," Yahadus espouses that the real me is a giver, concerned and caring for the needs of others. The Medrash (Rus Rabbah 2:19) teaches, "more than what the rich man does for the poor man, does the poor man do for the rich man", since he transforms the rich man into a giver.
In addition, this is a fulfillment of the six hundred and eleventh mitzvah in the Torah of "v'halachta b'drachav - emulate the ways and characteristics of Hashem." The Talmud (Sotah 14a) understands this to mean, "just as He is kind and merciful and a practitioner of chesed, so are we to be." Taking it one step further, the chesed that one performs is not only a mitzvah between two people, but since (as the Mekubalim teach) Hashem created this world because it is the nature of the Good One to extend goodness, when one extends chesed they are joining ranks with Hashem and becoming a partner with Him in fulfilling and implementing His will.
Finally, Rav Chaim Vital z"tl (Sefer Halikutim, Parshas Eikev chapter 8) notes that if taken literally, the mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself is, for all practical purposes, impossible. For this reason when a potential convert asked Hillel to summarize the entire Torah in the short amount of time during which one can stand on one foot, Hillel replied, "do not to another that which is distasteful to you." However, says Rav Chaim, marriage is that opportunity for fulfilling this exalted mitzvah of the Torah literally, since each spouse can extend chesed to the other 24/7. Probably the most famous line in the entire biography of Rav Aryeh Levin z"tl (A Tzaddik In Our Time) is that when he accompanied his wife to see a doctor for a foot ache he informed the doctor, "OUR foot hurts." The Torah spends sixty seven pesukim to teach us not only what made Rivka the worthy choice for Yitzchak, but also to teach us about a most important factor for us to consider in our perpetuating our holy tradition.