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Parshas Vayeira (5772)

Sons-in Law and "Daughter-Takers"

You know the old joke:

Father: "Soooo .. . You want to become my son-in-law."

Suitor: "No, I just want to marry your daughter, but there’s no other way.”

Well, this might be a joke … but, to my great surprise, I found a verse in this week’s Torah portion which seems to indicate that you can be married to someone’s daughter and still not be his son-in-law!!!

The Torah portion deals with Abraham’s nephew Lot, who was living in Sodom with his daughters and sons-in-law at the time, when along came some Divine messengers and told him to get out and save himself and his family before they set out to destroy the evil city.

And here I’ll let the Torah pick up the story: “So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who had taken [married] his daughters, and he said, ‘Get up and leave this place, for G-d is about to destroy the city!’ But he seemed like a jester in the eyes of his sons-in-law.” (Genesis 19:14)

To make a long story short, Lot’s sons-in-law refused to believe that Sodom would be destroyed and ignored his plea that they leave with him. And in the end they, together with all the other wicked people of Sodom, were killed, while Lot and his wife and single daughters were saved.

What’s really strange about the verse mentioned above is how it describes Lot’s sons-in-law as those “who had taken his daughters”. Isn’t that kind of obvious? I mean, is there any other way to be a son-in-law??!!

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his amazing and insightful commentary on the Bible, answers this question as follows: It is deeply significant that Loshon Hakodesh [lit. the “Holy Tongue” – the Divinely-created Hebrew Language in which the Bible was written] has no special word for the relationship of a bride and bridegroom to each other. It only knows husband and wife (baal and isha, respectively). Though we use the words chassan and kallah to describe a groom and his bride, those words really mean “son-in-law” and “daughter-in-law” (see Genesis ibid. and Leviticus 20:12), and are just borrowed to describe a newlywed couple. Surely, G-d could have come up with different Hebrew words for bride and groom than daughter-in-law and son-in-law, just like we have in the English language!!

The very important message being taught here, explains Rabbi Hirsch, is that the basis for the most intimate and passionate affection that the bride and groom have for each other when they first get married has its roots not so much in what they are to each other at the time as in what they are and remain to their mutual families. The Jewish bridegroom loves his bride the kallah so dearly first of all, because in her he is bringing his family a daughter-in-law, who will continue the traditions of his home. The Jewish bride loves her bridegroom, the chassan, so dearly first of all because she finds him to be a worthy son-in-law in the spirit of her parental home, and knows the satisfaction which her parents have with his outlook on life and his goals.

So that it is the mutual bond between the two families, and the life goals shared between them, on which the rock-like foundation of the union of their children rests, and which is the glue that ultimately bonds the newlywed couple together forever.

This is why the Torah adds the term “who had married his daughters” as an amendment to “sons-in-law” when describing Lot’s daughters’ husbands. True, they had taken his daughters as their wives, but his “sons-in-law”, in the pure sense of the word, they had not become. For they were men of Sodom, and in their outlook on life and goals, there could be no mutual bond between them and Abraham’s nephew.

Now I’m sure that you’re thinking as you’re reading this that maybe 4000 years ago in ancient Israel (and even up until the 20th century) when a young couple got married, they were really marrying the family, and their primary concern was that their parents should welcome their new spouse – whose goals are similar to theirs - as part of their family. But today things are different. We marry each other primarily because of what we mean to each other – without taking into account what our families think - and often our parents are against the marriage but we marry anyway. So what can the Torah’s describing a groom and bride as son-in-law and daughter-in-law possibly teach us today when most young couples rarely base their choice of marriage partner on what their parents will say?

I think that to answer this question we need look no further than the alarmingly high divorce rates in North America. According to recent statistics, a full 40-50% of recent first marriages will end in divorce! Now to be sure, there are many complex factors that contribute to the high rate of unsuccessful marriages in our times. But I think that one of the major reasons why modern marriages so often fail is because today we tend to choose our marriage partner based mostly on what he or she means to me at the time – meaning physical attraction, emotional and intellectual compatibility, etc. - without taking into account the totality of the person – his or her life goals and vision for the future.

You see, the Torah defines marriage as the "the commitment a man and a woman make to become one and to pursue together common life goals." In other words, the very glue that holds the couple together and defines the marriage itself is the shared values and life goals that they each bring to the table.

Now, in the old days, when there was no “disconnect” between the young couple and their respective families, it was a given that the son or daughter shared similar values with their parents. [This was compounded by the fact that in those days young couples tended to marry at an earlier age, when they were still very much influenced by their parental home.] So that it was only natural that the bride would see her groom first and foremost as a “son-in-law” – i.e. someone who fit in with her family’s vision and life goals, thereby matching her goals as well – since sharing common life goals and a similar vision were the bedrock upon which the very marriage was based.

Today, on the other hand, we spend most of our time looking for a marriage partner who can be our “bride” or “groom” – i.e. someone who fits well with who we are presently – paying scant attention to whether or not this person can also be a “daughter-in-law” or “son-in-law” to our family and what it represents. We too often forget to match our prospective spouse with who we come from – our family and heritage, representing our life goals and vision for the future.

And even if today we don’t necessarily always share similar values with our parents, we still need to make sure that we share common life goals with each other in order for the marriage to succeed and thrive. As Rabbis Apisdorf and Braverman write in The Death of Cupid: Reclaiming the Wisdom of Love, Dating and Marriage [Leviathan Press]: Marriages dissolve when two lives are pointed in different directions. Conflicts over the color of a new kitchen can generally be resolved, but conflicts in direction often cannot. Couples rarely break up over clashes in taste, but they do break up over whose career comes first when the two conflict. Couples will break up over whether to give priority to career or family, over whether or not to have children, over the education of their children and over which religion or how much of it to have in the home. These, and other issues like them, are anything but trivial. These are life goal issues. They are issues every individual needs to carefully consider before inviting someone else to share his or her life. Two people who don't know where they are going should never commit to getting there together...

This is the powerful message that the Torah is teaching us for our times. When we look for a marriage partner, are we going to strive only to be “son-takers” and “daughter-takers” like Lot’s sons-in-law were – seeking compatibility with each other while neglecting to take into account our spouse’s traditions and life goals for the future and how (and if) we fit in with that vision? Or will we look to make sure that we see the person we plan to spend the rest of our lives with for what he/she truly is– not just a bride or groom but a son-in-law or daughter-in-law – a perfect match for the totality of who I am - past present and future.

May G-d bless all of us with happy, healthy and spiritually fulfilling relationships that bring nachas and joy to ourselves, our families and our Father in Heaven.

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