Parshas Toldos (5769)
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob leaves his parents in the Land of Canaan to journey to his mother’s birthplace in Paddan-aram to find for himself a suitable wife. But, as the Sages deduce from the chronology of the period [see Rashi’s commentary to Genesis 28:9], Jacob did not proceed directly to his final destination. Instead, he first went to study Torah at the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever for fourteen years.
This is very difficult to understand. After all, we are talking about our forefather Jacob whom the Torah calls a yosheiv ohalim (ibid. 25:27) – a man who “dwelled in the tents of Torah” from a very early age. Every day of his life up until now was dedicated to absorbing the lessons of Torah which were taught to him by his grandfather Abraham and father Isaac. So why was it so crucial to immerse himself into study of Torah for an additional 14 years? Especially when you consider that, according to the Sages, Jacob was already 63 years old (!) and had not yet fulfilled the commandment of Pru U’Rvu – to be fruitful and multiply. So why did he feel the need to delay this mitzvah for so many years?
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary Oznaim LaTorah, explains that Jacob’s purpose in attending the Academy of Shem and Ever was not to advance his general knowledge of Torah per se – that he had done for the first 63 years of his life and he was quite the scholar at this point. Rather, he went there specifically to study the “Torah of Marriage and Successful Relationships” i.e. he attended Torah-based “marriage classes” for 14 years in order to prepare himself for marriage and for being the best husband he could be.
These “classes” might include developing skills such as communication, handling conflict, solving problems, and making decisions (granted that this is better done as a couple than alone). It might also include help in developing the knowledge, attitudes, expectations, and characteristics that are important to creating a satisfying relationship and a Jewish home. As well, the Torah provides amazing information and wisdom for maintaining amazing, long-lasting marriages – which no doubt Jacob studied at the Yeshiva. For example, a bride and groom about to be married learn the laws of Niddah – abstention of married sex for a period after menstruation followed by the woman’s immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath) and reuniting with her husband – a practice which Dr. Ruth Westheimer, famous talk-show host and sex therapist, once called “the most sophisticated method of maintaining libido in long-term monogamy I have ever encountered.”
Perhaps the most important purpose of marriage preparation is to help each partner assess his or her personal readiness for marriage. Since marriage, according to Torah tradition, is defined as “the commitment a man and a woman make to become one and to pursue together common life goals”, in order to prepare properly for marriage, one has to first clarify one’s own life goals and develop a “mission statement” which can be matched with a suitable partner. So Jacob must have spent those 14 years defining and refining himself to the point that he had total clarity as to who he was, what he wanted to achieve in life, and what type of wife would best partner with him in accomplishing these goals.
The idea that our forefather Jacob would go to Yeshiva and take a “Relationships 101” course to prepare himself for marriage is truly amazing if you think about it. This means that Jacob realized over 3400 years ago what so few of us modern, progressive humans seem to understand today. You see, many people today spend years preparing for a successful career. They go to college, vocational school, or professional school. But surprisingly few prepare for what is arguably the most important pursuit of all – a successful marriage. In fact, one could say that, on average, people spend more time researching which automobile or home they should buy than they spend studying what type of person might be the most suitable marriage partner for life!
And it’s not like we don’t need marriage help these days. With the risk for divorce in the United States hovering around 40-50% (it’s a bit less in Canada), it's startling that so few people take marriage preparation seriously. But many couples, in fact, never discuss the most important issues before they get married, such as expectations about children and child-rearing, beliefs about male-female roles, what kind of Jewish home they want to build, and ideas about how they'll handle conflict … you know, all that serious life goals stuff. One study showed that only 30% participated in even one to two hours of marriage preparation (Olson, 1983). A 1997 U.S. national survey showed that only 36 percent of couples married in the previous five years had premarital counseling through their religious organization (Stanley & Markman, 1997). Recent studies of college young adults show that more than 90 percent say they believe marriage preparation is important but only 35% intend to formally prepare (Duncan, Box, & Silliman, 1996; Duncan & Wood, 2003).
So many couples I know spend the majority of their engagement period planning and preparing for their wedding - which is just one day of their married lives – when they should be spending much of that time learning and preparing for their marriage, which is (hopefully) for the rest of their lives.
Jacob, through his actions, has taught us a vital lesson. Marriage can be one of life's sweetest ventures, but it is also one of the riskiest. Couples and communities are wise to invest in and support active preparation for marriage.