When I first started dating in the Orthodox world, I had two major expectations. The first was that God would reward me for becoming religious by making the process fast and easy. The second was that when I met “the one” there would be fireworks and orchestrated music all around us.
As you might have guessed, I was a little immature at the time. My dating process was neither fast nor easy, but I can now say that the process I went through was a Divine gift. If I had married one of the men I had met in my earliest dating years, I am not certain the marriage would have lasted. Certainly I would not be the person who I am today. I would never have figured out where I myself was most comfortable in the spectrum of Jewish life. I might never have come to work for the National Jewish Outreach Program (now NJOP). I might not have found the inner strength that carried me through the loss of my father. In the years I was single, I learned to listen to others, to be more flexible, to hear my own voice and accept my own strengths and challenges. (Not to mention the fact that my husband-to-be was not even Jewish at that point – but that’s a story for another time.)
Many people who wish to get married face the tremendous challenge of overcoming the extremely romantic notions that saturate our society. We learn it first in our childhood through Disney: Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty…Did any of them even know anything about their prince before professing their undying love? Moving out of childhood, one is inundated with romantic songs, love-struck television characters and unfathomable epics of true love at the movies. Love as a many-splendored thing is such an overwhelming part of American culture that it is almost impossible to believe that marrying for love was once the privilege of a rare few.
In the world of Orthodox dating, young men and young women (or often their parents) use an intermediary for introduction. The intermediary may be a shadchan (matchmaker) or a friend, relative or acquaintance. Before the couple is introduced, both sides confirm that the other has the qualities for which they are looking. It is a system that has worked surprisingly well for generations. (For more on shadchan, click here.)
That which one might consider to be the very first “shidduch” (match) was Isaac and Rebecca. The matchmaker was Abraham’s man-servant Eliezer. Abraham only gives him one criteria – that the girl not be from the surrounding Canaanite families. But, Eliezer knows the family so well that he does not need further information. As he approaches the city of Nahor, Eliezer prays that God will make the choice obvious, a prayer that is answered when Rebecca not only offers him water, but draws water for his camels as well. Rebecca travels with Eliezer back to Abraham’s camp, ready to accept an unknown fiancé based on the character references of Eliezer and Abraham’s reputation for kindness. About the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, the Torah says only this: “and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Genesis 24:67). Isaac came to love her only after he married her, love came through knowledge and partnership.
From the moment I met my husband, I liked him. He was smart, funny, sensitive and quite handsome. Was it love at first sight? I can’t say that. I can say that seeing what a kind, sincere and good-natured person he was, I actually said to my roommate: “Please don’t let me mess this up!” Our dating process, while only 3 months, was not smooth. Our engagement period, an additional 4.5 months, was even worse. As happy as I was, I often found myself riddled with confusion: “Do I love him? If so, where are those fireworks? But I want to marry him. In fact I can’t picture myself not married to him! But am I certain? How do I know if he’s the right one?”
Instead of enjoying the idea of finding my ezer k’negdo, my soul mate, I was busy worrying if he was my Prince Charming. (To read more about the concept of ezer k’negdo, click here.)
Now I don’t know about you, but I never found Prince Charming to be a man of any particular depth. Sure he is extremely good looking, but is he kind, sincere, pious, ambitious, laid back, or any of the other qualities that different people seek in a spouse?
If there is one lesson about dating that can be learned from the story of Isaac and Rebecca, it is the importance of seeing the potential spouse’s midot (best translated as character traits). Does he/she talk rudely to waiters? Does he/she tip? Is he/she considerate of others? Eliezer was drawn to Rebecca as a likely candidate because she shared the value of kindness that was ingrained in Abraham’s family.
My husband and I come from very different backgrounds, but we share so many mutual values with each other that it doesn’t matter. Did I love him on the day we got married? Perhaps, but not nearly as much as I do now. We had the seeds of love and we were both dedicated to making ourselves into a unit and building a home together. From that commitment, true love builds.