Teaching a weekly class to singles on the Upper West Side of New York, got me thinking of ways to connect the lessons we learn from the Torah, and day to day life here, reflecting on the (many) years I spent dating, the scientific research out there, and what these Parashot teach us. One precaution, while there are many good ideas for successful dating in the Bible, there are also some that are not (David and Batsheva, for example…). There are many experts out there, I am not one of them. With that in mind, let’s dive right into what I had shared; dating tips from the Bible
Chemistry is Not Always Spontaneous- In this week’s Parsha, three angels dressed like commoners come to Abraham and Sarah to inform them of the upcoming birth of their child Isaac. Considering the fact the both Abraham and Sarah were over the age of ninety(!), this birth was nothing short of a miracle. When the time comes, and the angels are ready to break the news, they ask Abraham where Sarah is.
“And they said to him, “Where is Sarah, your wife?” And he said, “Behold in the tent.”
Didn’t the angels know where Sarah was? Why did they need to ask about it?
In explaining this verse, the rabbis focus on the unusual dotting that appears on the words “Elav—to him”. The Torah scroll does not have any vowels, punctuation marks, or dots on it. If it does, it is there to teach us something. Rashi, citing the Midrash and the Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a), cites a fascinating explanation.
Rabbi Simeon, the son of Eleazar, says: “Wherever the [undotted] letters are more than the dotted ones, you must expound on the [undotted] letters, etc.” And here, the dotted letters are more than the [undotted] letters, and you must expound on the dotted [letters]. [The meaning is that] they also asked Sarah, “Where is Abraham?” (Gen. Rabbah 48:15) We learn that a person should ask in his lodging place of the husband about the wife, and of the wife about the husband (B.M. 87a). In Bava Metzia (ad loc.) it is said: The ministering angels knew where our mother Sarah was, but [they asked in order] to make known that she was modest, in order to endear her to her husband.”
In other words, chemistry is not all spontaneous; love not all organic. Studies continue to show that while chemistry is vital for a relationship to work, it may not be there in the beginning. In other words, chemistry can be developed. More importantly, in fact, most importantly, chemistry and love should never be taken for granted. Abraham and Sarah had been married at this point for many decades. Yet, the angles found it necessary to remind Abraham of why he liked her, injecting the relationship with newfound love and care. God’s angles made sure to ask Sarah about Abraham and Abraham about Sarah. They reminded Abraham of Sarah’s modesty he valued so much.
Relationships are never constants. Our relationship are like flowers; they need to be cared for, tended to, and can never be taken for granted. Even after decades of marriage, Abraham and Sarah needed to be reminded of what they liked about each other. If this is true for marriage, it is surely true for dating. Relationships need to be built, attended to, unlike in the Hollywood dream world, real relationships are created, they don’t spring out of nowhere.
A few years ago, the New York Times ran a sensational article titled “36 Questions That Lead to Love”, based on well researched 36 questions that lead couples to the high likelihood of more committed relationships. While the science of this created a great deal of conversation, one thing is clear, love is something that can be fostered and created.
Be Purposeful About What You Say-After asking Abraham about where Sarah is; finally, one of the Angels breaks the news:
“And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the entrance of the tent, and it was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, coming on in years; Sarah had ceased to have the way of the women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have smooth flesh? And also, my master is old.” And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’
The contradiction cannot be more immediate, the discrepancy could not be more visible. Sarah laughs at the idea that she may bear children when Abraham is at such an old age. Yet, when God recounts the episode to Abraham, He attributes Sarah’s disbelief to her own old age. God makes sure to change things around for the sake of peace. As Rashi notes:” Scripture altered [her statement] for the sake of peace, for she had said, “and my master is old.” – [Bava Metzia 87a]
The rabbis use this as an example that in cases of assuring peace between parties—especially husband and wife—one can “tweak” the words to make sure that peace is restored. While honesty is the bedrock of good relationships, and the most essential ingredient to successful relationships, being mindful and purposeful of what we say is also essential. It is one thing to make sure you are very honest about all aspects of your life with your partner—which you should be doing— all the time. It is a whole other thing to say something like “sometimes you say boring things”, or “yeah, you do look kind of old.” Be purposeful in keeping what you say positive, kind, and considerate. If it does not meet one of those categories, just don’t say it.
Which brings me to the next lesson:
Make Yourself Attractive to Your Partner- research continues to show the importance of making sure we make ourselves attractive to our partner. There is no question Abraham loved Sarah. There is also no question that Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, was not young. Yet, somehow, had he found out Sarah thinks he is old, it would diminish their relationship. Sloppy dressing for a date, or in marriage, yes, a poor online dating profile picture, poor edict while eating out, and so much more are things you would think would be obvious to all, but they are not. How do I know? Because there were times, I made those mistakes myself while dating, or encountered while trying to set others up. It isn’t always easy to pay attention to all the details, but it does pay to make sure we do.
Don’t Look Back- In her book and viral article in The Atlantic “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough“, Lori Gottlieb points out how singles often find themselves trapped. When we are young, she explains, we date someone who is not perfect, say a nine out of ten. Since society is so opposed to the idea of “settling,” we end that relationship so we can find a ten. The years go by, and we get more desperate. We then meet someone wonderful who is “an eight out of ten.” We are then tempted to recall that we had dumped a nine because that was not good enough. Trapped, we tell ourselves, “well I could of married a nine, and now I will go for an eight?!”.
The way to get over this, look to the story of Lot. As the wicked city of Sedom was being destroyed by God, God’s angels come to save Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family. (Genesis, 19)
“And as the dawn rose, the angels pressed Lot, saying, “Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you perish because of the iniquity of the city.”… But he[Lot] delayed, and the men took hold of his hand and his wife’s hand, and the hand of his two daughters, out of the Lord’s pity for him, and they took him out and placed him outside the city…. And it came to pass, when they took them outside, that he said, “Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish.”…And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”
The moral of the story? Don’t look back. While this loose connection may seem humorous, its real-life application is not funny at all. How many people do we all know who are stuck in life because they are not able to get over a past relationship? How many people do we know who are not able to move on due to the lingering effects of previous experiences? Sure. It is important to learn from the lessons of the past, but don’t let those hold you down from moving forward.
Never Point Fingers- Nothing can be more toxic to relationships than blaming, shaming, and finger-pointing. When God asks Adam about his failure in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam does what humans do best: he blames his spouse.
“And the man said, “The woman whom You gave [to be] with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate.” (Genesis, 3)
Rashi on the words “whom You gave [to be] with me” says this was not only a crime towards Adam’s wife, but a crime against God Himself. “Here he [Adam] showed his ingratitude.” — [Rashi ibid from Talmud Avodah Zarah 5b] Adam should have been more grateful for being blessed with his wife Eve. The lesson? Never blame or point fingers; always be thankful for the partnership and comradery your date/spouse offers.
Parents. Parents. Parents- When we are first introduced to our father Abraham, the first thing we hear is about parents.
“And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.”
The rabbis in the Midrash elaborate on the role Terach’s death had on Abraham’s departure. Still, the bottom line is simple: parents should be there to help, not detract. Sure, later, Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to successfully find a wife for his son Isaac. That is an excellent example of a parent being helpful to the process. When speaking to singles and trying to set people up, it is often dismaying to see how—even in the 21st Century— there is no age limit or circumstantial restrictions on cases in which parents can get in the way of their children’s dating prospects. Whether it is by making sure their children remain too close to home to succeed, objecting to a compatible partner, up to creating unnecessary stress around the logistics of the wedding, parents can get in the way of marriage. Unquestionably when this happens it is most often done with good intentions and after incredible dedication and investment in their children, yet it does happen. This is also not to say that good advice, input, and insight can come from a parent who knows their child best. Parents often do weight in with critically important advice. Yet it is vital to keep in mind that the terms never, and always, are rarely constants in what is best for dating.
Lookism Kills– Physical attraction is important. This is why the rabbis stated:
” It is forbidden for a man to betroth a woman until he sees her, lest he see something unattractive in her after the betrothal, and she will become undesirable to him, which will cause him to hate her. And to prevent this violation of what the Merciful One states in the Torah: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)”. Thus, the Sages ruled that a man must betroth a woman in person, to ensure that he approves of her.” (Bavli Kiddushin, 41a, Sefaria)
At the same time, this, too, comes with some significant caveats. One of the boldest statements the rabbis have ever made can be found in the Mishnah in Sotah (1:8):
“Samson went after [the desire of] his eyes; therefore, the Philistines put out his eyes, as it is said, “And the Philistines laid hold of him, and put out his eyes” (Judges 16:2. Absalom was proud of his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair. And because he had relations with the ten of his father’s concubines, therefore [they thrust] ten spears in him, as it is said, “And ten of Joab’s young arms-bearers closed in [and struck Absalom until he died]” (Samuel II 18:15).”
No one exemplifies this better than Samson in the book of Judges. Following his eyes—going after Delilah—is what ended up bringing Samson down. The rabbis link Samson’s eyes being poked out in the end, to the same eyes leading him into the relationship with the Philistine lady to begin with. Attraction is important within reason and not blinding us or making us look away from character, personality, and who our partner may really be.
Look for Kindness– no character trait is seen as more vital for a Jewish relationship than kindness. When Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac, kindness is at the forefront of what Eliezer is looking for.
“And he made the camels kneel outside the city beside the well of water, at eventide, at the time the maidens go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, please cause to happen to me today, and perform loving-kindness with my master, Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the water fountain, and the daughters of the people of the city are coming out to draw water And it will be, [that] the maiden to whom I will say, ‘Lower your pitcher and I will drink,’ and she will say, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ her have You designated for Your servant, for Isaac, and through her may I know that You have performed loving kindness with my master.” (Genesis, 24)
Eliezer sees nothing more central to the legacy of Abraham than kindness. If the young lady is kind, surely she is appropriate for his master’s son. If not, it is clearly not a match. This was not just lip service, it was how things panned out.
“Now he had not yet finished speaking, and behold, Rebecca came out, who had been born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, and her pitcher was on her shoulder…. And the servant ran toward her, and he said, “Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher.” And she said, “Drink, my lord.” And she hastened and lowered her pitcher to her hand, and she gave him to drink. And she finished giving him to drink, and she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they will have finished drinking.” And she hastened, and she emptied her pitcher into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. And she said to him, “Both straw and fodder are plentiful with us; [there is] also a place to lodge.” And the man kneeled and prostrated himself to the Lord. And he said, “Blessed is the Lord, the God of my master, Abraham, Who has not forsaken His loving kindness and His truth from my master. As for me, the Lord led me on the road to the house of my master’s kinsmen.”
And so, at the end of the day, the legacy of who we are as a people hangs on one simple thing: kindness. When dating, look for someone kind. When married, make sure kindness and hospitality remain the veritable epicenter of your home and what your relationship is all about.
Till Faith Do Us Apart– In her book “Till Faith Do Us Apart” Naomi Schaefer Riley points to the fact that couples often underestimate the extent to which faith will matter within their relationship. While interfaith couples are becoming something more common, those couples underestimate the strains and pains which can be caused by differences in personal faith. When Abraham sends Eliezer to find him a partner, he urges him to go to Haran and find someone from his own family. While the genetics of that may not be advisable, the idea of marrying someone with a similar mindset can do a great deal to advance a relationship. “Opposites attract” may be true for magnets, not for humans. Find someone who shares the values you do.
Money is Overrated- shortly after I, and many other millennials, began dating, the markets crashed. No, not the dating markets, the stock market. The great recession of 2008 hit. Financial anxiety came to the forefront of dating mindsets. As a single millennial best put it to me not long ago:” why am I single? Because I just graduated college, the markets crashed, and then I was just too poor to date. Now, years later, I am just getting on my feet and beginning to date. Financial anxiety, especially in the more observant community, is very present while dating. The high cost of maintaining a lifestyle that became the standard or the Jewish community during the 90s economic boom kept many from pursuing dating partners who would be appropriate for them. Many to this day, expect to date the way Rebecca was betrothed to Isaac:
“And the servant took ten camels of his master’s camels, and he went, and all the best of his master was in his hand; and he arose, and he went to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor…. Now it came about, when the camels had finished drinking, [that] the man took a golden nose ring, weighing half [a shekel], and two bracelets for her hands, weighing ten gold [shekels]…. And he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. And the Lord blessed my master exceedingly, and he became great, and He gave him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, man servants and maid servants, camels and donkeys…. And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master after she had become old, and he gave him all that he possesses. And Laban and Bethuel answered and said… Behold Rebecca is before you, take [her] and go, and let her be a wife for your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” (Genesis 24)
While this may happen in some cases, in normal life it does not.
I recall the many times I heard young professionals lamenting the fact that they are being rejected because they were simply not making enough money. I distinctly remember one of them saying they were making “only” around $200,000 and that was not enough for some prospective partners. While it is not my place to questions anyone’s personal preferences or life choices, it is essential to be aware of the research on this topic before rushing to conclusions. While it is important to have a responsible and practical outlook before taking the journey of marriage, happiness or sustainability of marriage are not correlated with high incomes with some studies even showing a higher likelihood for divorce among the rich. Attributing tuition costs, expenses of leading an orthodox lifestyle, and other religious arguments to income levels of who a person could or should date is most certainly wrong and runs against so many other religious imperative. No money can substitute for love and life. The Midrash contrasts Eliezer’s arrival with camels loaded with gold and silver with Jacob arriving later just to meet Rachel with nothing to give her. We can all agree both marriages worked out; what Jacob was lacking in material goods and parental support, he made up to Rachel with his hard work and love. Money should never get in the way of marriage.
Dating is rarely if ever an easy process, it involves making big decisions, overcoming great obstacles, and being there for ourselves like we have never done before. May the blessings of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah rest on all those embarking on the magnificent journey of establishing their own homes so that they, too, can endow their own blessings onto others. We are all rooting for you!