This is a famous story, found in both the Midrash and the Talmud. A Roman Noblewoman asked Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta what God does now that the world has been created. She is told that God arranges marriages and adjusts people’s economic standing.
בִּתּוֹ שֶׁל פְּלוֹנִי לִפְלוֹנִי, אִשְׁתּוֹ שֶׁל פְּלוֹנִי לִפְלוֹנִי, מָמוֹנוֹ שֶׁל פְּלוֹנִי לִפְלוֹנִי
“The daughter of so-and-so to so-and-so, [in the case of a widow or divorcee] the wife of so-and-so to so-and-so, the property of so-and-so to so-and-so . (Midrash Rabbah Vayetzei, 68.4).
The Noblewoman scoffed at this idea and tried to prove Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta wrong. She lined up 1000 of her male slaves and 1000 of her female slaves and forced them to marry each other. The next day she was confronted by many unhappy slaves with broken bones and other injuries who refused to live with their designated spouse. The noblewoman then conceded to Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta that God is all knowing and the Torah is true.
The dramatic backstory – God’s ongoing role in the world
An innovative commentator to Midrash Rabbah, Eished Hanechalim, (published 1843 in Vilna), explains that this dispute was not as it seemed. Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta perceived what was really behind the Noblewoman’s question. She believed that God created the world and left it to run itself. God has no further involvement in the affairs of man. Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta chose a most dramatic example of God’s ongoing intervention. In the words of Eished Hanechalim God is even involved in ’’רצונות האדם’’ the emotional desires of every human being. That’s why Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta brought the examples of marriage.
The Noblewoman’s peak into the way God runs the world’
According to the Eished Hanechalim, Rabbi Yosei bar Chalafta explained a very deep and mystical concept to the noblewoman. She now understood that God is forever recreating the world and if God stopped for one millisecond, the world would cease to exist. All these lessons were embedded in the real life example of marriage. If God is manipulating people who are destined to be married, imagine what God is doing in every other realm of creation.
God’s heavy handed way of arranging marriages
The Midrash goes on to describe just how far God goes to bring together two soul mates. הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יוֹשֵׁב וְעוֹשֶׂה סֻלָּמוֹת מַשְׁפִּיל לָזֶה וּמֵרִים לָזֶה, וּמוֹרִיד לָזֶה וּמַעֲלֶה לָזֶה“ God sits and crafts ladders, and humbles this one and raises that one, lowers this one and elevates that one” (Ibid).
The Eished Hanechalim explains that if one person’s economic status or haughtiness is interfering with them meeting the one who is destined for them, God intervenes. This might mean elevating someone’s economic status or lowering it. It may also mean building up one person’s self esteem or humbling another’s. All this, however, does not insure a happy marriage. The Midrash says that even when two people are meant for each other, the relationship can still result in “crying” .(בכי) Furthermore, the Midrash describes God’s involvement as by force and not for the benefit of their benefit “ בְּעַל כָּרְחָן שֶׁלֹא בְּטוֹבָתָן.” The Midrash is saying that even a match made in heaven requires that both parties are emotionally invested in the relationship. Otherwise it will indeed seem like something negative and unwanted. Additionally, the Midrash also points out that sometimes one has to travel far to meet their match (like our neighbors who recently emigrated from Morocco and Switzerland and met in Jerusalem) and sometimes – as in the case of Yitzchak – your intended comes to you.
Yaakov is the exception that proves the rule?
Yaakov had no trouble discerning which woman he was destined to marry. The Torah describes that when he first saw Rachel –וַיִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹל֖וֹ וַיֵּֽבְךְּ “he cried” (Bereishis, 29:11). Rashi says that he already saw prophetically that this was his wife but he also saw that they would not be buried together. For the rest of us, it’s a great leap of faith to know that someone has been divinely chosen for us. After all, choosing a spouse is certainly a prime area when people are sure that they are in total control. Yet it could not be further from the truth.