Zaydie’s Choice


I want to begin by posing a scenario. You have your hair cut by the same barber or stylist for 30 years. You’re basically happy with the job he does, and you have a nice relationship with your stylist. One day, he has to have surgery, and so for one haircut, you have to find someone else. You find someone who charges you $1 less for your haircut. Should you switch?  At what point, does the difference in price/or better haircut warrant a switch?  What goes into your decision? We’ll come back to this.

But, first, I’d like to tell you a story.   My father didn’t have a very good relationship with his father. And, it’s because my grandfather, Sam Rosenbaum did not treat my grandmother, Rachel, very well. He just wasn’t very nice to her.

I’m not going to make excuses for my grandfather. But, there is a backstory. Sometime after my grandfather and grandmother were born, their parents made a shiduch, and wrote it up in a ceremony called tenaim. They made an official agreement that when the children came of age, they would marry each other.

When my grandfather became a young man, he fell in love with someone else. He wanted to get out of the shidduch. And, his parents wouldn’t let him. And, he was forced to abandon the woman he loved and marry my grandmother.  I’m glad he did, because otherwise he wouldn’t be here. But, the result was he always resented my grandmother, who loved him. And, that story has been passed down through the generations.

The question of choice when it came to marriage is the flashpoint of the modern era. What distinguishes modern era from all previous era’s in Jewish history is choice – believing we have the right to make choices based on merit, not based on tradition, or our parent’s wishes, or our tribe’s wishes, or God’s wishes. And, nowhere is the argument for freedom of choice more compelling than in love – our right to choose whom to marry.

Today’s parasha is about an arranged marriage. And, yet there is an element of choice in this story. When Abraham’s servant arrives in Haran to choose a wife for Isaac, he asks God for a sign. He says: I’m going to ask the women at the well for a drink. And, the one who says “I’ll water your camels, too” that will be the woman for Isaac. That will be a sign that you are guiding me, God.

And, sure enough, the very first woman who appears at the well does exactly as Eliezer wanted.

So, is this a match made in Heaven, or not? On the one hand, this looks like a character test. It looks as if Eliezer is making a reasoned choice. He’s choosing a kind woman. On the other hand, Eliezer is convinced that ‘mei’adonai yatza ha’davra’ – that God made the choice, that this match is bashert.

Well, which one is it? Can it be both?  When we say that a match is  ‘bashert’ – do we really mean it? Do we really mean that we were led by the nose by God to choose each other against our will?  Or, is this just an expression, a tip of the hat to God that doesn’t really mean anything?

It’s interesting that the very first marriage in the Torah was not arranged. With Adam and Eve, there was a clear choice. Adam sifts through the possibilities, and he rejects all of God’s initial offerings. And, then when God creates Eve, Adam says: Aha!  Zot ha’paam! She is the one I have been looking for!

So, on the one hand, the Torah establishes the importance of consciously choosing just the right person. And, yet on the other hand, there is a sense in which there really is no choice. It could only be Eve. She was literally Adam’s missing piece. And, he was drawn to her like a magnet. And, the Torah goes on to say: So it will be for all future marriages. Everyone has a missing piece. And, that missing piece is out there somewhere. The implication is that there is only one foot that will fit the glass slipper.

So, it seems that in love, there is choice, but no choice. And, I would argue that love has to have both of these qualities to be authentic. In matters of the heart, there has to be some measure of irrationality. Otherwise, it’s not love. It’s a business relationship.

So, for example, Joseph sets up a test to see if his brothers have had a true change of heart. The brothers pass the test. It’s all very intentional. It appears that Joseph is freely choosing whether to love his brothers or not.

And, yet, the moment of emotional connection is not freely chosen. Just the opposite. When Judah’s defense of Benjamin moves Joseph, the Torah says: v’lo yachol Yosef l’hitapek – Joseph couldn’t control his emotions. He surrenders to his feelings, he breaks down and cries, and he embraces his brothers. The moment of loving connection could not have been a moment of conscious choice. If it had been, it would have been manipulative and cold.

In our society today, we are so fixated on choice, that we run the risk of turning everything into a business relationship. That’s the danger of a merit based society. When Rabbi Kula was here last year, I loved what he said. But, as I was thinking again of the language he used to describe Jewish practice, I realized it was the language of the market.

Rabbi Kula said: Every Jewish practice has a job to do. If Uber is doing the job better than taxis, then people will choose uber. And, if something else in our society is feeding our souls better than Jewish spiritual practice, for example, yoga – we will choose that thing.  And, I agree that for the most part is a good thing for Jewish practices to have to compete in a free market for the hearts and minds of our people.

What I find problematic, and fascinating, is the choice of language.  It’s the language of job performance. If you don’t perform, you’re fired. That’s exactly what we’d expect in a society that is which tells us that we are judged on our merits, not by our attachments.  And yet, we’re so ensconced in the mindset of merit, that we don’t see that even where we might expect to see the language of relationship, we turn without even thinking to the language of job performance. Even the 40 day trial period for a mitzvah, which I think is a wonderful idea, has a faint echo of a business transaction: Customer satisfaction guaranteed. 40 days or your money back.

We live in a society that is almost obsessed by our right to choose.  And, so we rate everything: not only computers and toaster ovens, but, doctors, lawyers, and university professors. And, about ten years ago, someone in Seattle wanted to rate shuls the way cars would be rated in Consumer Reports.

We would never want to give up our freedom to choose. But, here is the question. In society based radically on merit, at what point do our relationships become affected by the language of performance?  At what point, does our decision to switch barbers or doctors based on merit begin to make us uncomfortable, begin to make us feel cold and calculating, begin to make us feel as if our relationships are performance based – and we can be fired from our friendships and our marriages and our families as easily as we can say goodbye to our computers and cars?

This is what I think our Tradition is trying to teach us with the concept of bashert, of mei’adonai yatza ha’davar: that there is some element of surrendering of choice in relationship. We’re not going back to arranged marriages, to the tragedy of my grandfather. But, how can we balance the cool calculations of resume inspection with the irrational surrender to love?

We refer to our loved one as b’chirat libeinu, the one that our heart has chosen. We all want to be chosen. But, we don’t want to be chosen in a business like way. We don’t want to feel as if the person we loved us examined our resume and felt it was superior to the others. That’s not love. There has to be a sense in which we are chosen and not chosen. There has to be a sense in which we were chosen and yet the one who loves us was drawn to us like a magnet. There has to be a sense in which we seek, and we declare ‘zot ha’paam’ – she is the one for me, and yet at the same time, in some mysterious way, it is also true that Mei’adonai yatza ha’davar, this relationship is bashert.

Figuring out how to recover that balance is the great challenge of our age.