The Genesis:3 Project
and also Basemath daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nevai’ot. Genesis 36:3
How do you choose a spouse?
To be honest, I originally wrote, “how do you pick a wife?” But even I have evolved beyond that particular formulation. Yet, that was the version that I thought about for a very long time. For at least three generations, my family chose their own spouses. One grandmother chose or was chosen three times – she outlived them all. Among my great-aunts and great-uncles, they all seemed to choose incredibly well, at least to my young eyes, even the ones who married their cousins. And though there were some breakups, one after many children and one after not very many hours, marriage was the preferred situation for all but a small number of the people I knew.
Marriage is an institution that long predates our contemporary ideas of romantic love. Sociologists and economists are better equipped to discuss the reasons marriage developed as it did. Historians can trace the evolution of two adults from various plural circumstances. And the Bible makes it clear that Esau married into the power elite of his day, speaking of marrying a cousin.
There was never a question in my mind that I would marry and have a family. It is what I always wanted, and as a result I was always falling in love and making plans. But for a very long time I was more captivated by the idea of being in love and getting married than I was in love actually. And what that meant was that it was not the right time for me to get married.
To my great fortune, the right time arrived at the same time as I met the right person. And this week on the secular calendar it is forty years since the day we stepped out of the wedding canopy as husband and wife.
I still marvel at the sheer luck that brought us together and the hard work that has kept us together. Dear friends have exhausted their patience with each other and thrown in the towel, including people we considered role models and mentors in the ways of life and love. Have we always been happy? The honest answer is most likely no. A friend of mine used to say that happiness was overrated – at least before his divorce. But the knowledge that happiness was a by-product of love was enough to make us acknowledge all the time that we never fell out of love.
When I teach about Shabbat, I always emphasize the blessings we give to each other every Friday night. Close to 2000 times in these forty years, I have held my beloved and told her, “Many women have done nobly, but you surpass them all” (it’s better in Hebrew). She, in turn, cradles me in her arms and calls me “companion, ineffably precious friend,” four words I rarely deserve but always crave. Every week we have decided to declare that our love is alive. So far, it has always been the truth, but there is nothing like speaking the words to make sure.
Did Esau love Basemat and her sister wives Adah and Oholibama (one of the great names in all the Bible)? Nobody knows. He became father to many children with them, and they, in turn, populated their tribes. The standards for a successful marriage were different back then.
I see the success of our marriage in very different terms. We have made each other better, though my wife had more heavy lifting to do than I did. We have guided our children to independence and seen each of them make choices that reflect our values and their unique understanding of them. We would rather be with each other than with anyone else, but we know well enough that by pursuing our own careers and interests we bring back gifts for each other every day.
I will admit that whatever insights I have are due to experience. If you had asked me my advice about successful marriage 25 or 30 years ago, I would have been making it up, though I would have gotten the Friday night part right.
But who would have guessed that, in the end, the secret seems to be gratitude. I have been loved all these years for who I am and believed in for all these years for who I could be. In and of itself, that’s no big deal. But when I wasn’t who I could be, I was still loved for who I am. If I had another forty years, I could never express my gratitude sufficiently. In return, I cherish the woman who is right in front of me and look with awe as she continues to surpass them all.
How do you choose a spouse? I know that it is a question that not everyone has the privilege to answer. In my case, I got lucky and found someone able to love me into being better than I ever hoped to be.