I have been married three times, each time to the same man. We have been married by a civil registrar, a member of his kibbutz and overlooking the ruins of Lachish by our Rabbi. People say that we are beginning to compete with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor!
All three of our weddings have been beautiful and significant, we have been able to share our celebration with family and friends and have been in the unique position of publicly declaring our love for one another in a variety of different ways, each with a different emphasis.
In this weeks parashah we see Abraham negotiate with the Hittites for a parcel of land in which he can bury his wife Sarah. Buying the cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron enables Abraham to bury Sarah in a known and fixed place and also secure a final resting place both for himself and his descendants. His life’s journey alongside Sarah has been temporarily halted, but their future together has been secured through his purchase of the cave. Abraham has a place to return to both in life and in death where, when the time comes, he can rejoin his wife. In reply to Ephron who offers him the field free of charge, Abraham replies Natati kesef ha-sadeh, kach mimeni, I will give you money for the field, take it from me! Abraham is at pains to ensure that his acquisition of the field is contractually binding and that the agreement has been finalised in front of witnesses. He is purchasing the field for a specific and extremely important purpose, he is securing the future.
Maybe it is no accident therefore that this is one of the verses that is used by the rabbis of the Talmud in their discussion of the laws of acquiring a wife, of kiddushin. Whilst many of us have feelings of ambivalence towards the notion of ‘purchasing’ a wife as implied by the use of the Hebrew verb k.n.h, maybe we have been a little hasty? Perhaps we are mistaken in assuming that the nature of marriage as understood by the rabbis of the Talmud is just one of legal acquisition, where both parties are charged with the maintenance of a number of rights and responsibilities towards one another?
So what are we being asked to look for by the rabbis in their choice of this verse of the purchase of the field? What are we also being asked to identify in the story of Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah in the field of Ephron?
My teacher Rabbi Mark Solomon suggests that the use of this verse may be a commentary on the existential nature of marriage itself. Whilst the execution of Kiddushin may indeed be about the contractual obligations of both parties and their subsequent position in wider society, the spiritual nature of marriage, of love, is much less easily articulated and, even less so, legislated for: though perhaps it is being hinted at by the use of this verse. By legally contracting in front of witnesses to purchase the field Abraham achieves two things, firstly he secures a permanent resting place for his beloved wife, one in which he may rejoin her in their eternal rest together, and secondly, he has taken the first step in the fulfilment of God’s covenantal promise by obtaining the first parcel of land in Eretz Yisrael. Both of these acts demonstrate trust and expectancy. Abraham has faith in the future and in the promises that have been made, the explicit promise that God has made to him and his descendants and the more implicit one that he has made to Sarah about their life’s journey together. His actions to make these promises concrete in front of others lends further affirmation of his vision of what is to be.
Thus it is with marriage. I got married three times and each one of my weddings achieved something different. The registry office ceremony ensured that we have a legally recognised and binding partnership, our rights and responsibilities as articulated in law are enshrined in this contract and our legal agreement is recognised internationally. Our kibbutz wedding on the other hand signalled our welcome into the wider community as a couple, where the community celebrated our love and commitment to one another with us, it has no legal standing, but its significance as a public welcoming of us into the community was immeasurable. Our Jewish wedding went one step further combining a legal acknowledgment and commitment with a public celebration of our love for one another before God and our entrance as a couple into Kehillah.
Marriage today is understood to be all these things: a legal agreement, a public celebration and welcoming and, for many, a sanctification of their emotional investment in one another. Marriage remains the ideal for many today and yet same sex couples remain excluded from this particular celebration and acknowledgement of their commitment and love for one another.
As we have seen the Rabbis understood that there is a deeper, more spiritual level to marriage that cannot be expressed in purely legalistic terms. Marriage is so much more than simply fixing our legal rights and responsibilities and whilst civil partnership confers legal protection and rights onto a same sex couple, it does not carry in the minds and hearts of many the sanctification, acknowledgment and celebration inferred by marriage. Marriage is a public recognition of our hopes and dreams, our visions and plans, it is about our willingness to open our heart to our beloved and to invite them in, to walk life’s journey alongside us. Marriage, humanistic and religious, celebrates the ineffable, the intangible and the very real experience of enduring love and emotional interconnection that we share with our life partner.
The Rabbis understood this, as did Abraham when he purchased the field in front of the Hittites. In buying that small piece of land, Abraham took the first concrete step in securing God’s promise to his descendants: he undertook to make real his faith and trust in the future. When we marry we too are undertaking to do the same, to make a concrete and public demonstration of our faith and trust in the future. This is an act of love, of acknowledgment and hope. It is an act of celebration, an act that as a human being made in the image of God, is the basic human right of each and every one of us.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.