Friday, November 18, 2011

Growing into Love

One of the most poignant moments in “Fiddler on the Roof” comes when Tevye turns to Golde, his wife of twenty-five years, and asks: “Do you love me?” To which she responds, “Do I what?” and suggests he must be suffering from indigestion. But Tevye is persistent. Reflecting on his own arranged marriage and the more modern ways of his daughters, he asks again—and in the end, Golde concedes: “For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, fought with him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. . . if that’s not love, what is?”

These matters—arranged marriage and love—are at the center of this week’s parashah, Chaye Sarah. After Abraham’s servant Eliezer chooses Rebecca to be Isaac’s bride, the two settle down together. Genesis 24:67 teaches: “Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her.” This is the first time Torah mentions love, and as Rabbi Harold Kushner notes, the order of the verse is significant. He writes: “Isaac comes to love Rebecca after he marries her. Their love is the result, not the prerequisite, of their relationship.”

This is an important lesson for us. We live in a time of high-profile but short-lived celebrity nuptials. Our culture romanticizes love at first sight, the notion of instant soul mates living happily ever after. We place so much emphasis on the lavish pomp of weddings—and so little on what really counts, which is the hard daily work of building a marriage (or life partnership). If, to quote Sinatra (or, actually, his Jewish songwriter, Sammy Cahn), love and marriage really do go together like a horse and carriage, our problem is that we tend to put the cart (love) before the horse (the partnership)—while at the same time, denying loving same-sex partners the opportunity to share the ride. In any lifelong union—gay or straight—deep and enduring love is what is earned after the hormonal flush of infatuation ends. As with Isaac and Rebecca—and Tevye and Golde—it is achieved through the countless mundane shared acts and moments accrued over time when two people make a commitment to grow with and support one another.

I’ll end with an excerpt from Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “For What Binds Us”:

And see how the flesh grows back

across a wound, with a great vehemence,

more strong

than the simple, untested surface before.

There’s a name for it on horses,

when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh

is proud of its wounds, wears them

as honors given out after battle,

small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other

see how it is like a scar between their bodies,

stronger, darker, and proud;

how the black cord makes of them a single fabric

that nothing can tear or mend.

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