There are few more celebrated milestones in life than marriage. Holy matrimony affords the opportunity to connect to another in the deepest of ways, build a home, cultivate the next generation, and secure a legacy. The Talmudic tractate dedicated to this institution begins by establishing the first method of marriage, namely the basis for the ring which we use today, and yet the biblical source that the Talmud derives this from seems rather strange. Utilising a gzeira shava or inference drawn from identical words in two passages, the Talmud connects the same word in Deuteronomy’s account of marriage, and Abraham’s negotiation with Ephron to acquire a burial property for his wife Sarah in Chevron. The word used is not uncommon and of all the places in the Torah, the question begs as to why the rabbinic imagination roots such a consequential learning in an episode where spouses are not even dealing with one another and one has in fact passed away, well after they had married, in what seems to be an unfair negotiation? Implicit within the connection, I believe, are approaches that are instructive toward a meaningful marriage and I would like to highlight four that come to mind, contained within the context, care, consequence and continuity of the text.
The first lesson is the context of this learning. It is atypical to say the least. At the end of relationship not the beginning, out in the field, not under the chupa. And yet most of marriage happens in types of places. Whereas certain relationships can be curated or controlled to a certain extent, the context of marriage is constant. Over the years, our spouse sees us, perhaps more than anyone else, in nearly every type of situation and state. In front of an audience and behind closed doors, at moments of great pride and deep vulnerability, they get to know the real us and we get to know the real them. Perhaps the Torah locates this unexpected place to root the marriage acquisition because the marriage bond that it creates is tested and ultimately lived in the unexpected places.
A second lesson is grounded in care. While Abraham and Sarah had lived a full marriage, from the difficulties of famine, uncertainty, and infertility through to ultimately being blessed with everything, his dedication to her did not die when she did. This specific episode recounts the ultimate chesed shel emet or compassion of truth in going above and beyond to ensure his wife had a fitting burial and would be honoured for perpetuity. At this point, she could not reciprocate his generosity and this attitude is one that should be imbued in marriage from the very beginning – doing what is right for the other with no expectations in return. But this only works both ways. For if each partner ensures what is best for the other, they will always have someone else putting them first.
The third lesson is consequence. Efron, the individual that sold the land to Abraham, was ready to give it away and in fact was paid significantly more than he could’ve dreamed of for the land. Abraham was so honoured and happy to invest in this important land to ensure an appropriate burial for his wife and family. Sarah’s soul had serenity from her ultimate resting place. In a rare moment, every single party left this negotiation happy. So too in relationships and especially marriage, one should always seek win-win outcomes and intended consequences as much as possible that honours all sides and those around.
A final lesson is that of continuity. The fact that the biblical source of marriage is grounded in a plot that would outlive both Abraham and Sarah and service future generations, signifies the legacy that each marriage should ideally generate. The marriage of Abraham and Sarah was one of the most consequential unions in all of humankind and the meaning they brought into this world continues each day in so many ways. So, too, at the outset of marriage, both partners should consider that they are building something that will outlast themselves.
This acquisition, as noted above, forms the basis for the modern custom of utilising a ring by which to consecrate the covenant of marriage. Whether it be the context of all situations or the care by which Abraham honoured Sarah, the win-win consequences of the negotiation or the continuity that it led to, there are tremendous ingredients for a successful marriage imbued within the vehicle that effectuates it. And like the ring, that has no end, so too, when two soulmates love and respect one another in all these ways and more, it is everyone’s hope that their marriage will bring eternal meaning and success as did that of Abraham and Sarah.