This week's parsha
Life in the Garden
My friend Kayla is engaged; she’ll be married in October. She met her chatan through a matchmaker in New York. She’s been dating for six years and has met many eligible bachelors. But with each guy she met, there was some disconnect. It wasn’t her bashert -- destined match.
When she met Alex, it was different. A week after meeting him, she told me, “Rochel, I think he’s the one.” Two months later, she was engaged to him. Now that she’s found someone she feels will be her perfect life partner, she is quite grateful for the way things turned out.
“When can we start learning together?” she asked me after her engagement party. “What do you want to learn?” I asked her. “I want to study the fundamentals of a Jewish marriage, the Kabbalistic view of soulmates, how to work through tough relationship spots, the significance of a Jewish wedding, and, of course, the laws of family purity and immersion in the mikvah.”
I respect her commitment to premarital Torah study. She has so much to take care of before the wedding, along with maintaining her full-time work schedule. Even though her wedding is still three-and-a-half months away, leaving her plenty of time to learn the technical laws, she is adamant about giving herself an hour of serenity each week. In that hour, we delve into the transition that will take place at her wedding, and how she can prepare to cross this holy threshold.
A soulmate is the person who carries the soul that is most connected to your own soul. In fact, Kabbalah teaches us that just as Adam and Eve were first created as one hermaphrodite being until G‑d split them apart, each soul was at one point joined with a partner soul. G‑d split apart these two souls and sent them down on their own individual paths. Through serendipitous circumstances the two people meet and, if they are lucky enough, are drawn toward each other -- all the time clueless of their essential soul connection. So the marriage is not quite a union, but a reunion, of souls.
Chassidic teachings compare this to two friends who loved each other dearly, but ultimately lost contact with one another. On top of that, they both had to endure great personal challenges in life. And then the friends had the opportunity to reunite, to share their life again. The joy of their reunion would be deep and poignant.
That’s why a wedding is such a joyous celebration. Two connected souls that were estranged from each other, struggling to find meaning in a confusing world, miraculously found each other and recognized their shared destiny.
What happens next? What about post-wedding blues, when your spouse aggravates you to no end, and you begin to question whether this whole soulmate connection is true for you two? That’s exactly what’s meant to happen. The first magnetic attraction to one another is a free gift. After that, you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Being soulmates doesn’t mean you are two peas in a pod. (Don’t we all wish!) Being soulmates means beginning the intense journey of emotional synchrony, a journey that requires self-awareness and self-improvement. The dividends of the work we invest into the relationship are those soulmate sensations. Yes, I made the right choice. We were really meant to be together.
From that perspective, the joy of the wedding is a reservoir of energy that will fuel you through the intense challenges that marriage presents. It’s the confidence that you are right together, although at times you feel painfully wrong together.
Dating is the time to investigate potential partners. Is this person compatible with me, spiritually and physically? Do we have a soul connection?Marriage is the time to solidify that connection and transmute the soul compatibility into emotional compatibility.
But what about the engagement? What are we meant to be doing during that pragmatic waiting period -- aside from planning the wedding, attending parties and showers, reading bridal magazines and surfing the Web for wedding tips? Is there any spiritual significance to this highly charged time?
We can learn more about the significance of the engagement period through studying the engagement of Isaac and Rebecca, the first recorded in the Torah. But first, let’s look at a dramatic conversation between Isaac and his son Jacob.
When Isaac was ready to bless his sons before his death, Rebecca realized that the firstborn’s blessings should go to her more righteous son, Jacob. She dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothes and sent him into his father’s room with a prepared meal. After Jacob served his father, Isaac said to him: “Please come closer and kiss me, my son.”
When Jacob came closer, Isaac exclaimed: “Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field which the L‑rd has blessed!”
Now, how did Isaac know what the Garden of Eden smelled like? Yes, his soul was in the Garden of Eden before his life on earth, but G‑d activates a very effective cosmic amnesia in all new souls, so that they forget their pre-earth experiences entirely. How did Isaac recognize that smell so clearly?
According the the Midrash, Isaac spent some time in the Garden of Eden during his lifetime. Here is how the Midrash describes it:
It was the first meeting between Isaac and Rebecca. Rebecca was riding with Eliezer from her hometown in Charan to meet her groom. Isaac, meanwhile, “went out to pray in the field towards evening, and he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, camels were approaching.”
The Midrash comments, “Where was he coming out from? From the Garden of Eden.” Isaac ascended there, alive, for the period of time preceding his marriage to Rebecca.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe -- Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory -- wonders what we are meant to learn from this unusual midrash about Isaac. Our forefathers paved the ideal path for all of their Jewish children to follow. In fact, at the most subtle and profound level, the story of each of our lives parallels the story of their lives. Isaac had a completely miraculous, transcendental experience in the Garden of Eden, but how is that miracle relevant to us?
Isaac consciously prepared to meet his soulmate and build an everlasting home with her. He ascended to the Garden of Eden, where he would be fully protected from any negative forces until he met Rebecca. That’s a powerful message about how to prepare for a wedding. Create your own Garden of Eden and hang out there for a while.
In the Garden of Eden, negativity was not tolerated. In fact, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they were repelled from the Garden. This wasn’t a punishment so much as a natural consequence. The Garden of Eden is intolerant of negativity and immediately ejects anything that presents a threat to its integrity. It’s a safe zone for joy and pleasure so long as nothing violates its sanctity.
You thought that paradise begins after marriage. In fact, it begins immediately after firmly recognizing your soulmate and committing to him or her. And it ends right before marriage.
Paradise is the time of engagement.
But it’s a paradise that is built through a protective buffer that repels negativity. And ironically, there is so much potential for negativity during engagement. There is the stress of planning the greatest party ever, with you at center stage. There is so much room for friction between family members. But perhaps the opportunity for the most mishap is between the bride and groom themselves. Flaws can suddenly surface that you didn’t see while you were dating, and suddenly you’re filled with doubts. Or boundaries of intimacy can be crossed that were never meant to be. The sanctity of the relationship is always competing with the couple’s attraction, and the relationship can become entangled just before it’s about to begin.
The Garden of Eden needs strong guards to protect its beauty. And the months of engagement need to be that Garden, strongly safeguarded from negativity. So keep your head focused on what is really important. If you were lucky enough to have found your soulmate, what’s really important is gaining all the tools possible to build a sustainable life together.
Every couple wants a beautiful wedding, and yes, you do need to spend time planning for it. But when the wedding is over and done, the band is packing up, and the caterers are collecting those last desserts -- that’s when the rest of your life starts. In the Garden of Eden time, you have a chance to deepen your appreciation for what the rest of your life should look like.
So, engagement is the time when we pull back a bit in order to move forward. It’s an opportunity to invest in the future. Amid all the chaos of wedding preparations, we are challenged to create the atmosphere of Eden. The Rebbe’s advice for maximized engagement time is to pray and study Torah on a consistent basis. It’s also a time to be introspective about inappropriate relationships or fantasies we’ve had in the past, a time to ask for G‑d’s forgiveness and cleansing so that we can enter into this new relationship with a fresh start.
I’m enjoying my weekly learning with Kayla. I’m vicariously enjoying her Garden of Eden. May G‑d bless her and her chatan with many joyous years together.