Kol Isha: A match made where?

Why does the Aggada describe the divine endeavor of matchmaking in terms of the simile "as difficult as splitting the Red Sea?"

couple love marriage 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
couple love marriage 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a conversation with Rabbi Yossi, a Roman matron was astounded when told that God, since the six days of creation, was preoccupied with matchmaking. "Why, how could that be so difficult?" she remarked, "I myself could do it." And Rabbi Yossi challenged her, with a warning: "It is as difficult for God to match a couple as splitting the Red Sea." The Roman matron then tried a Yenta-experiment, lining up 1,000 male servants and another 1,000 maidservants - "You marry her, you marry him" - matching them all up in one night. The next morning, disaster was evident all around - a bruise here, a cut there, broken limbs and black eyes. She asked them, "What happened?" This one said, "I don't want him" and that one said, "I don't want her". And the matron had to admit that there was no God like the God of Israel for truth (Gen. Rab. 68:4). This midrash is remarkable for its wry sense of humor and its insights into the complex psychology of matchmaking. The simile "as difficult as splitting the Red Sea," cries out for explanation. Most of us were raised on the notion that Jewish marriage should be a "match made in heaven," merely a matter of finding your beshert (soul mate). There is even a Web site called "Saw You at Sinai," as though that was the foundational moment, 3,500 years or so ago, when Mr. Cohen's and Ms. Levy's eyes met across a crowded room (or mountain base). Marriage is classically portrayed in terms of two individual who were destined for one another from birth as kindred spirits. So what's so difficult? The Talmud presents a contrast between the two types of marriage: "Rabba b. Bar Hanna said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: It is as difficult to match a couple as splitting the Red Sea; as it is said, "God restores the lonely to their homes, he sets the prisoners free, to prosperity..." (Ps. 68:7). But is this really so? For R. Yehuda said in the name of Rab: Forty days before the creation of a child, a heavenly voice issues forth and proclaims: the daughter of Ploni for Ploni...! There is no real contradiction, the latter dictum refers to a first marriage and the former to a second marriage" (B. Sota 2a). That is first love comes easily - as if a heavenly voice had decreed, even before conception, that Mr. Cohen and Ms. Levy were destined for one another. Mature love, however, is as difficult as parting the sea. As Samuel Johnson once wrote, "Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience." The difficulty, however, not only applies to a divorcee or widow who remarries, but extends to anyone who once lost love and must regain a sense of trust to love again. Why does the Aggada describe the divine endeavor of matchmaking in terms of the simile "as difficult as splitting the Red Sea"? Like the exodus from Egypt, a collective identity was forged through the narrow straits as the people walked on dry ground, a wall of water on either side of them. This was the birth moment of a nation, a miracle witnessed collectively - "even a maidservant at the Red Sea saw what the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah never saw" (Mechilta, Beshallah Shirata 3). Likewise a couple, when they finally find each other and commit to marriage, must pass through narrow straits, the contractions of birth that transform the independent consciousness into coupledom, as the proof text suggests, "God restores the lonely to their homes, he sets the prisoners free, to prosperity..." (Ps. 68:7). The mature marriage is a release into freedom from the bars of solitude, but that redemption is as difficult as carving dry ground out of water, holding back the torrent of nature, setting a boundary, once again, to the sea as God had done on the third day of creation. Yet why should God's Yenta-experiment be any more successful than the Roman matron's? It hinges on the sense of the greater divine hand, the miraculous nature of the match. When aware of the miracle of marriage, we are awed as the Israelites were when their feet trod on solid ground while the sound of roaring water and rushing chariots surrounded them. When we lose that sense of the miraculous, we are left with the cuts and bruises, the black eyes and broken limbs of disappointment in marriage. Whether searching for your soul mate or already married, I bless you all with the ability to sense the role of the divine hand, as waters held in abeyance, in the birth of a couple out of the narrow straits of your solitary selves. The writer lectures in Hebrew Bible and midrash at Matan, the Sadie Rennert Institute for Women's Torah Studies, in Jerusalem, as well as internationally.