This week in the Torah off goes Abraham's servant to find a wife for Isaac. Stopping at a well in the desert, the servant sees Rebecca. Her skin is olive dark, she is young, graceful and soft. Rebecca offers him water and then waters his camels too. It is not her beauty, but her kindness toward the servant and his animals that makes Rebecca a suitable wife. Soon, Rebecca agrees to travel back with the servant and marry Isaac.
At journey's end she sees Isaac walking alone in a distant field. He grieves and aches from his mother Sarah’s death, walking in a loneliness profound and dark. Then, as the Torah simply says: “Isaac took Rebecca as his wife. And he loved her.”
He took Rebecca as his wife and he loved her sounds sweet and simple enough. But actually, if you stop to think about it, the Torah seems to have things a little backwards. Shouldn't it have said that Isaac loved Rebecca and then took her as his wife? Isn't that the way it usually works; first comes love, then comes marriage? Why this change in the Torah? Why marriage and then love, instead of the way we're used to hearing it?
My guess is that the answer to that question--the point of Torah's seemingly backward juxtaposition--is known to virtually every married person reading this message. We know it takes a certain kind of love to spark a marriage--but it takes a deeper, more seasoned love to make it last.
Over the years, whenever I meet a couple married for more than fifty years I always ask them how they managed to keep it together. One man said, “Well, we have an agreement that whoever wants to get divorced has to take the kids.”
The woman in another couple married almost sixty years leaned over and said, “You have to care about the other person more than you care about yourself.”
“There are only three words you need to stay married as long as I have,” another crusty old man told me. “Yes my empress.” Women I have told that story to like it a lot.
If ever a couple understood what it takes to stay married, Bob and Cindy were it. I met them at the end of a floatplane trip deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Most of the year they live on a forty-foot boat surrounded by nothing but forest and water. There are no roads and it’s a hundred miles by plane to the nearest neighbors.
Occasionally, fisherman from one of those lodges a hundred miles away will fly into the bay where they anchor their boat to spend the day halibut fishing. Bob and Cindy never really know whether or not they will have company on any given day during the fishing season. Often, the weather is too lousy for flying. In fact, most of the time, Bob and Cindy are alone, day after day with nowhere to go but forty feet of boat.
Bob is tall and wiry. His skin is leathery and sunburned beneath his eyes and his hands are scarred and rough as sandpaper. He smells like halibut and diesel. Cindy is pretty in a plain sort of way. Thin, dirty blond hair streaked with gray. Sparkling blue eyes and a kind smile with lines of weather and age cut deep in her face. She smells like halibut and diesel too.
After an hour or so of uneventful fishing, I can’t help but ask Cindy and Bob the obvious question. “How do you guys make this work? Just the two of you out here alone for months with only forty feet of boat. How do you stay married?”
“Well, you have to be pretty good friends to begin with,” Cindy tells me. “Then, there’s just one simple thing you have to be able to do to stay on this boat and stay in love. Get over it. Whatever it is that’s bothering you. Whatever it is the other person said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do—get over it.”
I think about Cindy’s answer as I continue to fish. Halibut fishing is boring most of the time. It involves dropping a huge squid baited hook about one hundred and fifty feet down, just shy of the bottom. Then, you stand for hours lifting the hook a few feet and letting it settle back down near the bottom again. Lift and settle, lift and settle, lift and settle, while the waves in the bay rock to the sea’s gentle rhythm. Like I said, it’s boring.
Until you hook a halibut. Halibut can run up to 150 or 200 pounds. You know you’re in for some fun when Bob or Cindy look at the bend in your rod and shout three marvelous words: “Get the belt!” The belt is a leather and Velcro contraption with a little pouch in front to hold the end of the rod. The belt gives you leverage and takes the load off your forearms and back. The belt means you’re in for an hour of pulling and sweating, give and take, until Bob yells out three words even more wonderful than “Get the belt.” Three words every halibut fisherman lives to hear: “It’s a shooter.”
A “shooter” refers to a fish so large you actually have to shoot it with a shotgun when it gets alongside the boat. If you don’t shoot it before you hoist it on board, it can literally send you crashing to the deck with a smack of its tail. Shooters are rare. Most of the time, it’s lift and settle, lift and settle, lift and settle, with an occasional twenty-five pounder easily pulled up on deck in a matter of minutes. I never feel cheated if the fish are small. For me, shooters aren’t what it’s about. I like the monotony of it all. The calm. The way the light dances off the blue-gray water. The modest pursuit of quiet, connection, and sway. Lift and settle, lift and settle.
Strange as it sounds, I think about how much marriage and family is like halibut fishing—especially now when we are all spending so much time cooped up together in our homes that no matter how large or small, modest or fancy, feel as small and confining as that 40 foot boat; especially if we have little kids at home driving us nuts.
Like a shooter, there is occasional excitement in a pandemic life—a wedding, a baby, an election, a magnificent bar or bat mitzvah, kids getting into college—but mostly it’s a lot of lift and settle; a lot of time doing the same things, wearing the same things, eating the same things, and watching the same things over and over and over again. During a pandemic we either go with the steady rhythm of daily life, or we go crazy.
I love the pace of life right now, even though I long for more freedom and good health for all. I love that I am home in the morning to bring Betsy coffee and snuggle in our flannel pajamas. I relish the way we can sit at dinner without having to talk and know there is so much unspoken love between us. It’s the way I look at her after thirty-five years and say with a deep sense of satisfaction, “We’re old and married.” It’s how good we have become at forgiving each other. We have to be. Those of us who have managed to stay married for a decade or two or six understand that marriage is about being in the same boat far from shore, riding out the lift and the settle, the lift and the settle, learning to get over it, whatever it is.
For Isaac and Rebecca, for Betsy and me, for us all, especially now, family life is routine, steady, boring even; we are deep into the lift and the settle of it all. This Shabbat let us pause to feel and think about the gentle, rhythmic rocking of our lives with gratitude for the simple, hard-earned, blessed beauty of it all…