Last week’s parashah was Chaye Sarah. An eventful portion, it includes the death of Sarah, and the remarriage and then death of Abraham. Between the two deaths, however, Abraham arranges to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham sends his most trusted servant, Eliezar, who encounters Rebecca at the well. Rebecca learns of Eliezar’s mission and consents to return with him to become Isaac’s wife. Upon their arrival in the Negev, where Isaac was living, the text tells us:
Isaac was out walking in the field … and, looking up, he saw camels approaching. Raising her eyes, Rebecca saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel and said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master, [Isaac].” So she took her veil and covered herself. Then the servant told Isaac all … that he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.
This passage includes the first mention of romantic love in the Torah. We’ve already met Adam and Eve, Noah and his wife, Noah’s sons and their wives, and Abraham and Sarah. But we never read of love in any of the previous relationships. It’s possible to infer love, even possibly romantic love, but the Torah is completely silent until Isaac and Rebeccah.
Rabbi Ya’akov Weinberg once used a business analogy to describe marriage. “A marriage is not a partnership,” he said. “A marriage is a merger. In a partnership, each partner demands an accounting to settle a proper distribution of profits. Although each partner engages in a joint effort for the benefit of the partnership, each still has his personal interests in mind. A merger, however, fuses the interests of both business entities. Two separate and distinct companies integrate into a new, unified whole which functions for one common goal. No longer is each entity centered on promoting its own interests.”
I like these words – that marriage is a merger, not a partnership – perhaps because in my relationship, I am denied the right in most parts of the country to use the word “marriage” and I instead I must use the word “partner.” In fact, in my former state, New Jersey, unlike New Hampshire where I live now, the legislature rejected the effort to eliminate civil union partnerships for same-sex couples and replace them with same-sex marriage.
On more than once occasion in my life, the person with whom I was speaking assumed my partner Shira and I were in business together when I referred to her as my partner.
We are thrilled to finally live in a state in which our legal marriage is recognized as such. It wasn’t easy to get there. We have had five ceremonies in three different states to achieve legal marriage. It happened in 2008, when we were in California during the brief window when same-sex marriage was legal in the Golden State.
In states that have civil unions, those laws are supposed to provide same-sex couples with 100% equality of benefits and treatment that are afforded heterosexually married couples in that state. The reality, however, is far from that. Couple after couple is denied rights or treated differently. Many employers in New Jersey refuse to recognize civil unions as equal to marriage, and therefore do not grant equal health benefits to partners of employees. Employers and hospitals say that if the legislature intended for the civil union law to be the same as marriage, the legislature would have used the same name.
Civil unions will never achieve the equality of marriage. Vermont enacted the country’s first civil union law in 2000, inventing the term “civil union.” For nine years, Vermont waited for civil unions to grow to be the equal of marriage, but it never happened. That’s why Vermont changed its civil union law to marriage equality in 2009, as did New Hampshire.
Just about a year ago, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee passed a bill to repeal same-sex marriage law and re-replace them with civil unions. Thankfully, the bill failed to get out of committee.
What happened on election night this year was monumental. Maine, Maryland, and Washington State all enacted same-sex marriage, after 32 straight defeats in previous statewide ballot referendums on marriage equality. And Minnesota rejected an effort to define marriage as one man and one woman.
Add to this the election of Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. Tammy will enter the Senate as the first openly gay or lesbian person in the U.S. elected to that body. The outcomes of these five initiatives and candidacies – along with openly gay or lesbian candidates of both parties being elected in various state and local elections – represent a qualitative shift in our society. And for me, the most important message it sends is to our young people – that no matter who you are, how you feel, and who you love – you are a child of God, created in the image of God, and you have much to live for. Perhaps these votes will lessen the bullying … and the suicides. I can’t thank the voters of this country enough for speaking loudly and siding with fairness, equality, and love.
In last week’s parashah, Isaac knew love and married Rebecca. Their son Jacob, too, eventually married the woman he loved, Rachel, after first marrying her sister, Leah.
Several years ago, I asked a seventh grade class to tell me all the reasons two people may be denied the right to marry. We began with Jacob and Rachel – they could not marry at first because in their culture the older daughter must get married before the younger. The kids listed tons of other reasons – age, religious differences, war dividing nations, class barriers, and being of the same sex, to name just a few. They focused on that last one and thought it was utterly ridiculous for same-sex couples to be denied the right to marry.
These seventh graders are now in college. Many voted this past Tuesday for the first time. The direction our society is heading in is in their hands, and they let us know what we can expect. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s celebrate love. Let’s celebrate a table, a tent, even a chuppah, that is big enough to hold us all.
Robin Nafshi, firstname.lastname@example.org, serves with joy as the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob, in Concord, NH.