The Person We Marry

Vayeitzei, Genesis 28:10−32:3

D'Var Torah By: Jonathan H. Gerard

Focal Point

And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban . . . Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock. . . . Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. (Genesis 29:10-11)

D'var Torah

Context: After tricking his brother Esau out of his spiritual birthright, Jacob flees from Esau's wrath to Haran, his mother Rebekah's birthplace. Isaac instructs Jacob to take a wife from among the daughters of Laban, Rebekah's brother.

Psychologists, philosophers, rabbis, justices of the peace, and even parents all have theories to explain why we choose the ones we marry—but no one knows for certain how people fall in love. The writer of this week's Torah portion seems to be an exception. It's all here.

The two paradigms that dominate the discourse among researchers are presented here. Consider one or both as they apply to you.

The first model conforms to our experience of "love at first sight," but it is actually more complicated than that. It has to do with the nature of the unconscious. Freud theorized that each of us is born with an empty unconscious that, over time, gets filled with repressed memories. Carl Jung rejected Freud's theory and hypothesized that everyone is born with an unconscious filled with "archetypes" or pictures. These archetypes tell our conscious brains what certain ideal behaviors look and feel like. Thus a woman's "mother archetype" governs her mothering behavior, and a man's "wise old man" archetype governs his idea of God. Jung said that men and women also have archetypes of their ideal soul mates embedded deep within their psyches. (Jung called the male and female archetypes the anima and animus, respectively.) These archetypes are not rigid; they can be modified by the experiences and impressions we have of our parents and cultural ideals, for example, Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant.

When we encounter someone who matches our anima (or animus), something beyond our control occurs. The real person's presence awakens the archetypes that we carry within. We see a person in front of us who looks just like our soul mate archetype, and we imagine that this real person is our soul mate. This process is called projection. We project onto the person in front of us the characteristics of our anima (or animus). We assume that in addition to being physically attractive, the person we have just met also possesses all the characteristics of our archetype, for example, kindness, compassion, selflessness, self-confidence, protecting, erotic, and so on. We fall in love with that person quicker than we ever thought possible.

Of course the problem is that we don't really know a thing about that person. What we believe to be true is what we have unconsciously projected on him or her. And what gets projected is the soul-mate archetype, a part of each person's own psyche. So, we fall in love with parts of ourselves, not with the other person.

Soon enough, this becomes a problem. But for the moment it is exhilarating. We think we have found the perfect person in the whole world. And if we also look anything like this other person's soul-mate archetype, sparks will fly. (Note: It is not necessarily appearance; it can be any aspect of a person that triggers an archetypal response in the other. Self-confidence or, sadly, neediness, can be the hook.) In any event, from this moment on, disappointment follows. But it can be temporary.

Why is there disappointment? It is because the person will NOT conform to our anima or animus. The person is a real, complex, multidimensional, self-contradictory human being—like every person—with a history of relationships and values and attitudes and experiences that are, at first, invisible to us.

Thus if the relationship is to succeed, two things have to happen. We have to unlearn everything you assumed to be true about this person. And we need to learn who this person really is. This is a long process. And it can be tumultuous. Many turbulent relationships are chaotic precisely because one or the other or both partners struggle to force the other to conform to his or her archetype rather than accept the person as he or she truly is. This comes out in such postmarital laments as, "You've changed." Of course the person hasn't really changed. We're just finally seeing the real person we married.

In our Torah portion Jacob thought he married Rachel. When he woke up, he found he'd married Leah. A midrash explains how the deception could have occurred. Rachel hid under the marriage bed, and when Jacob spoke, Rachel answered, thus participating in the deception that enabled Jacob to make love to Leah (Eichah Rabbah, proem 24). The two women acted as one: they are both present at Jacob's marital bed.

Rachel and Leah represent two aspects of the partners we marry. Rachel matched Jacob's anima. The moment he saw her he fell in love, kissed her passionately, and his libido emboldened, rolled a humungous rock away from the opening of the well (Genesis 29:10-11).

Leah represents the second paradigm about marriage. Leah was the wife whom Jacob would come to love over the long haul. By bearing the majority of his children and persevering over a long life of family building, Leah embodied the family values that enabled Jacob, and Judaism, to survive. Rachel is beautiful, but her reality is fleeting. Leah (from the Hebrew m'leah, which means "full") is the woman Jacob married in her fullness.

Dr. Norman J. Cohen quotes a midrashic tradition that has Jacob saying, "...Through my relationship with Leah I have learned about the complexities of life and what is most important. . . . [Unlike with Rachel] I share with Leah a sense of devotion and sharing that will bind us together forever" ( Voices from Genesis [Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1988], p. 117). Many of us, too, marry a Rachel but wake up to someone else.

The narrative of Rachel and Leah illustrates the two ways a man or woman often comes to know and love a spouse—first as anima projection and then as real partner.

By the Way

  • In Childhood and Society (New York: Norton, 1993), Erik Erikson outlines eight stages of life. In the sixth stage (young adulthood, ages 19-40), a person learns to form mature relationships, characterized by love, intimacy, and long-term commitment. Note how long it takes.
  • When Eve is created to be for Adam an eizer k'negdo (a helpmate) her purpose is to reflect back to Adam, as a mirror, the falsity he sees, in order that he can learn to discern the truth of what lies before him. (Midrash)

Your Guide

  1. Discuss with your partner how you fell in love.
  2. What was the greatest obstacle to your appreciating your partner for his or her true self?
  3. What was the greatest reward? The greatest disappointment?
  4. Is it reasonable to expect your partner to conform to your ideal soul mate?
  5. How truthful should a partner be in reflecting back a person's false perceptions of reality?
  6. Why does it make sense to see Rachel and Leah as two aspects of the same woman?

Rabbi Jonathan H. Gerard is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Covenant of Peace in Easton, Pennsylvania.