It was love at first sight; lightning that hit my heart and bowled me over. But like two star-crossed lovers, fate seemed determined to keep us apart. Normally, I would take my new love interests to meet my parents. But that was not possible. So I took her to meet my sergeant.
Romance novels all describe the impossible love that overcomes all obstacles. But the Torah has even the most extreme romance novels beat. Imagine going out to war. You have just finished the battle. Covered in grime, wearing sweaty green fatigues and clutching a still-smoking rifle, you enter a city that you have just bombed into rubble.
And there she stands, the enemy. You have no common language or culture. But you know that this is love. What do you do? The Torah actually has the answer.
In preparation for entering Israel and conquering the land, the Torah teaches about how to be holy in war. One consideration is male soldiers encountering enemy women and falling in love. Though this eventuality may not appear in an army training manual, it is a real possibility and, as such, the Torah tries to guide us through the spiritual implications. The Jewish soldier may not give himself over to his animalistic impulses. He must first bring her into his house in an honorable fashion, trimming her hair and nails to intentionally make her less attractive. He must allow her to mourn for her family. Only then may the Jewish man marry her. And if he chooses not to, he may not enslave her or treat her dishonorably (Deuteronomy 21:10-14, The Israel Bible p. 489).
But even after all these precautions and preparations and despite the absolute impossible romance leading up to the marriage, the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi states that such couples are destined for failure. Even after falling madly in love and bringing her home from the battlefront, the Jewish man will end up hating her. These marriages that come out of war will inevitably end in divorce.
How can Rashi say such a thing? Doesn’t he appreciate love and romance?
What Rashi sees, that most modern romance novelists miss, is that love that is based on physical attraction is destined to wane and disappear. This soldier is attracted to the woman’s beauty. In the heat of battle, they surely have not had a chance to get to know each other and there were probably few opportunities for meaningful conversation.
The Mishnah (Avot 5:16) teaches, “Any love that is dependent on a specific cause will be gone when the cause is gone. But a love that is not dependent on a specific cause will never disappear.”
What kind of love is independent of any cause? When someone asks me why I love my wife, I can provide them with a long list of ‘causes’ and reasons. Of course, my wife is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. But there is a lot more to our marriage than that.
Rabbi Ovadia MiBartenura (15th-century Italy) noted that while it is true that every love depends on something, there is a difference between whether the foundation of the relationship is physical or spiritual. Just as our physical existence is temporary, physically-based relationships are by nature temporary. Once the attractive physical attributes are gone, the love will also disappear. Spiritual qualities, however, are eternal – so a love that depends on spiritual attributes will last forever.
On top of the Ark of the Covenant were the Cherubim, facing each other. The space between them was shielded from view by their wings. Jewish tradition teaches that the Shechina, God’s holy presence, existed in that space. Similarly, the Shechina does not dwell in the body of the husband or the wife. It dwells in that holy space that the husband and wife have created between them.
When a soldier meets a woman at war, the extreme nature of the meeting is unreal and the drama of battle heightens emotion. But marriage is a different setting, focused on building a life together and on creating a shared space in which the Divine presence can dwell. The initial physical attraction will disappear with time as passion fades and people age. But this deeper love, based on the spiritual plane, grows stronger each day.