Attraction between the sexes is a complex issue. There are many different theories explaining what attracts men and women to each other. Some theorize that opposites attract. Others posit that it is odor that causes the attraction.

Still others hypothesize that men marry women who remind them of their mothers and women marry men who remind them of their fathers[1]. An enigmatic verse in the Bible seems to shed light on this. The Bible[2] tells the fascinating story of how after the death of the matriarch Sarah, Abraham’s servant Eliezer was sent to find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer finds a suitable bride in Rebecca and brings her back to Isaac for his approval.

“And Isaac brought her into the tent, Sarah his mother and he took Rebecca and she became his wife and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted for his mother[3].” What does the verse mean when it says that Isaac took Rebecca, “into the tent, Sarah his mother” surely it should have said that he took her “into the tent of Sarah his mother”? Also why did he have to bring her into the tent of Sarah before he decided to take her as a wife?

The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) explains this in the following manner: When Isaac brought Rebecca into his tent he realized that she was exactly like Sarah his mother. Thus, we must fill in the missing words and the verse should read as follows, “And Isaac brought her into the tent [upon which he realized that she was exactly like] Sarah his mother.” The similarity between Rebecca and Sarah caused Isaac to be attracted to Rebecca to the extent that he took her as a wife as the verse states, “And he loved her and became comforted for his mother.”

It seems that the Bible concurs with pop wisdom that says that, “Men marry women who remind them of their mothers.” The Midrash[4] – quoted by Rashi – however says that the similarity between Rebecca and Sarah was not to do with either personality, odor or body type. Rather there were three miracles that characterized Sarah’s tent. Firstly the lights that were lit on Friday before Shabbat burned until the following Friday. Secondly there were always miraculous increases in the dough. And thirdly the Divine presence hovered over her tent. When Sarah died all this stopped, however, when Rebecca moved in these miracles returned. It was this that convinced Isaac that Rebecca was indeed fitting to become his wife and his love for her intensified to the extent that he was comforted for the death of his mother.

These three things – lights burning all week long, blessing in the dough and the Divine presence over the tent – represent three fundamental values of Jewish life. Light represents peace, tranquility and happiness in the home. A blessing in the dough represents the commandment where while kneading dough for bread one should separate a small piece that in Temple times was given to the Cohen and today is burned. This commandment is symbolic of all biblical commandments that demand one give of oneself for another, be it God or a fellow human. The hovering of the Divine presence relates to the purity and sacredness that is brought into the home. All three are interconnected. If husband and wife are unable to rise above petty ego battles so that they can live in peace and harmony, if a couple cannot make room for each other how can they be expected to do so for God.

The opposite is also true. In Hebrew the word for man, I’sh, contains the letter Hay and the word for woman, I’sha, contains the letter Yud. These two letters together – Yud and Hay – make up the name of God. Our sages tell us that if man and wife allow God – the Yud and the Hay – into their lives they will survive as a happy couple. However, if they do not allow space for God in their lives ultimately they will end up not having place for each other either. If one takes the letter Hay out of Isha (woman) and the Yud out of Ish (man) one is left with the word Aish which means fire[5]. The lesson is clear: a romantic relationship that has no room for God has little long-term prospect for happiness and peacefulness – it will ultimately be consumed by destructive fire.

For a marriage to be successful it needs these two fundamental and interdependent characteristics: Sacrifice for God and sacrifice for the other person. A narcissistic self-centered person who cannot make room in their lives for God cannot be expected to be able to make room for other people either. One who is able to both place their spouses needs above their own and invite God into their home will merit a peaceful marriage over which the Divine presence will hover.

This is what Isaac was looking for in a wife. Isaac may have fallen head over heals in love with Rebecca the first time his eyes met hers. The initial attraction may indeed have had to do with the fact that Isaac and Rebecca were opposites who attracted each other or because Rebecca shared Sarah’s odor, looks or body type. However, the verse is telling us that the initial attraction, whatever its cause may have been, was not enough for Isaac; he would not marry Rebecca based on that alone. He first wanted to ensure that she had the values that would allow for a successful and therefore Godly marriage. He wanted to guarantee that she possessed the type of values his mother Sarah had embodied – the type of principles Jewish households have based themselves on throughout the generations.

[1] This concept is no doubt influenced by the Freudian Oedipus complex.
[2] Chayey Sara.
[3] Genesis. 24:67.
[4] Genesis Rabbah 60:16.
[5] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 12.