Eishet Chayil: Finding What Was Lost
A world you would share with Logan Killicks is evidently not the same world you would share with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Janie’s progress through three marriages: “She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off.”
People who love Hurston will probably enjoy “Middlemarch,” itself a story of a girl who takes some time to find the man she really loves. It is about the discovery of self in and through another. (Zadie Smith: “Changing My Mind”)
Whenever I sing “Eishet Chayil,” “A woman of valor; who can find?” I cannot help but think whether we are familiar with the idea of “discovering ourselves in and through an other,” in this case, a spouse, more specifically; a wife.
Perhaps we can translate the opening verse of the song (not the opening verse of the final chapter of Proverbs) as, “Who has learned to find himself in his relationship with his wife of valor?”
We understandably fear teaching this aspect of relationship lest we fall into the same trap as Hurston’s Janie, and Rand’s Dagny Talbot. We certainly do not want our children to feel that they can flit and float from one relationship to another as they find someone who will help them discover new and different parts of themselves.
However, the Sages teach that the search for the right partner in life is a search for self; “As a person searching for something precious that he lost.” His soul knows that there is that perfect soulmate, and searches for her. The soul searches for the person who mill complete him. King Solomon, he with the thousand wives, insisted on speaking of finding and discovery in marriage.
We encourage our children to search for the right Shidduch, their “Bashert,” as they say, but we do not teach them how to join in a process of self-discovery, the process meant by Solomon’s challenge, “A woman of valor; who can find?”
When the Midrash Tanchumah describes this chapter as Abraham’s eulogy for Sarah, they are describing one of the most accomplished human beings in history insisting that he became who he was – he discovered himself – only through Sarah. He could no longer be a searcher or discoverer. Abraham had to send Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac.
Let us read this chapter so familiar from Shabbat meals and weddings as a guide to using marriage as a process of discovery: