And [Eliezer] said: “I am the servant of Abraham. G-d has blessed my master exceedingly … and has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold… And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master in her old age; and to him he has given all that he possesses…”
“And to him he has given all that he possesses”: Eliezer showed them a deed of bequest in which Abraham had given Isaac all his possessions, so that they should hurry to send their daughter [to marry Isaac].
Rashi (ibid., verses 10 and 36)
Abraham lived for an additional thirty-five years after Isaac’s marriage to Rebecca, years in which he himself remarried and fathered six children. So was it advisable—or even permissible—for him to give away “all that he possesses” to Isaac? Surely half of Abraham’s considerable wealth would have sufficed to make Isaac an attractive match for Rebecca’s family.
Being and Naught
The created reality, as we know and experience it, has two dimensions: the physical and the spiritual. Physical things are those we perceive with our senses, or whose existence and qualities we infer from sensory data. “Spiritual” is our name for those realities which, even if their effect upon us is sensed and their existence proven by empirical evidence, are devoid of the qualities (substance, form, quantity, etc.) that make the physical object real to us. We know, for example, that we possess life, but we are unable to define or perceive what “life” is. We recognize and discuss realities such as “reason,” “will,” “love,” “souls,” “angels,” and “holiness,” but theirs is a spiritual existence—nebulous, ethereal and abstract rather than concrete, tangible and definitive.
It is for this reason that the spiritual is regarded as loftier and more G-dly, and the physical as “lowlier” and more distant from G-d. For the cardinal law of reality is that “There is none else beside Him”—that G-d is the only true existence, and that all other “existences” are but extensions and expressions of His being. It therefore follows that the more “reality” and “being” of its own a thing exhibits, the greater a concealment it is of the divine truth.
A physical thing manifestly is, and what is worse (from a spiritual standpoint) is that it presumes to be wholly self-defined and self-sufficient. When we ask the stone, “What are you? What is your source? What is your purpose? What is the significance of your existence?” it replies: “I am. As far as I’m concerned, I always was, always will be, and require no purpose and significance beyond the fact of my existence.” In contrast, a spiritual thing’s “existence” is defined not by its substance and presence but by its function—by the truth it expresses and the purpose it serves. Thus, the existence of the spiritual entity is less in conflict with the axiom “There is none else beside Him,” and it more readily serves, conveys and expresses the Divine.
There is, however, another side to the physical/spiritual differentiation. From where, indeed, stems the physical’s sense of self and unequivocality of being? As with everything in existence, this, too, derives from its divine source. Because G-d’s existence is absolute and unequivocal, because G-d cannot be defined by any function, purpose or significance other than the fact of His being, the physical object also exhibits these qualities. Ultimately, the physical object mirrors, rather than belies, the divine reality.
In other words, both the spiritual and the physical affirm the exclusivity and absoluteness of the divine, but in very different ways. The spiritual entity does so with its subservience and self-nullification (bittul). “I myself am nothing,” it proclaims, “I exist solely to reveal a higher truth.” The self-defined reality of the material world is a lie—a lie to be refuted by establishing the sovereignty of spirit over matter, of the ideal over the real. The “selfishness” of creation is to be quelled by imparting the recognition that G-d is the only true existence and that all else exists solely to serve Him and reveal His truth.
This is the spiritual perspective on reality. The physical perspective is an opposite one: that the material world is the ultimate conveyor of the divine reality. It is true that if one regards creation as something distinct from its Creator, the spiritual is “closer” to G-d: it has less of a “self” and is less “real,” and is thus less of a contradiction of “There is none else beside Him.” But if one delves beneath the surface reality of a world separate from G-d and comprehends that the entirety of creation is but an expression of His truth, then the physical expresses a deeper element of His truth. The spiritual conveys certain divine qualities (divine wisdom, benevolence, infinity, transcendence, etc.) while the physical bespeaks the divine being, mirroring the absoluteness, unequivocality and utter autonomy of G-d’s existence.
It follows, therefore, that the ultimate manifestation of divine truth requires a union of the spiritual and the physical. It requires a spiritual subjugation of the physical’s claim to self-sufficiency and separateness of being, which is ostensibly antithetical to the divine truth. And it requires the cultivation of that very self-sufficiency as the ultimate expression of the divine reality.
This is the purpose of life on earth. It is to this end that the soul, a spiritual being par excellence, enters the physical body and assumes a physical existence. It is to this end that it performs the mitzvot, remaking physical deeds and physical objects into implements of divine will. In the words of the Tanya, “This is what man is all about; [this is] the purpose of his creation and the creation of all worlds, supernal and lowly—that G-d should have a dwelling place (i.e., an environment hospitable to His presence and expressive of His truth) in the lowly (i.e., physical) realms.” When a physical object assumes spiritual subservience to G-d, there is no greater affirmation of the divine truth.
The First Mitzvah
Marriage is the human equivalent of this union of spirit and matter.
Man and woman are the spiritual and physical elements of the human world. Man is a “spiritual” being in the sense that he is a warrior—a creature who comes to challenge the status quo and impose his will on the environment. Woman is “physical” in the sense that she is a nurturer—one who seeks to cultivate and identify with reality rather than master it or supplant it. Man conquers, woman develops. Man achieves, woman is.
Thus our sages have said: “This world we traverse is comparable to a wedding.” “Be fruitful and multiply” is the first divine commandment issued to man, for the imperative to “cleave to one’s wife and become one flesh” is the essence of life and the reason we are here: to effect the union of spirit and matter.
This is why Abraham invested “all that he possessed” in the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca. As the first Jewish marriage described by the Torah, it is the prototype of all subsequent Jewish marriages, both in the literal sense of “building a home in Israel” and in the broader sense of making the world a “dwelling place” for G-d. In this endeavor is invested everything that Abraham possesses: all the resources—spiritual and material—with which the Almighty supplies His people to the end of realizing His purpose in creation.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5752 (1991)
. Cf. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Erech- and Cherem-Donations, 8:13: “A person should never donate (to charity) all his possessions. One who does so acts contrary to the will of the Torah, which states (Leviticus 27:28): “[The donation that a person shall donate to G-d] from all that he possesses”— from all that he possesses, and not all that he possesses.”
. See quote from Tanya ch. 33, cited below.
. Deuteronomy 4:35.
. The soul is a “spark of G-dliness” whose very “self” is the striving to nullify itself within the all-embracing reality of its source. (This is why the soul is called [Proverbs 20:27] “the lamp of G-d”: just as the flame yearns upwards, striving to tear free of the wick, despite the fact that should it succeed in doing so, this would spell the end of its very existence as a flame, so, too, does the soul constantly strive to tear free of its earthly tether, the body, and be absorbed within the being of G-d, despite the fact that this would means its dissolution as a distinct being.) See Tanya, ch. 19.
. E.g. animal hide into tefillin, flour and water into matzah, money into charity, etc.
. Ibid., ch. 33.
. Talmud, Eruvin 54a.
. Genesis 1:28.
. Ibid., 2:24.
. Accordingly, the union of man and woman brings to light the ultimate in human potential. Man is a finite being, so all his faculties (sight, hearing, intellect, etc.) are finite in range and scope. All, that is, except for his faculty of regeneration: children multiply into grandchildren and great-grandchildren ad infinitum—there is no inherent limit as to how many generations can issue from a single union between man and woman (hence the phrase “eternal edifice” in the marriage benedictions). Paradoxically, the infinity and eternity in man is revealed not in one of his higher, “spiritual“ faculties, but in the most physical of them. In this, man, who was created in the image of G-d, reflects his Creator: the ultimate divine manifestation is not in the most sublime spiritual spheres, but in the most corporeal of His creations—the physical universe.
. Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. I, pp. 100-106, et al.