The family is the true ecumenical experience of all humankind. Edwin H. Friedman
Parashat B’reisheet (Gen. 1:1-6:8) tells of the beginning of all things, including marriage, which is the first of all human relationships, the foundation of every human family. God himself brings the first woman to the first man, and the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Therefore, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23–24).
This foundational verse is loaded with real-life implications, and Messiah Yeshua himself cited it to define marriage as an inviolable life-time covenant (Matt. 19:4–5). I’ve always wondered, though, why it says the man shall leave his father and mother. After all, in the stories of betrothal in Genesis, it’s usually the woman who leaves her family and goes off to join the man and his family. That’s certainly the case in the beautiful story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah. And even in the story of Jacob, who has to leave his family and homeland to find a wife, the outcome is that he finally returns to his native land with his wives, and they leave “father and mother” to cleave to him. But this may be the exact point of Genesis 2:24. In the ancient world, everyone knows that the woman leaves father and mother when she marries a man. What’s less obvious, but equally, or perhaps even more, important is that the man must leave the nest as well—even if he stays put physically.
In counseling married couples (which I do both as a rabbi and also part-time as a clinical mental health counselor), I often find myself dealing with a husband who hasn’t left his father and mother. He and his wife may live a thousand miles away from the parents, but he’s still expecting from his wife the same sort of approval and support that he used to get—or couldn’t ever get—from his parents. Or, in the way he treats his wife, he’s still working out old unforgiveness and resentment against his parents. The recent Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” noted how Franklin Roosevelt, the only child of a wealthy and patrician family, was accustomed to the adoration of his mother, Sara Delano, which he never could get from his much more independently-minded wife, Eleanor. The distance between Franklin and Eleanor grew over the years and was compounded by his multiple affairs and dalliances.
In the terminology of Edwin Friedman, the rabbi and family therapist quoted above, Franklin—supremely confident leader that he was—failed to differentiate himself within his family. He hadn’t left father and mother enough to truly cleave to his wife, but kept his mother involved in what Friedman calls a “triangle” with himself and Eleanor the rest of his life.
There’s another revealing aspect to “leave and cleave,” which comes out in the letter to the Ephesians.
It quotes Genesis 2:24 and then says, “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Messiah and the kehila. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband” (Eph. 5:32–33). Like Genesis 2:24, this brief passage has been a puzzlement to me for years. It applies “the two shall become one flesh” to Messiah and his body, but the whole chapter is talking about husband-wife relations, which seems to be a more direct application of the one-flesh terminology. Most of Ephesians 5:21-33 refers to the relationship between Messiah and the kehila to illustrate the proper relationship between husband and wife. But here, toward the end of the chapter, it seems like the opposite: the husband-wife relationship illustrates the relationship between Messiah and his kehila. To turn this verse around to match the rest of the chapter, I’d expect it to read, “This mystery is profound, and I am applying it to a man and his wife. Each of you, therefore, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.”
I’m sure you’ll all agree that my version of Ephesians 5 is an improvement on the original. But it misses a profound point. The one-flesh union of man and woman in the beginning is a hint of a more intimate and foundational union that came later—that of Messiah and his people. More specifically, the “mystery” of a man leaving father and mother to cleave to his wife is made fully known in Messiah Yeshua leaving his father to cleave to his people. When we see what Messiah did to accomplish this union with us, the community of his followers, and how he now nourishes and cherishes us as his own body, it shows us how marriage between man and woman was really meant to be all along. So Ephesians explores the mystery introduced in Genesis 2:24 as it applies to Messiah and his people, and then opens up that mystery to show how husband and wife are to live together in Messiah.
For those who are married, of course, the implications are manifold. For those who are not married—or feel stuck in a marriage without real intimacy or satisfaction—the implications are more indirect, but no less encouraging. In today’s fragmented society there are many reasons for remaining single, and many reasons for a marriage to fail, and it’s not cause for blame or stigma. Instead, remember that marriage between one man and one woman is a reflection of a greater intimacy, which is the birthright of every member of Messiah’s body, the body that he nourishes and tenderly cares for (Eph. 5:28-30). Marriage is secondary; Messiah-kehila is primary, and every Yeshua-follower, married or single, is included in that bond.
As we renew our cycle of Torah readings this week at Simchat Torah (Oct. 16-17), we return to intensely Messianic Jewish space. We’re in Jewish space, of course, because we share in the cycle of weekly readings along with the entire Jewish world, and join the Jewish discussion of these readings that’s been thriving for two millennia. It’s Messianic space too, because from the beginning, the Torah pictures the fulfillment to come in Messiah Yeshua. The first wedding, the origin of all human relationships and foundation of every human family, is a signpost of the greater wedding that awaits us at the end of the age.