Towards the end of Parashat Toledot (28:9), we read of Esav’s marriage to his first cousin, Machalat, the daughter of Yishmael. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3) notes that later in Sefer Bereishit (36:3), the Torah refers to this woman by the name Bosmat, and not Machalat. To reconcile this apparent contradiction, the Yerushalmi suggests that her true name was Bosmat, but she is called Machalat when the Torah speaks of her marrying Esav to allude to the fact that Esav’s sins were forgiven on the day he got married. The name “Machalat” relates to the root m.ch.l – “forgive” – and thus alludes to the special opportunity for forgiveness granted to Esav at that time. This is the source of the famous tradition that a bride and groom earn atonement for all their sins on their wedding day.
Rav Avraham Danzig (author of Chayei Adam), in his work Tosefot Chayim (132:58), cites several sources claiming that a bride and groom earn atonement only if they perform teshuva. Just as Halakha follows the view that Yom Kippur provides atonement for our sins only if we undergo repentance, similarly, a bride and groom must repent in order to take advantage of the unique opportunity for atonement offered by the occasion of their wedding.
Some have argued, however, that atonement is achieved on one’s wedding day irrespective of his or her repentance. They draw proof from the fact that this entire concept is sourced in Esav’s marriage, and it is difficult to imagine that a wicked man like Esav repented. The Tolna Rebbe related that this argument was advanced by the Rav of Tchebin (Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, 1881-1965) in the presence of the Beit Yisrael (Rav Yisrael Alter, the fifth Gerer Rebbe, 1894-1977), who strongly objected to this theory and refuted the argument. He noted that it is quite possible that Esav repented, and he proceeded to cite several sources suggesting that Esav was a more complex character that we might have thought, and may very well have repented, at least to some degree, at the time of his marriage to Bosmat.
We might add that Esav’s marriage to Bosmat (as we saw yesterday) was indeed the result of some degree of soul-searching on Esav’s part. The Torah writes explicitly that Esav married Bosmat upon reflecting on how his father disapproved of his marriage to two Chittite women. He decided to improve the situation, however slightly, by marrying Yishmael’s daughter, who was from Yitzchak’s family. Although this decision does not necessarily amount to full teshuva the way we commonly use the term, and the Torah even says that Esav married Bosmat “in addition to his wives,” indicating that he did not divorce his Chittite wives, nevertheless, Esav’s change of heart is deemed significant. He at least acknowledged that his marriage to Chittite women caused his father distress, and decided to rectify the situation in some small measure.
On this basis, we might suggest a third possibility regarding the question of whether a bride and groom must repent to earn atonement on their wedding day. If, indeed, Esav serves as the model of a newlywed couple’s atonement, then perhaps the Yerushalmi is teaching that even small, seemingly insignificant measures of growth and improvement assume particular importance on the day one marries. The special quality of this day enables the couple to access God’s compassion and forgiveness through small steps, through genuine feelings of remorse and by contemplating change. Chazal are thus reminding us of the potential laden within each and every minor step towards self-improvement, how even Esav’s ever so slight change of heart sufficed to earn him atonement when the opportunity presented itself. We should never discount the importance of any small step or small measure we take to improve, because each one holds the potential of growing and developing into the full-fledged transformation that we should be seeking.