By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
The occasion of beginning anew the annual Torah reading cycle gives us the opportunity to reflect upon one of the most important institutions in the world – marriage, which, like the universe itself, is created in Parashat Beresheet.
Soon after the creation of the first human being, Adam, Gd proclaims, “Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado– It is not good for man to be alone.” Judaism does not believe in the ideal of celibacy; it does not view marriage as a concession to desire that one should preferably avoid. The Torah considers marriage a mitzvahand family life the ideal way to live. In fact, in the times of the Bet Hamikdash, the kohen gadol(high priest) needed to be married in order to perform the special Yom Kippur service. On the one day in the entire year when we strive to be like angels, and seek to distance ourselves as far as possible from physicality, the holiest person in the nation, who would be entering that day the holiest place in the world (the innermost chamber of the Temple), had to have a wife. This is because in Judaism, marriage is not an obstacle to sanctity, but a vehicle of sanctity. Having a spouse does not undermine our quest for spirituality, but is rather an indispensable part of that lifelong process.
The question naturally becomes, why does the Torah require us to get married? Is marriage necessary only as a means to procreation, so we can continue populating the Earth in a proper, dignified manner? Do we need marriage partners only to help us in running the household and earning a living, so that we can share our responsibilities?
The Divine Image
As you probably guessed, the answer is absolutely no.
The reason for marriage is explained by the Torah, in the section that tells of the creation of man and woman. We read that after all the other world’s creatures were made, Gd then decided to create man “in His image.” The human being is fundamentally distinct from all other creatures, in that we are created in Gd’s image.
At first glance, the phrase “Gd’s image” is inherently self-contradictory. One of the basic tenets of Jewish faith is that Gd has no physical properties and thus no physical appearance. How, then, can we talk of a “divine image”? How can we be said to have been created in Gd’s image if He does not have an image?
The Zoharexplains the concept of the divine image with a cryptic remark: “The One who blew – blew from Himself.” Meaning, when Gd “blew” within the Adam his breath of life, He imbued Adam with certain “Gd-like” properties. When a person blows up a balloon, to take a very imperfect example, the air that fills the balloon originated from the person, and it can thus be said that the balloon contains part of that person. Somewhat analogously, when the Torah says that Gd “breathed” life into the human being, it means that He gave mankind part of Himself – meaning, certain qualities that we share only with Gd.
For example, just as Gd cannot be seen, and He is visible only through His actions, the human soul cannot be seen, and only its effects are visible. Gd is the creator, and human beings are uniquely endowed with the ability to create, to take the raw materials of nature and produce machines, microchips, medicines, and so much more. Gd is the world’s Judge, and He has given us, and only us, the ability to make moral judgments and distinguish between right and wrong. No other creature is endowed with this sense of morality. A consequence of this power is the ability of free will, to choose between good and evil, something which is unique to mankind and is modeled after the ultimate control and decision-making power that Gd exercises over the universe.
Another quality that we share with the Gd is the capacity to give. Gd is the ultimate Giver. He gives 24/7, without ever stopping. At every moment of the day, He keeps our hearts beating and the rest of our bodies functioning. He arranges and orchestrates events large and small to sustain and help us. He enables us to do everything we do, from breathing, walking, blinking and eating, to working, talking and earning a living. Gd gives and sustains the lives of trillions upon trillions of creatures at every moment, receiving nothing in return. We, who are created in Gd’s “image,” are likewise expected to live as givers. Whereas other creatures just look out for themselves, we are to give, give and give more. We are to overcome our innate, selfish instincts and follow Gd’s example of selfless giving.
For this reason, Gd proclaimed that “lo tov heyot ha’adam levado” – it is not good for a person to live alone. If we lived alone, we would care only for ourselves. We are to partner with another person so that we live not only for ourselves, but also for somebody else. This is why marriage is so vitally important – it enables us to express our “divine image” by living a life of selfless giving.
The Fallacy of “Love at First Sight”
This perception on marriage stands in stark contrast to the common understanding of marriage. Indeed, Judaism’s idea of “love” is very different from – and the opposite of, actually – the popular conception of love in general society.
Rav Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953) famously taught that love comes from giving. Parents love their children because they are constantly giving to their children. When we give and invest in something or someone, we see that thing or person as an extension of ourselves, thus creating a strong emotional bond. If a person returns from the grocery store with some tomatoes, and his friend as a prank takes one and throws it on the floor, he will likely find it amusing; but if he is carrying a bag of tomatoes from his garden, to which he devotedly tended for a long period of time, he would be furious. After having invested so much time and energy, he feels an emotional bond with these tomatoes.
Another example might be spectator sports. Why do so many of us “love” the Yankees? Even if they hit lots of home runs and win lots of games, have they done anything for us? Of course not. Fans “love” their team because of all the time and emotional energy they invest in it. They spend many hours watching the games and reading about and discussing the outcomes, they spend money to go the stadium, and they buy team shirts and hats. So when their team succeeds, the fans feel that they succeed, as well; and when the team fails, the fans feel that they have failed.
Hollywood has given us a grossly distorted view of love. We are shown relationships of “love” built solely on physical attraction, not on giving. This is not love. If a man loves a woman because of her appearance, he does not really love her; he loves himself, and he feels that a relationship with her can provide him gratification. This is not love.
Contemporary society believes in “love at first sight.” Such a concept is possible only if we associate love with superficial physical attraction. And such “love” is bound to diminish over time, because physical attraction naturally diminishes as the level of familiarity increases and the excitement wanes. By contrast, true love, which is built upon giving, grows stronger as the two parties continue to give to one another. The more a husband and wife give to each other, the more they love each other. And thus true love grows stronger over time, whereas “love” based on physical attraction weakens over time.
While it is impossible to identify a single cause for the alarming rise in divorce rates, we cannot overlook the effects of this fundamentally flawed and skewed view of love and relationships. Young people today are conditioned to think that true love comes at “first sight,” instantaneously, and just happens by itself. Such a relationship is built upon shaky, unstable foundations, and can easily fall apart. Our youngsters need to be taught that marriage is about selfless giving. The love comes not from first sight, but from continuous giving and generosity. When two people enter into a relationship with this perspective, they will work hard to please one another, thus creating a strong foundation for a strong, healthy marriage.
It must be emphasized that when we talk about “giving,” we do not mean simply fulfilling the obligations written in the ketubah. A husband’s “giving” does not end by getting a good job and earning a large salary, and a woman’s “giving” does not end by cooking scrumptious meals. “Giving” is a bouquet of flowers, running an errand without waiting to be asked, a kind word, a sincere compliment, and a midday phone call just to say “hello” to let our spouses know we are thinking of them. It means making our spouse’s happiness our highest priority, and doing everything we can to provide it.
“Helper” or “Adversary”?
However, it is precisely at this point where many people make mistakes that result in tension and unhappiness in marriage.
The Torah tells us that Gd decided to make for Adam “ezer kenegdo – a helper opposite him.” The word “neged” (“opposite”) denotes resistance, an opposing force. And thus the commentators ask, how can a spouse be both a “helper” and “negdo” – opposing the other spouse? How do we help our spouses by being an opposing force?
Rashi explains this phrase to mean that if a man is deemed worthy, he receives a “helper,” and if not, then he receives an adversary. In other words, according to Rashi, these two words are speaking of two different kinds of spouses, and the kind of spouse a person receives depends on his level of worthiness.
Others, however, explained differently, that the term “kenegdo” refers to the fact that men and women are naturally different from one another. We are supposed to be a “helper” who is “opposite” our spouse, in the sense of understanding that the help our spouse needs is much different from the help we ourselves need.
There are countless examples of how husbands and wives misunderstand each other’s needs and wishes, causing tension and frustration. One which I’ve encountered quite often working with couples is when the wife phones the husband at work during the day to ask a question. She might, let’s say, call to say she’s at the houseware store and debating what size glasses to buy.
The husband, busy with a steady stream of customers, laden with paperwork, or trying to untangle his way out of a difficult problem in the office, hurriedly replies, “You can buy whichever you want. I’m sure whatever you decide is the best decision.” And he hangs up.
The husband thinks he’s the greatest husband in the world, allowing his wife to make the decision and expressing his confidence in her decision-making abilities. The wife, however, feels hurt, as she was rushed off the phone. What happened?
The husband failed to understand that his wife is “kenegdo” – somebody much different from him. When he calls his wife when some decision needs to be made, he wants her to make the decision or to let him make the decision. But when a wife calls the husband at work for help with a decision, she wants, first and foremost, her husband’s time and attention. Saying “buy whatever you want” does not make her feel loved and valued.
In order to be an “ezer,” we need to recognize “kenegdo,” that our spouses are different from us, and what they need and want is different from what we need and want. And thus in addition to being willing to give, we need to be willing to understand what to give, what it is that our spouse needs and wants from us.
Breaking the Tablets
One final point needs to be made once we are on the subject of marriage and marital harmony.
The custom to break a glass under the hupahat a wedding is customarily understood as a commemoration of the Temple’s destruction, conveying the message that even at life’s happiest moments, we must somberly reflect on the loss of our Bet Hamikdash. Some rabbis, however, understand this custom differently, as commemorating, of all things, Moshe’s breaking the tablets upon seeing the Jewish worshipping the golden calf.
Why, we must ask, would we want to reflect upon this tragic event at a wedding?
Moshe Rabbenu spent 40 days atop Mount Sinai receiving the Torah, during which time he did not eat, drink or sleep. The stone tablets, bearing Gd’s inscription, marked the culmination of a long period of hard work and self-sacrifice. But this did not prevent Moshe from breaking them when this became necessary. When it became clear that Beneh Yisraelwere not worthy of receiving this gift, he broke them, despite everything he had invested to produce them.
This is a vitally important message for a bride and groom as they begin their marriage. As every husband and wife knows, arguments and differences of opinion are inevitable in marital life. Invariably, there will be times when the spouses see things differently from one another and do not agree. At such times, we need to follow Moshe’s example and be prepared to “break the tablets.” People often “stick to their guns” and refuse to budge because they feel emotionally bound to their ideas, to their plans which they carefully devised, and to their strongly-held opinions. It is very difficult to “break” something in which we’re emotionally invested. But when we share our lives with another person, such sacrifices often need to be made.
Sometimes we need to forego on our preferred way of doing things in order to make our spouse happy.
Sometimes we need to change our carefully arranged work schedule to accommodate a spouse’s preferences. Sometimes we need to scratch an idea we really like because our spouse doesn’t like it. Just as Moshe broke the stone tablets, we often need to “break” our “tablets,” to forego on our opinions and preferences for the sake of accommodating our spouse’s wishes.
“It is not good for man to be alone.” The ideal condition for human beings is one where at every step they take they need to take somebody else’s wishes and wellbeing into account, when every decision they make for themselves directly affects another person. When we live this way, we become truly “Gd-like,” selfless and generous like our Creator. And this is why especially for the kohen gadol, and especially on Yom Kippur, marriage is an absolute imperative. “Holiness” is impossible without a marriage partner, without living every moment of our lives for another person, besides just for ourselves.
Our lifelong pursuit of kedushahthus begins at home, in our relationship to our spouses. The more selfless we are, the more we strive to be attuned to our spouse’s needs and to fulfill them, the more closely we resemble our Creator, thus bringing His abundant blessings upon ourselves and our homes, which will then be transformed into sanctuaries worthy of His ongoing and palpable presence.