From Where I Stand
By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
“Nothing new under the sun,” wrote King Solomon in Ecclesiastes. And so, we discover this week that infidelity and other marital problems aren’t exactly a new societal phenomenon.
One of the main features of our parashah is the story of the Sotah, a woman accused of adultery. In the ancient Biblical tradition, the husband would bring his wife to the Temple where the kohein would enact the ceremony of the Bitter Waters. The relevant passages from the Torah were written on a scroll and dissolved in the “curse-causing waters.” The name of G‑d appeared in these passages and, therefore, every possible alternative was explored first in order to avoid the erasure of the Divine Name. If, indeed, there was no alternative, then the ceremony would be concluded and in the process Hashem’s name would, in fact, be erased. If the woman was guilty, she would die prematurely. If innocent, she would be blessed, and her marriage would enjoy a blissful future.
Thus, Jewish tradition teaches that no stone ought to be left unturned to make peace between man and wife. Even if it means taking the drastic step of erasing the name of G‑d. To save a marriage, it is worth it.
How much effort do we put into our marriages today? Interestingly, the jealous husband in the parashah is also chastised should he overreact and run to the kohein unnecessarily.
Today, I fear, we run to the lawyer much too quickly. Too many young marrieds, after the inevitable first argument, come to the premature conclusion that they must have made a mistake. “We had a fight!” “He shouted at me.” “Let me quit while I’m ahead.”
It may well sound ridiculous, but in my own rabbinic experience, I have seen it all too often. There is a name for it. It’s called “unrealistic expectations.” We forget that some of the best marriages on earth had rocky beginnings and that it is normal and natural to take time to settle down and settle into a marriage.
Why is it that we expect our marriages to cruise along smoothly without the slightest hiccup when we have no such presumptions about any other area of life? Say a business shows a loss in the first quarter. Do we close up shop? Of course not. We sit down, strategize, find new ways of doing things, and, with time and effort, things turn around. Why then do we close down our marriages with such alacrity at the first signs of tension or difficulty?
Then there are those who are married for years but are locked in loveless marriages. They see no hope for a better future and are resigned to living out their lives, as Thoreau put it, in “quiet desperation.” I’m here to tell you that it needn’t be that way. Many a marriage has hit rock bottom and then rebounded into a beautiful, sensitive, mature relationship.
Here are a few important points to be aware of: (1) Help is available. There are highly qualified counselors in every community. (2) There should be no stigma whatsoever in going for help. If you have the flu, you see the doctor. It’s curable. So is an ailing relationship. (3) It is never too late. I’ve seen people embark on a fresh, new path after 18 or 25 years of marriage and they’ve never looked back. (4) Fixing your existing relationship is by far the best option available to you.
Why is going for help the best option? Ask yourself honestly: is getting divorced and then looking for a new partner better? What makes you think they are lining up to marry divorced people with baggage? And staying single is no fun either. Loneliness is no picnic. And don’t think your miserable ex is going to fall off Planet Earth after your divorce. You will still have to engage him/her on family issues, especially if there are children. So you get to keep most of the headaches with little or no compensation.
For too many people, work is a four-letter word to be avoided at all costs. But if we would invest half the amount of work into our existing relationships that we will surely need to survive a divorce, we could have a marvelous relationship.
A woman I know is now on her third marriage. I tried to counsel her during her first marriage. But she was determined to end it. Today she freely admits that had she known then what she knows now, she would never have divorced husband number one. Because, with all his faults, compared to husbands numbers two and three, he was an angel! Marriage and family life are part and parcel of life. They can bring contentment and happiness to each of us—if we work at it. Our lives can be rich and satisfying in that deep, wonderful way—provided we are big enough to seek help and improve the existing stalemate. If we look at things more objectively, we’ll probably find that we are both somewhat stale mates.
Judaism has much to offer to revive tired relationships. While the mikveh system should not be regarded as a panacea for all marital ills, it can have a profoundly positive influence. Take the plunge. Call for an appointment to see your favorite rabbi or rebbetzin. They can also direct you to good professional counselors who are committed to making marriages work.
The Torah teaches us how sacred marriage is in the eyes of G‑d. Let us show a little more respect for our marriage vows. And perhaps we ought to spare a thought for that “significant other” who does so much for us every day, which sadly, we take for granted.
If we invest more time and effort into our current relationships, we may be assured that Hashem will bless the work of our hands with success, happiness, and nachas. Then, families will be whole and wholesome, and G‑d’s Name will be complete. v
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.