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What Do We Do About the Relationship Crisis?

What Do We Do About the Relationship Crisis?

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Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, once said to a disciple, “My advice to you is to get married. If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher.”

Indeed, today we have many philosophers. In our time there has been an unprecedented rise in broken relationships. In the United States, it is estimated that one out of two marriages ends in divorce. Single-parent families have doubled in the past 20 years. Only one child in two will have parents who were married when he or she was born and who will have stayed together till the child grows up.1

What we need is imagination, not recrimination

A lecturer told me that for years she had gone into schools to teach children about religious faith, and about “G‑d our Father.” Now she can’t do so any more, because many of the children do not understand the word. Not the word “G‑d,” but the word “father.”

Like a meteorite entering earth’s gravitational field, marriage and the family are disintegrating.

The worst thing we could do now would be to get into a debate about who is to blame: the individual or society, affluence or secularization. What we need is imagination, not recrimination; optimism, not pessimism. It is here that the Jewish mystical tradition has something beautiful and vital to say.

In the very opening chapter of the Hebrew Bible, where the story of creation unfolds, the mystics pose a fascinating question: How, if G‑d exists, can the universe simultaneously exist? G‑d is infinite, G‑d is everywhere. Therefore, in any given place, there is both the finite and infinite. But surely, infinity crowds out anything finite. There is simply no space for physical matter if every place is filled with the infinite presence of G‑d. How, then, is there a universe?

The mystics’ answer is compelling. In order to make space for the universe, G‑d initiated a process called tzimtzum, “self- contraction” or “withdrawal,” as it were, creating a spherical vacuum—the space needed for the world to exist. By withdrawing His endless light, an autonomous and independent world, distinct from G‑d, can emerge.2

The universe is the space the Author of Being creates for mankind through an act of withdrawal

The conclusion? The universe is the space the Author of Being creates for mankind through an act of withdrawal. No single act more profoundly indicates the love and generosity implicit in Creation.3

In a dazzling parallel, the same applies in human relationships. 4

In the beginning of life, there is no otherness. A newborn infant does not distinguish between itself and the rest of the universe. It knows and cares only about its own needs. When it cries, it is saying: “I want Mommy, I want to be fed, I want to be held, I want to be played with, and if you don’t do everything I want, immediately, I will ruin your life.” There is no room for an other. As children develop and mature, they begin to find the other as a separate entity. They begin to have relationships; they begin to care for the other. That process is essential to healthy development.

As adults we know that in order to truly love, you need to withdraw yourself from your “center” (ego) and create room for another person in your life. A relationship is not about control. When one partner dominates the other, demanding of him or her to conform and suppress his/her personality, the possibility of a relationship is snuffed out. Genuine love not only respects the individuality of the other, but actually seeks to cultivate it. Love, like the act of creation, is the courageous act of creating space for the presence of the other. When man moves away from himself, reaching into the heart and soul of another human being, he emulates G‑d, who chooses to suspend Himself in order to give room to the other. Stephen Hawking was wrong in his book A Brief History of Time. It is not through theoretical physics that we will approach an understanding of the “mind of G‑d.” It is through making room for another person within oneself.

A young man and woman went on a date. For two solid hours he spoke about himself, his accomplishments, his successes and ideas. And then he turned to her and said: “Enough of me talking about myself. Now, what do you think of me?”

There are two simple English words which illustrate this mystical notion of tzimtzum, contraction. The words “soil” and “soul.” They differ by just one letter. Yet they represent two polar opposites: the material and the spiritual. The word “soil” represents the material. The word “soul” represents the spiritual. The difference in spelling is the “I” versus the “U.” When a person thinks only about “I,” he is self-centered, and can’t make sufficient space to nurture another. But when he thinks about “U,” by moving himself out of the way, he makes room for another person in his life. He is ready to live deeper and love deeper.

This idea of tzimtzum finds expression in a beautiful Jewish wedding ceremony known as the badeken, or “veiling.” Before the chuppah ceremony, the groom is escorted to the room where his bride is waiting, and he covers her face with a veil. This custom traditionally commemorates the biblical event that occurred during Jacob’s wedding ceremony. The Torah relates that Jacob traveled to the house of Laban. Upon arriving, he meets Laban’s younger daughter Rachel and falls in love with her. Laban proposes a deal: work for me for seven years, and I will give her to you in marriage. Jacob does so, but on the wedding night Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel. Since the bride was veiled, he did not realize that he was marrying the wrong woman. Jacob discovered the deception only after it was too late. Ultimately, Jacob accepted his fate and remained with Leah. But he later also married Rachel, the bride of his choice.5

The question that arises is: if the veiling reminds us of Jacob and Leah, shouldn’t the custom be that the groom uncovers his bride’s face, to make sure that he is marrying the bride of his choice?

It is the very shortcomings and imperfections of your spouse that allow you to grow into something larger than yourself

The answer is moving and profound. Leah and Rachel are not merely two sisters living in Mesopotamia in the early phase of the Bronze Age. They also symbolize two dimensions of every human personality. Each of us possesses an inner “Rachel” as well as an inner “Leah.”6

Rachel, the beautiful woman, symbolizes the attractive, charming and beautiful characteristics existing in our spouses and in ourselves. The name Rachel in Hebrew means “ewe,” known for its bright white color and its serene and lovable nature.7

Leah, a name that literally means “weariness” or “exhaustion,”8 represents those elements in us and in our spouses that are more challenging. Leah, the “weak-eyed” sister, was easily moved to tears.9 She was emotionally vulnerable. Leah, weakened from tears and anxiety, represents our struggle with insecurities and psychological and spiritual tension.

Few people can be defined as “Rachel” or “Leah” exclusively. Most of us possess both components. We are a mix of serenity and tension. We have compassionate instincts, but we must struggle against selfish ones as well. We have light, but we also must deal with shadow. Both are genuine parts of our multidimensional personalities. Rachel is the light; Leah is the struggle against the dark.

Hence, the drama that occurred at the wedding of Jacob, the patriarch of the Jewish nation, occurs at every wedding. Before you get married, you think that you are marrying Rachel—the beautiful, smart, kind, sensitive and fun-loving spouse of your dreams. In reality, you are bound to discover that you ended up with Leah, a person also struggling with unresolved tension.

Naturally, you love Rachel, and you reject Leah. Yet, as life progresses, you will come to discover that it is precisely the Leah dimension of your spouse that challenges you to transcend your ego and become the person you are capable of becoming. Because it is the very shortcomings and imperfections of your spouse that allow you to grow into something larger than yourself.

This, then, is the secret behind the veiling of the bride. When the groom veils his bride, he is saying, “I will love, cherish and respect not only the ‘you’ which is revealed to me, but also those elements of your personality that are hidden from me. As I am bound with you in marriage, I am committed to creating a tzimtzum, a space within me for the totality of your being—for all of you, for all time.”

That, if only we lived it, is the meaning of tzimtzum—and it has the power to bathe today’s broken world in the loving light of the divine presence.

Footnotes
1.
The figures are taken from Kathleen Kiernan and Malcolm Wicks, Family Change and Future Policy (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1990).
2.
R. Isaac Luria (Arizal), as transcribed in the Kabbalistic works of his primary disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital, Eitz Chayim (Heichal Adam Kadmon 1:2, and Shaar HaHakdamot) and Mevo She’arim. See also Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah, Vayikra (Hosafot) 51b–54d.
3.
Tanya, chapter 49.
4.
See Tanya ibid., quoting a Talmudic statement (Bava Metzia 84a) concerning marriage: “Love contracts the flesh.” This is how Rabbi Schneur Zalman states the idea:
כמו שהקב״ה כביכול הניח וסילק לצדדין דרך משל את אורו הגדול הבלתי תכלית וגנזו והסתירו בג׳ מיני צמצומים שונים, והכל בשביל אהבת האדם התחתון, להעלותו לה׳, כי אהבה דוחקת את הבשר.
Also see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Man of Faith in the Modern World, p. 157.
6.
I first heard this 13 years ago, during my own wedding ceremony, from my friend Rabbi Yosef Y. Jacobson. See also Rabbi David Aaron, Endless Light: The Ancient Path of the Kabbalah to Love, Growth, and Spiritual Power (Simon and Schuster, 1997), pp. 37–38.
7.
See Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likkutei Torah, Emor 38d. see also Rabbi Menachem Azariah da Fano, Yonat Eilem, ch. 5, and Likkutei Sichot, vol. 30, p. 286.
8.
Mei Hashiloach, Vayeitzei. Also see Maamarei Admor Hazakein 5565.
9.
Talmud, Bava Batra 123a; Bereishit Rabbah 70:16; Rashi to Genesis 29:17.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is excutive director of Chabad at Stanford University
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Lewis Schleider Queens, New York August 3, 2015

This is mind blowing If I ever am ever zoche (merit) to get married again. I hope she and I can do this Reply

Dorit Grobgeld stockholm sweden September 3, 2013

there are different ways of jewish marriages today i agree to that. My own jewish marriage is an example of that. Several years ago my husband got the disease of Alzheimers and since 2011 he doesn´t live with me anymore but in an institution. I go and see him twice or three times a week. Sometimes he doesn´r recognize me anymore sometimes he does. I feel happy when he recognizes me and try not to think too much back what all I miss and don´t have today anymore or ever will have again. Now and then I am most unhappy and I have cried a lot of my situation. I miss the husband as a husband as a partner of discussions of loving and caring. Although we have got three children and three grandchildren it isn´t easy to accept the situation though as it is. Two of the children live in the same country as we do but they don´t visit their father very much and the grandchildren never visit him. I don´t blame them very often for this only now and then. It is hard to go on in life alone! Reply

Anonymous June 27, 2013

love this article... food for my soul :) Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem June 26, 2013

"I" and "U" I loved your discussion of the words soil and soul. It reminds me of something similar that a great rabbi once said: "The difference between 'united' and 'untied' is where you put the "i". Reply

Shoshana Jerusalem June 26, 2013

intermarriage answer to Accord, N.Y. Great comment on intermarriage! Most of the times it doesn't work out, and if they do stay together, it's with great misery.

Now I know that this will receive a response from many "happily" intermarried couples, but they are the exception. Usually it ends in failure. Reply

Golda V E Haberland (Leijonhufvud) NW republic ireland June 26, 2013

Chabad never ceases to amaze me, with wisdom. I have never lost my spirituality but sometimes I've lost my faith, because I have looked at faith from one dimension.

I was searching for an Hebrew name for my young female character, at first I considered Rachel. My young character loses her Mother at sixteen, her sorrow is profound and she is filled with anxiety and insecurity, outwardly she is as beautiful as a summers morning inwardly due to her loss she shares Leah's reality. I've decided to name her Leah. The melody of the name is beautiful containing three breaths, therefore this is the perfect name.

Thank you so much Chabad for confirming I may be able to see the beauty of the Universe as matter, but also that, which is behind, the breath and spirit of the divine. Reply

Rikki brooklyn, ny June 26, 2013

thank you I will save this for when i get married. G-d willing soon. Reply

Susan Barth Beit Shemesh Israel June 25, 2013

A Must Read As someone involved in marriage education in Israel I love reading articles such as these which encapsulate the essence of marriage in its direct and poignant manner.
Any article by Chabad which would be inspired by the Rebbe is a treasure.
Thank you Rabbi for your beautiful insights.May you celebrate many joyous occasions in your life and spread your message to thousands. Kol hakavod. Reply

Lydia India June 25, 2013

Beautifully explained This is an amazing article. It helped me to understand and know the true meaning of marriage. Reply

Anonymous Kingston, Ontario June 24, 2013

Enough of Me Talking About Myself A woman I know works as a cashier in a supermarket. One day, the cashier one or two aisles over from her, who was processing an order, suddenly fainted. (She recovered soon after.) As soon as she fell down, the customer cried out, "NOW who's going to check out my order?" Reply

Anonymous Accord, NY September 3, 2012

BRILLIANT ARTICLE! YASHER KOACH! This article, without a shadow of a doubt, reveals the essence of marriage! I am contemplating a divorce after 29 years of misery for this same reason. There is absolutely no accountability on my husband's side in the demise of this relationship. Growing up with the entitlement attitude inbred in Sicilian families, he is adamently without compromise nor fault. Ever heard of the saying, My way or the highway. No compromise, just self-centerdness. Never got past the infantile stage in life called centration. Me first attitude. It's a sorry state of affairs when you can not teach a stubborn soul how to appease or envelop the other. What a revelation will be brought to his being, when I sever this hopeless marriage. Until then, I can honestly say through experience, that marriage is hard when two people from the same background enter into this contract, multiply it a thousandfold and you get a marriage filled with a myriad of problems through intermarriage. So, Marry your kind. Reply

Sarah Boulder, CO April 25, 2010

Thank you Thank you for this article, it has opened my eyes. Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2007

great thanks great job --thanks Reply

aviva yehudit los angeles, california August 11, 2007

tzimzum We nd optimism. What is a father? Someone who teaches torah? Derech Eretz? Someone who lives what he says? Who loves the child unconditionally regardless of his relationship with the child's mother? Who supports the child financially?

Tzimzum takes a conscious effort, a present-moment focus, a new choice in each moment to withdraw attention from our own needs, which, after all, G-d has met, and put the focus, for this moment, on the needs of the other person.

This is a moment-by-moment process, not a lifetime contract carved in stone. It has 2 b a flexible process. A shifting back and forth, now the focus on me, now on you. As we accept the dark sides of ourselves, so we become more accepting of the dark side of our beloved.

Instead of reacting to the next trigger, I pray that G-d will show me what the lesson is, that I will have the wisdom, patience & perceptiveness 2 understand G-d's lessons in the attributes of Leah that I observe in my daily life. Reply

Dan CA July 27, 2007

Dazzling!!! Dazzling!!! Reply

Anonymous Dallas, Texas October 18, 2006

Great Essay Thought it was beautifully written and very helpful. It changed the way I viewed marriage. Reply

Erica L. Allen Columbia, SC October 4, 2006

I am indeed moved Praise the most Holy One, for your wisdom, and insight. I began reading this thinking that it would be the same 'ole same 'ole, but this was beautiful. This should be a must read for everyone considering marriage. I know as a single woman this has given me a different perspective on Rachel and Leah...I once felt bad for Leah, but now I see that they both must exist in order to be a whole woman. Thank you. Reply

Heather Kenigsberg Potomac, MD , Potomac, MD June 16, 2006

thanks rabbi Dov Thanks!
Just reading this essay gave me optimism about my marriage and my ability to improve it. It’s now easy for me to see for the first time what creates the tensions and what to do about them.

Reply

Anonymous r, r via chabadlehighvalley.com June 15, 2006

article made me feel happier What an excellent article!

I really love how the different dynamics in a relationship are brought forth in the full extent by the Rachel and Leah Idea. This article made me feel at peace and happier in the man I chose to marry.
Reply

israel weiss agoura June 15, 2006

incredible article wow, what an article! Reply

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