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It’s My Fault

March 29, 2009

"I'm really sorry. I was totally wrong."

Ahhh. The words we love to hear—the words of apology. If you'll only say them, I'll totally forgive you and we can move forward. Just say them and I'll stop sulking, snarling and glaring. Please just say them.

Of course, Spouse is thinking the very same thoughts. Why don't you apologize for once? Why do I always have to be the one? I'm not doing it this time. I'm not crawling to you to ask for forgiveness. You ask me for forgiveness and then we can move forward. Just as soon as you do it, I'll stop stonewalling. Please just ask.

And so marital harmony is set aside while husband and wife wait to see who will be the first to capitulate. Admitting error seems overwhelming to us, as if something terrible will happen along with the acknowledgment of our human imperfection. Even when we do manage to admit to a wrong doing, we often excuse ourselves in the same breath: "Maybe I did say some unkind words, but that was totally your fault. If you hadn't insulted me first I wouldn't have retorted in kind!" We can't acknowledge that we just behaved badly because we just did. Somehow, such acknowledgment is too threatening, too diminishing. It seems as if we are acknowledging that we're essentially flawed and therefore undeserving to be included in human society.

"My bad" – the glib phrase uttered by teens to acknowledge fault – keeps friendships intact with minimal suffering. They don't mind being "bad"—in fact, it might even be kind of cool. "My bad—I parked the car illegally and got a ticket." "My bad—I forgot to bring you the money I owe you." "My bad—I haven't returned your book to the library yet." Although the response doesn't necessarily work so well on their parents ("My bad—I forgot to take the garbage out again…") it does have an unpretentious air about it. It seems to say, "I'm human. I make mistakes. What else is new?" What a healthy attitude! Why should it disappear when we get married?

If we grownups could adopt the self-accepting attitude that the younger people display, we could be more at peace with ourselves and our spouse. By accepting ourselves as a mistake-making-species, we can simply step up to the plate without experiencing overwhelming shame. Moreover, our gentle acceptance of our own errors can help us develop a gentle attitude toward the mistakes of significant others. The Torah teaches us that our great leaders and sages all made mistakes—it was part of their growth process. We can't grow, however, if we can't face our own errors. Pretending that we're perfect stops us from seeing what needs correction and taking steps to improve. On the other hand, examining ourselves after a problematic marital interaction can provide plenty of opportunity for growth. Skip the obvious misbehavior of your spouse and use the conflict to move yourself to a higher level. Ask yourself: "What was my role in that unpleasant communication? What could I have done differently?" Don't do your spouse's growth work—do your own. Once you've discovered a flaw or two, own up to your imperfect behavior. As long as your admissions of error are followed by signs of improvement, your spouse will learn to welcome and trust them.

Apologies can be short and sweet. "It seems I forgot to take care of that matter you asked me to tend to. I'm so sorry." "I know I spoke to you improperly earlier. I'm really sorry." "I shouldn't have hung up on you. That was wrong." If a spouse responds poorly to a partner's acknowledgment of error, a gentle reminder of the spouse's human qualities should suffice. "I realize that you're upset and that you feel let down and I promise I'll try and do better in the future. Please accept my apologies and I'll accept yours when you make mistakes. We're all human and we will do things wrong but then we can work on ourselves to improve."

Make space in your marriage for mistakes. In fact, if you have kids, make space in your home for mistakes! Let it be "no big deal" when you or anyone else does something wrong. Rather, focus your attention on correction and redirection, attempting to learn from errors in order to improve. After a while, you'll see mistakes for what they really are—your friends. Each error is a stepping stone up the spiritual ladder. So take advantage of all your errors, use them to help you become all that you can be. "It's my fault" can be your key to greatness.

Divorcing Friends

March 22, 2009

Dear Tzippora,

My husband and I were Shabbat guests in the home of a couple who are both teachers in our community, and who are known for their hospitality. Being guests in their home was a special experience, and we both enjoyed ourselves very much. Therefore we were astonished to learn several weeks later that this special couple had decided to get a divorce. We are still in shock over the news, and can't reconcile the warm and friendly atmosphere we experienced in their home with a couple on the verge of divorce. Please help us to understand how this could happen.

Heartbroken Outsiders

Dear Heartbroken Outsiders,

It is always painful to learn that friends have decided to get a divorce. It is painful to watch a home be dismantled. In fact the Talmud says that when a couple gets divorced, the altar itself weeps. A marriage deserves to be given every possible chance to be saved before it is discarded.

However, your story illuminates an important point. The illusion of a stable home is not the same thing as the reality of a stable home, and it sounds like you witnessed a finely crafted illusion. It is possible that the warm atmosphere you witnessed only existed when guests were present.

True kindness begins at home, and our marriage partner is the person most worthy of our attention. Therefore it is appropriate that our spouse should receive the lion's share of our kindness and benevolent acts. For instance, many people wouldn't dream of saying no to a friend who asks for a favor. Yet the same request by a spouse might be met with an open refusal or a grudging agreement, such as, "You always get me to do your errands. Why can't you do these things for yourself?!"

It is important to realize that family comes first. If we would do that favor for a friend, we should be willing to do the same action for the sake of our spouse. Everyday, we should try to show our spouse in some small way how much they mean to us. A kind word, a small note, a mid-day phone call, a favorite treat picked up from the shop. It doesn't take a lot of time or money to let them know that we have been thinking about them, and that our relationship matters.

People who become involved in community activism sometimes lose sight of this essential point. Perhaps this explanation may help you understand the disparity you witnessed.

It is necessary for those heavily involved in communal work to be extra careful to reserve time for their families to bond. For instance, many families who are known for their hospitality nevertheless choose to reserve one meal for their family members alone.

If you feel close enough to your hosts to say something, it would be appropriate to consider sharing with them the special feeling you experienced in their home, and encouraging them to explore every means of preserving the bond capable of creating such a special atmosphere. I would assume that a couple capable of creating such a warm atmosphere for guests in their home, could learn with guidance how to create a special atmosphere for themselves as well.

I am a big advocate for marriage, and I believe that most marriages can be saved if a couple is sufficiently motivated to address their marital issues in therapy. The Jewish religion has always recognized the option of divorce, but only as a last resort.

Two Stages in Marriage

Shavuot and Purim: Excitement versus Commitment

March 8, 2009

You may be familiar with the Talmud's statement that when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, 2448 years after the creation of the world, "G‑d held the mountain over the Israelites' heads like a barrel, and said, 'If you accept my Torah, good; if not, here will be your graves.'" One could legitimately protest that this elicited a forced acceptance on the part of the Jews. Were they really coerced to accept the Torah? How are we to understand this account?

Chassidic teachings explain that the mountain that was held over their heads has deep allegorical significance. Actually, the Jews were enthusiastic about receiving the Torah—they counted the Omer for 49 days in anticipation of the giving of the Torah, the moment of their true redemption. There was no need to force them to consent. On the contrary, the revelation at Sinai was so overwhelming that G‑d simply and easily elicited the "Yes" – "We will do and understand" – from the Jews. Their extraordinary experience and G‑d's magnificence "blew them away." The drama and electricity of the moment was what "compelled" them—physically, emotionally and spiritually. It was, almost, as if there truly was no voluntary choice—and thus the seemed "coercion."

It was not until 800 years later, at the story of Purim, that the Jewish people collectively and willingly accepted the Torah—without "coercion." In the Megillah (9:27) it states: "[The Jews] affirmed and accepted..." The Covenant that began at Sinai was finally ratified. They affirmed now what they once accepted many years before.

The circumstances during the Purim saga were polar opposites from the Sinai scene. The Jews in Persia were aware of the threat of annihilation for an entire year. They knew that if they renounced their Judaism the threat would be lifted. No one even considered the option. And no natural laws were abrogated (as at Sinai). No overt miracles. In fact, the whole Purim story is shrouded in mystery and concealment. G‑d's name does not appear in the Megillah. The name of the heroine, Esther, is rooted in the Hebrew word "hester," hiddenness. Despite their disconnection from revealed G‑dliness, the Jews recommitted themselves to Torah. So, in a sense – and in essence! – Purim completes the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

These two accounts of "receiving the Torah" – first the experience at Sinai, and then in Persia – are strikingly paralleled in marriage.

Marriage is actually not a natural thing. It's highly illogical. One person forever? Objectively, it doesn't make sense. It's not a rational idea, rather it's a sacred idea.

Our relationship with G‑d is likened to a marriage. G‑d is the Divine groom, and Israel, the bride.

At Sinai, we said "Yes" because we couldn't resist. The excitement of feeling love, connection and protection filled us with hope and gratitude. We were simply swept away by the experience. That's often how marriages begin. At that point, it's not about sacrifice and devotion—because there's not yet something to sacrifice for. Initially we're impressed with someone simply because he/she seems to elicit in us such wonderful feelings. We don't work on the feelings when we're dating. We automatically feel valued and focused on each other's virtues. We are convinced that "I could live with this person forever."

Not so at the "Purim stage" of marriage. Here we move to an entirely different mindset. The original reasons why we got married are quite different than what actually keeps us committed for the long haul. In the pre-marital phase we are focused on "what am I getting" (everlasting security, freedom, love, understanding, etc.). In the post-marital state our focus shifts from "what am I getting" to "what am I giving"; from "how am I feeling?" to "where is my devotion?"—both quite counterintuitive to our "natural" inclinations of ego-centric selfishness and immaturity.

Where in the celebrations of Purim do we see this most apparent? Charity to the poor? Exchange of gifts? Hearing the Megillah? All of these are important—kindness to your spouse, gift giving and listening. But the greatest gift – especially when the love seems hidden – is represented by the Purim feast where one is obligated to fulfill the mitzvah: "Drink until you don't know the different between 'cursed be Haman and blessed is Mordechai.'" Until you don't know, until the lines blur. Perhaps it is "until you don't have to know"—to get to a place beyond your own opinions, demands, and expectations. In other words, even when the love seems to be hidden, you keep giving because of the commitment you made.

Another theme of Purim – indeed its very name – is "lottery"; "chance," ambivalence as to the outcome. Many people feel that their marriage was the result of some "chance" occurrence, or that perhaps there was some mistake. What we come to realize is that, in the face of the divine, we have only a limited understanding of what our true needs are. If this is what G‑d chose, then we have to trust that it is good. A Jew doesn't give charity only because it's moral, or honor parents only because it's the right thing to do. No, it's because it's the G‑dly thing to do. And therefore we call it good. G‑dly comes before good. Once He chooses, it has value. If G‑d would command us to chop wood every day—that, too, would be sacred, simply because G‑d commanded it.

At Sinai we submitted to the values of the Torah. At Purim we affirm what G‑d chose, beyond finite human understanding, often beyond reason. Emunah, trust, means simple belief and acceptance of G‑d's choice. Why do we stay committed to the marital relationship? Not because I'm swept off my feet, not because it feels right, essentially because marriage is sacred, a divine commandment.

You may ask, what happens when one feels that there's no mutuality? When only one partner is aware and willing to invest in this commitment process? This certainly is not easy. The situation has to be evaluated rationally—preferably with an objective, understanding, knowledgeable third party (rabbi, counselor, etc.). This is especially so if there is a suspicion of any physical/emotional/financial/sexual abuse.

The couple must also decide what is "tolerable" and what is not tolerable. This differs widely among people and depends on many variables. Sometimes the acts and attitudes of devotion can bring about change. Seeing the marriage as sacred is the first step. Honoring this covenant has the potential to bring humanity to its most perfect state.

Perhaps this is why Purim is the one holiday that, we are told, will exist "eternally."

Thanks to Rabbi Moshe New, from Montreal's Torah Center, whose tape on this subject was the catalyst for this article.

Wants to Be Religious and Wife Doesn't

March 1, 2009

Dear Bronya,

I have become more ritually observant and unfortunately my wife is not. I understand, and she has stated, that this is not what she "signed up for." My question is how to get past my daily frustration regarding this, especially when it comes to our being role models for our three daughters. I work very long hours and she spends the most time with them.


Dear Frustrated,

I understand the challenges you face, and can certainly understand your frustration. You must keep foremost in mind that above all your marriage must be respected. When a Jewish man and woman marry, they establish, the two of them, a home in Israel. A binyan adei ad—an eternal edifice. Your marriage is for all eternity.

You say that you've become more "ritually observant"; no doubt you're referring to Shabbat and kosher, to tefillin and mezuzah, and I admire you for that. No doubt you are saying the morning prayers, and no doubt you've recognized that the morning blessings end with the passage, "....these are the precepts, the fruit of which man enjoys in this world, while the pricipal reward remains in the World to Come. . . bringing peace. . . between husband and wife..." Furthermore, before even beginning the morning prayers you regularly say the following: "I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the mitzvah, 'Love your fellowman as yourself.'" This mitzvah of ahavat Yisrae' – contrary to some misconception – most definitely applies to one's spouse!

Both of these passages are in the morning prayers. You cannot begin your day without saying them. Think about this, think about the significance. As important as are 'ritual' observances, these sentiments are repeated every single morning—it is with these specific sentiments that you continue in prayer.

So you are frustrated that your partner in life, your soulmate, does not share your passion for ritual observance. What about your passion for making her happy? What about your passion, now that you are more keenly aware of Torah obligations, for loving her unconditionally? Your passion for increasing, in every possible way, the peace between a husband and wife?

Show her what it means to be a servant of Torah. Show her it makes a man more sensitive to his wife, more attuned to her needs and her anxieties and her dreams and her hopes. Make for her a husband who, through his Torah observance, has become the man of any woman's dreams!

She did not 'sign up' for this, but she most certainly did sign up for a caring, concerned, tolerant, respectful, and loving soulmate....

Be that.

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