Several months ago I came across one of those self-evaluation "tests" with those little checkboxes. This one was to gauge your stress level. If you're undergoing a divorce and/or getting married, award yourself 30 points; changing jobs? 30 points; moving into a new home also gives you 30 points; the birth of a child, 20 points; and so on, all the way down to the little 5- and 3-point stresses. Then you're supposed to add up the points and consult a 0-100 scale that tells you the level of stress you're currently experiencing.

The reason that this particular piece of Americana caught my attention was that, at the time, I had changed jobs, moved into our new home, and welcomed our newborn daughter into our family—all within a six-week period. (I am happy to report, however, that this stressed-out writer and his patient spouse are still joined in blissful matrimony.) What also struck me at the time was the equation of divorce, on the one hand, with changes in employment and residence on the other.

The parallels are there. In your home and community is invested a piece of yourself; in your job lies a part of your identity. There is your relationship with your employer and co-workers, your neighbors and social circle; the goals you are commonly committed to, your mutual dependence upon each other. But there are also grievances and dissatisfactions. Perhaps you find yourself in situations that are emotionally distressing or ethically problematic. Perhaps you feel deprived of the opportunity to realize your true potential. Or perhaps there's just the promise—or hope—of a better job or living environment elsewhere. So you agonize: do these considerations justify abandoning the current commitments and breaking up the current relationship?

According to Chassidic teaching, the parallel runs deeper yet. The Chassidic masters taught that every soul is given its own "portion of the world." The fact that you live in a particular place and labor at a particular vocation is not by chance or fluke. The range of causes that brought you there—beginning with your inborn talents and inclinations all the way through the so-called "coincidences" that pepper every life—are guided by Divine Providence to bring you in contact with those particular "sparks of G‑dliness" which you are charged to redeem. These sparks of spiritual potential depend on you to actualize them, and you need them for your spiritual fulfillment. Just as Heaven assigns a body to every soul and a marriage partner to every man and woman, so is every individual assigned a piece of creation to develop and elevate.

But that's not the entire story. Our Creator has granted us the most precious and dangerous of gifts: freedom of choice. We have the power to improve on what we were given, and the power to destroy it. We can make such a mess of things that we may wake up one morning with the belief that our current relationship is unsalvageable and that the only feasible course of action is a new start somewhere else.


When is it time to get a divorce? The Talmud cites three opinions:

The School of Shammai rules: A man should not divorce his wife unless he discovers in her an immoral matter...

The School of Hillel holds: [He may divorce her] even if she burnt his meal.

Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than she.

(All three opinions derive from the same verse in the TorahDeuteronomy 24:1—in the section dealing with the laws of divorce, depending on how a key phrase in that verse is interpreted.)

The halachah (final legal ruling) follows the opinion of the sages of Hillel. But pious behavior (midat chassidut), which holds itself to a standard "beyond the letter of the law," is to accept the stricter criteria put forth by the disciples of Shammai.

In other words, a "divorce" is justified if there is actual damage to your well-being and deprivation of your needs. If you find yourself wed to a life that nightly burns your supper, fouling or depriving you of your material nourishment or spiritual nurture, the Torah understands and condones your decision to sever that relationship and seek a better "marriage."

That is the "letter of the law." But a more altruistic approach states that unless your current situation in life spells a violation of your ethical, moral and religious values (in which case even the sages of Shammai permit, indeed obligate, a dissolution of the marriage) the place to be is the place where you are. Your Creator has placed you there; He has also given you the resources and fortitude to make it work. Sticking it out is not a cop-out—it is to rise to the greater challenge of uncovering those resources and redeeming the "sparks of G‑dliness" entrusted to your care.