Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happiness in Marriage

"If a man should marry a new wife he is exempt from serving in the army and from all manner of compulsory service. For one year he is free to engage solely in domestic matters and to make his new bride happy" (Devarim 24:5).
So we read in the Parsha of Ke Taitzay, the portion of this week.
But here's the rub, how indeed does one make one's wife, or for that matter husband, happy?

Husbands and wives will tell you that they have been trying to make each other happy for years without real success. Divorce rates continue to soar. Unhappy marriages are the norm. Yet so many a man and woman will tell you that all they wanted was to make their spouse happy. In the end, the failures outnumber the stories of success. What goes wrong?

Their is a well known passage in the Talmud that implies even G-d struggles to find the key to a happy home. In the Gemara Sota a difficult pasuk in the Psalms is interpreted to teach that making successful shiduchin is as difficult for Hakadosh Baruch Hu as was parting the Red Sea at the time of the Exodus.

Question is, while we can understand the message here underlying the complexity of making successful matches, the connection between parting the sea and forging a marital union seems strange. In the one case, G-d needs to make a miraculous separation, dividing the waters so the Israelites could cross. In the other, G-d needs to bring already separate entities together, in making a marriage. How are they related? One is dividing, the other uniting.

Through coming to understand this passage in the Talmud we may discover some great truths about marriage and intimacy. I suggest that the Rabbis of the Gemara already knew that finding love was no great feat. Falling in-love is easy and natural. It happens to nearly everyone sometime or other.And for many of us it happens over and over.

But that love, the love based on the sense of identity with another is the easy part of real love. We discover someone we feel much in common with and our hearts sing.The hard part of a loving relationship is the the part in which we recognize how our partner is not like us, how we and they are different. That part of relationship is grounded in respect. It's focus is on the appreciation of another with their differences from us. Unlike the loving part based on similarity, here we celebrate them for who they are in their 'otherness' from us.

Scott Peck in his classic self-help book "The Road Less Travelled" precedes the section on love with a section on respect. He argues that no real love can happen without the foundation of respect. Respect is always based on the recognition that my partner is different from me with unique interests, tastes, likes and dislikes and opinions. Only when we accept and validate the other for who they are, and not try to change them to be like us, can intimacy blossom. Intimacy is always the dance between nearness and distance, between love and respect, between seeing the other as a reflection of us and seeing them as unique and individual.

In truth most marriages fail and most relationships lose their joy, not because their was not enough nearness and love. Rather what kills relationship is the lack of respect and the appreciation of the other for their distinctness from us. Too often we spend a lifetime in relationship either trying to change our partner to be like us or lamenting how hopeless they are because they refuse to accept our way of thinking and doing.

In this backdrop the Talmudic passage cited above makes sense. Forging a successful union is very much like parting the sea. In parting the sea G-d divided the sea which was essentially one body of water into two distinct parts, and kept them that way. They remained all the Yam Suf, yet they were two individual components and unique. On reflection, that is quite a task. A marriage union requires the same effort to be successful and joyous. The man and woman need to indeed be one. Yet at the same time they need to be divisible and distinct with each having their own uniqueness celebrated and affirmed by the other. Intimacy is the miracle of a oneness consisting of two affirming and loving each other in their respective differences as well as similarities.

And so we return to where we began. How do we make our partner happy? Staying home from war and burdensome obligations gives us the means but not the method.

If we take what our Sages taught seriously than we will know that happiness in marriage is not lacking because we don't sufficiently love or feel enough in common with our spouse. That's not the problem. The problem in our relationships is that we do not sufficiently celebrate our spouses uniqueness from us. We don't respect him/her enough. And worse still, we try to change him/her to be the way we think s/he should be.

I am fortunate enough to be a new chatan, and not for the first time. Last Friday I married. It devolves on me the mitzvah to make my wife happy. Its our first year. But in truth the mitzvah applies to every married man and every married woman. Our work is to make our partner happy.

I know and hope you know that the happiness we aspire to will not be gained by bringing some new gift to your husband or wife.Rather it will be gained in showing them respect for who they are and encouraging them to be most truly themselves. Their is no greater gift one can give another than saying and showing "You are different from me. And with those differences I love you as you are!"

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Living as an Innocent

I recently read a news item where it was reported that the noted basketball super-star Lebron James paid a rabbi, reputed to have mystical abilities, a 6 figure fee so he would advise him on business decisions. According to the article, the rabbi, who heralds from Israel, and speaks no English, sat-in on investment proposals made to James and counselled him on where to place his money.

Making use of religious personalities,symbols,and amulets as a means to discern the future and influence the course of our lives is not new. But is it kosher? Just because we make use of items within the tradition rather than say tarot cards and rabbis instead of fortune tellers, does that in itself make it okay?

The Talmud teaches that one is not permitted to use 'psukim', verses in the Torah,repeated over and over, as a kind of religious device to, by dint of the 'magic' in the verses, bring about healing and prosperity.

This week the Torah is explicit in forbidding us from making use of soothsayers and fortune tellers to predict our future. But the Torah goes one step further. It tells us "Tamim t'hiyeh eem Hashem Elokecha", freely translated that means "You shall be innocent with the L-rd your G-d". The Haamek Davar explains the Torah's call to be 'tamim' by saying that even where we feel the need to know, we should remain innocent and trusting. And G-d will do as He sees fit for us.

The implication of the Hamek Davar's understanding of the verse is that its not enough that we do not make use of secular powers to know and direct the future. Even utilizing sources within the faith towards that end compromises our challenge to be 'tamim' and trusting in G-d and His direction.

So many who embrace the outer clothes of religion do so with the idea that religion will serve as some kind of magical potion to ward off evil and protect.They use prayer, study, rabbis, as if they are simply charms to guarantee against unwanted things. Sometimes they even become passionate in observance and most meticulous. Yet their practice feels almost primitive in its expectation that somehow if one does this or that one can be certain of his/her future.In their minds, Judaism provides the ingredients, which if rightly combined, can control the course of events.

Now its true that the Torah itself encourages us to pray for our needs. But prayer is not meant to manipulate the heavenly forces but rather to put ourselves in a new place with G-d, so that his mercy will devolve on us. Prayer is never meant to force the hand of G-d. And so too when we seek the counsel and prayers of great Rabbis. We do not expect them to be witch-doctors, with the powers of demi-gods. We simply ask for their prayers to be added to our own in beseeching G-d's, in whose hand our future rests, help.

Neither of the above practices compromises Hashem's call to us to be 'tamim'. We remain innocent and trusting in Hashem's will and decision. We simply are doing what He told us to do, appealing to Him so that he may give us the 'good' He intends for us.

Lebron James's Rabbi seems a far stretch from the 'tamim' of which we speak. The rabbi is not giving a 'bracha' to this Black basketball super-star. He is using his mystical powers to tell him what he otherwise would not know. And not about his moral conduct, but about investments that will make him money.It seems to me, he is using religion as a magical tool rather than as away to enhance one's spiritual self and draw near to Hashem. It is using religion against itself and its purpose.

It is not easy to be a 'tamim'. It is not easy to surrender ones natural instinct to want to both know and predict the future. The Torah tells us that in the ideal we will be given a 'Navi', a prophet so Hashem can tell us what we need to know. But for the rest, for all those personal matters of consequence not on the national agenda, we need to find the courage and faith to let go and let G-d be G-d.

Religion practiced as a means to manipulate the forces out of our control that they be good to us is a tainted religion.In the ideal, the goal of the religion we practice should be to give us the strength to live with all the unpredictability of life as an innocent, as a 'tamim', and be happy with our G-d.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Are the Religious Happy?

Gene Simmons, a lead vocalist with the rock band Kiss, and one who in both lifestyle and music gave expression to the joys of hedonism, was born in Israel. He emigrated to the United States while still a boy. Nearly all of his mother's family perished in the Holocaust. Once when interviewed, he acknowledged that growing up he had considerable contact with the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel. Yet he rejected religious life entirely in favor of the totally secular which he came to represent with his gaudy costumes and shameless antics. When asked why, he responded by noting that for all the certainty and fervor in the Orthodox Jewish world there was a noticeable lack of joy! How could he believe in Torah values and be part of a Torah community absent of joy!

Is he right? Do the religious experience less joy than the secular?
Do those who follow worldly pleasures, like they use to say about blonds, indeed have more fun?

Some years ago I attended a Siyum Hashas, a celebration of the completion of learning through the entire Talmud, together with near 20,000 men who completed the 7 year cycle of Daf Yomi study.
It was held in the largest indoor venue in New York, the fabled Madison Square Garden. It was an awesome spectacle. All these men, and many more who could not attend or could not get tickets, studied a page of Talmud a day. They were not rabbis or scholars. They were accountants and plumbers, diamond merchants and teachers. In short they were every-day people. Yet they were devoted to studying Torah, so much so that they gave at least an hour a day to learn Talmud and the daily page. Here they were in the home of the New York Knicks, and concert venue for the Grateful Dead, and they filled it, not to cheer or smoke pot,but to celebrate the gift of Torah study.

The evening was punctuated by addresses from the leading Roshai Yeshiva in America, scholars all and most revered. Yet as I sat and listened to address after address it was not the profundity of the remarks that struck me. Rather I was struck by how little spontaneous joy seemed evident in each speech. Encouragement? Yes! Challenge? Yes! Admonishment not to forget the learning? Yes! There was lots of those themes in the addresses. But where was the joy? I thought the Roshai Yeshiva should be dancing with glee. What a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d. Committed Jews filled the Garden, the bastion of the secular! A cycle of learning was completed by more Jews than ever before in Jewish history. Why were there so few smiles on the faces of the spiritual leaders? Why did the ambiance feel more serious than happy!

I repeat my earlier question. Are those who take the Torah lifestyle seriously less happy than those who reject it? Does observance compromise our joy?

Its worth noting that in this weeks parsha, that of Re'eh, whilst we are charged in no uncertain terms to a total commitment to keeping the commandments and embracing the life of Torah, we are also mandated to be joyous. No less than 7 times in this week's portion we are charged with the call to be happy.

But lets be honest here. All the expectations that we keep the mitzvot, and they are many and intricate, and that we dare not sin gives us reason to be serious and hesitant to rejoice. If we take the Torah and our G-d given obligations to heart we are more likely to forever be concerned if we are getting it right! We are likely to be more anxious than happy, more sober than exuberant. With all the details of proper observance from the complexities of the laws of Shabbat and making the right bracha to having true 'kavana' when we daven we are forever likely to be self-doubting. Self-doubt rarely leads to joy.

And the confessions we make in our own prayers seem to mitigate against us feeling happy. If one davens nusach Sefarad, twice a day one recites the 'ashamnu' list of sins. And even if one does not, over and over we recite that we are essentially unworthy of the kindnesses we receive from G-d. All that we get and all that we ask for we do acknowledging we are undeserving.If one believes that even the blessings in his/her life come to him/her undeservedly, its hard to be happy. Grateful, yes! But happy, no! In the end, no one can be truly happy with gifts that come to him/her if s/he feels s/he is not really deserving of them.

And yet the Torah commands us to be happy. How can that be?

There is a brilliant and pithy model that someone once used to describe levels of spiritual maturity. They divided the process into 4 components. When one has a totally undeveloped spiritual sense they live life for their own sake. When they get early spiritual yearnings, in the second stage, they pursue G-d centered ends but for their own sake and benefit, meaning because of the rewards G-d promises for keeping and/or the punishment for neglect. At the third level, one pursues a G-d-centered agenda, that means the focus of one's life is on the spiritual, and for G-d's sake. At this level, one's desire to do mitzvot is so as to bring nachas to G-d. And mitzvot are indeed the center of one's life's work. I would think this is the highest level. But there is one stage yet beyond.
And that is to pursue one's own life's agenda, not G-ds, but not out of selfish motives. On the contrary, if you were choosing you would pursue the spiritual agenda entirely. Rather you choose what is good for you, even though you prefer to focus on G-d, because Hashem wants you to, that is Hashem wants your pleasure and joy!
The highest level is choosing to do what is for you but for G-d's sake!

It is in this context that even the most religious person can know,and indeed must know,total simcha. Rebbe Nachamn taught "mitzvah gedola l'hyot b'simcha", "its a great mitzvah to be happy always". What did he mean its a "mitzvah"? Mitzvah is a commandment! Rebbe Nachman should simply challenge us to be happy.
The answer is that Rebbe Nachman knew that for the truly spiritual person its so hard to be happy. S/he knows how lacking s/he is and how undeserving. If one simply is seeking to serve G-d for G-d's sake one is more likely to be serious than joyous, and self-doubt will reign. But simcha is a mitzvah. G-d wants us to be happy! We need to be happy not for our sake but to do G-d's will for us.
That kind of happiness can happen even for the one most skeptical of his/her worth, because that happiness is not about them but about Hashem's desire for them.

Gene Simmons was right. Religious people, those who take their obligation to Hashem most seriously tend not to be as naturally happy as their counterparts who are secular. How can we be truly happy when we feel ourselves so lacking.

But we are called upon to be happy. Its a mitzvah oft repeated in the Torah. It takes a level of great spiritual maturity to forgo our own self critique and be happy because Hashem wants it for us.
Yet that is our mandate. To be candid,I think even great Roshai Yeshiva miss this call. They remind us of our limitations. They talk to us at stage 2 and 3 of our spiritual continuum. But they do not challenge us to attain stage 4 nor do most in themselves reflect the joy it should auger. Too bad!

You and I will have to get it on our own....To be spiritual and full of joy is not only not inconsistent. They go hand in hand. To the extent we lack the joy is to the extent we have not yet matured sufficiently in our spiritual process.
True we have no right to be happy. All we are given is a gift undeserved. But G-d wants us to be happy...And even if I feel unworthy I need be happy because He wants me to know joy!
"Mitzvah gedola lhyot b'simcha tamid!

Shabbat Shalom