"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!"