Rabbi Abba Paltiel*
[M]arriage is indeed a mystery. It is the oldest institution ever practiced by mankind and the thousands of years it has been in practice have given us little to no experience in how to conduct our own marital lives.
Everywhere you go people ask “teach about marriage, teach us how to build a secure and successful family life.” What other social phenomenon that has been around for such a long period of time remains such a mystery? After thousands of hours and pages of books and lecture and seminars, people keep on asking the same question: how does a healthy marriage work?
5,000 years of experience, and almost no lessons learned.
Some people have even gone as far as reaching the conclusion that it simply doesn’t work, it’s an institution of the past that has proven to be a failed experiment.
An alternative approach to resolve this quandary is to begin looking elsewhere for answers. If you look for something long enough in one place and cannot find it you ought to try looking in another location…
I wish to open with a Chassidic observation that can assist us in this quest:
A group of Chassidim are sitting on board a wagon traveling to see and study from their Rebbe. They aren’t the only ones making this trip, there is also a coachman who is also heading in the same direction as well as his trusted beasts, a pair of husky horses.
If we observe this scenario: the horses galloping at full speed, the coachman at their helm with the reins in hand and the Chassidim atop the wagon discussing sublime ideas, we will discover three classes of travelers sharing the same trip to the same destination, but with widely diverse goals in mind.
Ironically, the higher the class of the travelers, the odds for success of the trip decrease.
The pair of horses has things really clear and down pat; they are traveling to this destination whose name they don’t know, yet with a clear knowledge that at the end they will be rewarded with a hefty meal of water and barley. The coach man has but a more elevated goal: he is traveling to a certain town with the knowledge that he will be paid the agreed-upon sum for his services upon arrival.
The third class of travelers is traveling with the most sublime goal, yet with the smallest measure of security that they indeed will reach it. They are Chassidim traveling to the Rebbe with the hope to be inspired by his teachings and presence to become better, more committed Jews. Will they succeed? Will they see the Rebbe? In the event that they do, will his words touch their hearts? No one knows, yet they travel nonetheless.
There is the animal class of travelers, taking this trip only in order to obtain material gratification in the form of hay and barley; there is the human class – the coachman who seeks to support his family; and there is the class of Chassidim who are trying to rise above their human limitations by making this trip to obtain inspiration to help in this endeavor.
In conclusion: We speak here of three distinct classes heading towards a shared destination with hardly the same goal. This, my friends, is the story of the human quest which leaves some depressed and other elated.
I would like to apply this observation to the topic of tonight’s discussion, the institution of marriage:
In marriage too, these three classes exist.
Marriage addresses the needs of a person, from the most simplest and basic to the most sublime and elevated ones.
The union between a husband and a wife can be seen as an institution that also animals practice. It provides us with “animalistic” needs and desires, interests shared by us and the animal kingdom alike; such as having someone to cook our food, a partner with which we can procreate, the need to have someone provide us with a livelihood and shelter.
When a human sees marriage through the eyes of an animal, for the sole purpose of the said objectives, we should be the least surprised that the marriage isn’t a happy one.
For humans, marriage must be elevated to a human act, a relationship which includes not only one spouse providing the material or financial needs of the other, whatever the division of roles may be between the two. Rather two people unite to give one another love and emotional security.
While this may be a decent platform for a successful marriage, marriage cannot remain at that. While it surely has greater chances of survival than the first model, it fails to address an entire aspect of the human nature, the need to spiritually grow.
This model of marriage is about preserving humanity as it is, it doesn’t improve it. Man, however, was created for the purpose of reaching greater heights, breaking out of his limits. The deepest need of a person is to “conquer the earth,” as the Torah puts it. In other words, man will feel empty and unfulfilled if he is to accept the situation of the universe as it is and allow it to remain at status quo, in mint condition, exactly as it was created. We as human beings need not just material and emotional security, but also a spiritual goal to strive for.
Perhaps that’s why so many marriages, even between quite decent people, fail. Abuse on the side of one or both parties isn’t the sole cause for divorce!
Unfortunately many marriages only address the material and emotional needs, but they fail to be a form of a spiritual union, a union which helps both parties grow spiritually.
If that quest for spiritual meaning, being the deepest, most basic need of mankind, remains unaddressed, he will surely become miserable; he’s ignoring the most important aspect of himself which cries out for recognition. That cry will sometimes take the form of anger, sometimes depression, sometimes skepticism and mistrust, but never satisfaction.
The true human marriage is meant to be a union of two human beings in which they give one another the material and emotional support in order to together live for a higher purpose! It is primarily a spiritual union which enhances the material and emotional aspects and raises them to a higher standard.
Usually, when there is a difficulty in resolving marital conflict, it is due to the fact that you’re looking for answers in the wrong drawer. If we are married only on the materialistic plane, even the human plane, while we ignore the spiritual plane of it, conflict is soon to arise.
There is an irony here: human selfishness, the need for survival and security, is a key element and driving force that brings people to marry. But once the marriage is on, the union must become elevated for it to survive and most importantly, thrive.
For that, selfishness must be put away. For the union to survive we mustn’t let it lead, we must harness it to serve us in reaching for our higher purpose.
Allow me to translate this into more practical language:
If we leave our marriage on the material level alone and provide our spouse with his or her mate rial needs only, we are obviously bound to find trouble: we obviously are failing to address a deep need of every human being to feel emotionally secure.
If a wife will cook a gourmet dinner for her husband every night but will fail to show him love and care beyond his plate there will be a very unhappy husband here. If a husband will bring home a generous salary every month and allow his wife to buy herself a new diamond ring twice a month but will not show interest in her emotional wellbeing, this relationship will be in deep trouble.
Equally, and in many senses, even more important is the need of every human being to strive for something greater, for spirituality. The couple must dedicate time and attention to making their marriage and their home a habitat friendly for spiritual growth.
In my many years of counseling couples who have encountered hardships in their Shalom Bayis, one tip which I find that almost always works is to elevate the marriage to a spiritual level. If the husband and wife make a point to set aside a weekly hour for shared study, it almost always solves many of the problems.
Mutual respect is a must for a happy marriage. No human feels respect for a animal and not surprisingly, humans who have improved themselves and grown beyond the narrow view of selfishness will have no respect for a fellow human whose sole interest is indulging in things animals also can do, especially if they live with this person under the same roof!
The Rebbe once related a tale he heard from his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe about two brothers, one was very rich and the other was very poor.
The poor brother needed to marry of his daughters and he went to ask his wealthy brother for assistance. The brother was happy to help but first he wanted to show off his wealth, so he took his pauper brother on a tour of his mansion. The pauper who was a pious Jew, had no interest in such things and just trotted along with feigned interest since he had no other choice. Eventually his brother noticed this and requested his poor brother’s reaction: “Nu? What do you say about my wealth?” The poor brother answered very directly: “If you can help me, then please do so; if not, I will be on my way, this is a total waste of time!”
The rich brother was obviously offended, to which the poor brother responded: “There is a certain animal, which delights itself by lurking in the mud; that is what she eats, that is what she drinks. Only one thing ‘distresses’ her – why can she not immerse her nose in the mud as well? Wouldn’t that be a greater pleasure?”
How can we respect such hedonistic behavior?
If instead we discover in our spouse a person whose interest goes beyond money and clothing, we discover within us a new level of respect for him that allows us to together soar to great heights and to turn our marriage into a truly human one.
It is imperative, especially to people who lead a life governed by the Torah which holds us up to at least a minimal standard of spiritual living, to maintain that standard, of which a basic requirement is to grow, if they want to remain compatible to one another!
Try this at home: become more spiritually sensitive. It will work wonders!
* This is an un-edited transcript from a lecture by Rabbi Abba Paltiel In honor of the wedding anniversary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rebbetzin. On the 14th of Kislev, Chabad of Flatbush hosted renowned Chassidic marriage coach Rabbi Abba Paltiel for a workshop on how to attain a higher form of marriage. The lecture was followed by Q&A’s.