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Eizer/ K’negdo: A Healthy Relationship

Parshas Chukas

Jerry was at a marriage seminar, and the leader of the seminar, a lady, was asking everybody how long they were married for. When it was Jerry’s turn Jerry said that he was married for almost 50 years. “Wow” the leader gushed “that’s amazing, perhaps you can take a few minutes to share some insights with everybody, how you stayed married to the same woman for so long.”

“Well,” Jerry said after thinking for a few moments, “I try to treat her nice, buy her presents, take her on trips…………. and best of all, for our 25th anniversary I took her to the Bahamas.”

“Well that’s really beautiful, and a true inspiration for all of us” the lady said “maybe you can tell us what you are going to do for your 50th anniversary” she said with a smile

“Well” Jerry said “I’m thinking of going back to the Bahamas to pick her up.”

We are celebrating today the aufruf and the upcoming marriage of David Hausse who will be marrying Etti Chayun. So before I continue I’d like to wish a very big Mazel tov on behalf of the entire congregation to Charles and Lynn Hausse, and to the entire Hausse family, to Moti and Eileen Chayun and the entire Chayun family, and to the proud grandfather, Marvin Keyser, and the entire Keyser and Shwartzman family. Mazel Tov!

David, I am sure over the next few days you will be bombarded by people giving you marriage advice. And it’s a funny thing – When you got your driver’s license, I can’t imagine that too many people cared to share with you driving tips. And the same is true for when you went to college – I can’t imagine you had people telling you the best way to study or to take notes. But when it comes to marriage everyone is lining up to tell you their advice on how to live a happy life together. And the obvious reason is because it’s not so easy. The statistics of failed marriages are much higher than car accidents or college dropouts. And so today I’d like to join the crowd and share with you a model; an understanding of marriage that I believe to be a rather healthy one. It does not involve leaving your wife in the Bahamas for twenty-five years.

To better appreciate this model, I think it’s important to first analyze two models which are unhealthy. Two models which cause quite a lot of stress and unhappiness in marriage. The first model is inspired by Bill Withers. It’s called the “Lean on me” model. It’s probably the one we are most familiar with, thanks to popular culture. You find this model expressed in song lyrics like, “I need you” or “Without you I’m incomplete.” It’s the idea that two people cannot function and cannot make it through life’s challenges on their own. It’s the classic love story of two people who on their own have flaws but together they compliment and compensate for one another.

It’s a nice idea, and on some level, we as Jews believe that through marriage one can find completion, but it’s also a dangerous idea. That is because when two people become so intertwined with one another, their concept of self and their self-regard becomes totally dependent on their significant other.

A classic manifestation of this is a spouse coming home to find his/her spouse in a lousy mood. In a matter of minutes, the “lean on me” spouse is also in a bad mood. And before you know it, they’re both grumpy and miserable. Or perhaps a more severe example, just as common, if a spouse in a “lean on me” relationship insults or offends the other spouse. Oh boy is that going to hurt! And that’s because each spouse’s self-worth is totally dependent on the other. If my boss insults me I could manage. But if my spouse insults me, and I rely on them for my self-esteem, I’ve just been deflated. That’s the “lean on me model”.

There’s another model that stands at the opposite side of the spectrum and that is when two spouses are totally indifferent. Basically, a husband and wife are room-mates. They live next to each other, they may share children, and their lives intersect from time to time but there is no deep emotional connection. This often happens as couples get older or worse, when a spouse who leaned on the other got tired of getting burned in the process and so the spouses each pull back until they live in their own parallel worlds. It goes without saying that being in an indifferent relationship is painful and certainly not the ideal.

So now we’re ready to appreciate the third model, one that is inspired by Jewish sources and customs. How does the Torah describe the idea of marriage? What is Judaism’s understanding of the relationship between a husband and wife?

The place to begin is obviously in the book of Bereishis where we read about G-d creating Eve. We find G-d commenting about Adam, “Lo tov heyos ha’Adam levado, It’s not good that man is all alone, E’eseh lo eizer k’negdo, I will make him an eizer, which means a help, someone to lean on, k’negdo, which means opposite him. Eizer k’negdo, a helper/ opposite him.”

Our Sages observe and ask the obvious question – these two terms are by definition contradictory. A helper is one we lean upon and someone who is opposite us means that we cannot lean on them, they stand away from us. Which one is it?

And I believe that the answer is both. The Torah, when it introduces to us the concept of union between two spouses is teaching us that we must live somewhere between these two poles. That our spouses are on the one hand people we lean upon – the idea that we are one. And at the same time, our spouses stand apart from us – we each have our own identity. Eizer and k’negdo are both true – the challenge of marriage is striking the right balance. Marriage is a balancing act between being so incredibly intimately connected and at the same time maintaining some personal space; recognizing that we are different and apart.

This idea of balancing ‘me’ and ‘we’ is also expressed in the mitzvot that relate to marriage. One of the most recent ancient cities in Israel to be excavated is right near a city called Modiin Ilit. In the excavations the archeologist found a Synagogue in the center of the town, they found numerous homes, and they also found a mikvah – a ritual bath. And that’s because no city was ever inhabited with Jews unless they first built a ritual bath. In the Mishna, our Sages teach us that building a mikvah takes precedence to building a synagogue. We are even allowed to sell a sefer Torah to receive funds from which to build a mikvah. Why? Why is a mikvah and family purity such a big deal?

I believe it’s because a mikvah and family purity represent this exact idea; the Jewish model of marriage, which is that a couple is together and yet they are apart. They have an existence as a unit and an existence that is totally independent of one another.

Let’s try to understand this on practical terms. I’ll share with you an example of one of the million areas in marriage where friction is found. Let’s take a fictitious couple, Matt and Samantha. Matt’s not so good at complimenting. Samantha buys a new outfit, no response from Matt. Samantha cooks a delicious meal and again no response from Matt. Understandably, it bothers Samantha. So what should she do?

Well, if Samantha is in a ‘lean on me’ relationship then she’ll be a mess. Her self-worth is totally dependent on her spouse who is not giving her the compliments that she so badly needs.

If Samantha’s in an indifferent relationship then she shrugs her shoulders and says, “Who cares? I’m sure someone else out there likes what I do” and she moves on. Obviously, this is also not a very healthy response.

But if Samantha is in an “eizer k’negdo relationship” then you know what she does, she asks herself, what vulnerabilities and fears do I possess that my husband’s resistance to compliment me is so difficult for me? What does this say about me and in which areas should I now work on to move beyond that?

Yes, there’s a time and place to work on what’s going wrong between a husband and wife but in a healthy relationship, each spouse should also be asking themselves what is it about this difficult situation that’s evoking from me such intense resistance and deep emotions?

So David, this is my advice to you. It goes without saying that your job as a husband is to be there for your wife monetarily, physically, and emotionally through all of life’s challenges. Judging by the happy glow on your face, I am sure you’ll do a wonderful job being there for her. But just as importantly, don’t lose yourself entirely. Marriage is the greatest opportunity for growth, for becoming a better and more developed individual. And here’s the most important part – the stronger you are, the firmer you stand on your own two feet, the better spouse you’ll be able to be. It’s a lot of work but the payoff is immeasurable.

A couple of months ago at the Oscars, Ben Affleck, in his acceptance speech said about his marriage, “It’s good, it is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”

Not too long afterwards, social media outlets everywhere had people voting whether or not Ben slept on the couch that night. But you know what, and you won’t hear me endorse a Hollywood star’s philosophies all that often, but he was right. Marriage is a process, it’s not a destination. But through that hard work, it’s an opportunity for the greatest development possible. If each spouse uses moments of conflict to make themselves better people by becoming more aware of their weaknesses and ultimately changing themselves, you will live a very, very happy and full life together.

And so I conclude with the blessing that you will be hearing at your wedding in just a short while, Sameiach t’samach rei’im ahuvim, may you, the beloved companions David and Etti, rejoice with the joy and fulfillment of true and healthy companionship. May you each grow through your marriage and learn about yourselves and develop yourselves. In the process may your marriage be one of intense happiness and overflowing joy.

Good Shabbos and Mazel Tov!

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