Shaarei Shamayim

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In honor of the Aufruf of our son Lawrence Tobin for his forthcoming marriage to Galina Kadosh from Maryland this morning let me ask: what is the secret of a happy marriage? No one’s really an expert—not even relationship therapists like me. When George Carlin died, I read that he was married for 36 years before his wife died and that he remarried and remained faithful until his death—not the usual celebrity fare. Maybe he had some advice. So I searched and searched but all I could find of what he wrote or said about marriage is: “‘I am’ is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that ‘I do’ is the longest sentence?”

So I then turned to couples who were married for over 50 years. They not only have time on their side, but anyone who knows couples who have had such long and happy relationships also know that they are very much in love—or at least they haven’t killed each other yet! So I asked them: “To what do you attribute the longevity of your marriage?” You might be surprised by the answers I received.

Without giving away any confidences, the men told me that their wives were “perfect.” By the way the women didn’t say anything like that about their husbands. The men also acknowledged that they attributed the longevity of their marriages to the fact that their wives were long suffering and put up with them despite their shortcomings. 

One of the wives told me, “Rabbi, in a good marriage at least one of the 2 people has to be willing to bend…and it’s usually me.” This was not said with resentment. It was simply stated as a truth. Apparently it’s more often the woman who displays flexibility.

One woman told me: “The secret of my marriage is that I never say ‘No’ to my husband.” Now, she didn’t explain to me what she meant by this…but I took it to mean that a couple has to be open, flexible and agreeable with one another. And it’s probably just as important for a man to learn 2 sacred words in his marriage if it’s going to last. What are these 2 sacred words? That’s right, “Yes dear!” In fact, recent research on long-term relationships confirms this!

Finally I noticed that these couples also had a number of common attributes. 1st, these couples not only love one another, they respect and like each other. They are what the Sheva Berachot, the 7 marriage blessings we recite at a wedding, refers to as reyim haw-ahuvim, “loving friends.” They like to be together and they have fun together. They not only have common interests—if you can call watching “American Idol” or “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette”  an interest—but they never tire of one another’s company.

And I would add one other quality that these couples share: there is a great deal of laughter in their marriages. They not only laugh at one another—they’re not afraid to laugh at themselves either. I don’t believe it’s possible to have a happy marriage if you take yourself too seriously.

Now understand, these couples are not perfect. They argue, they fight, and they get angry and infuriated with one another from time to time. But they have also learned the secret of machloket, of “controversy.” And that is an important lesson which we find in this week’s Torah portion.

Although our parsha, Korach, doesn’t talk about marriage, it teaches us something about how to fight fairly. Korach is the ultimate egotist. He takes on Moses and the entire people of Israel. He’s manipulative, dishonest and very angry. “What gives Moses the right to dominate the people?” he complains. It just doesn’t seem fair to him that Moses should be the sole leader and that Aaron and his sons should be the kohanim, to the exclusion of all the other Levites. He challenges them: Madu-a titnasu al k’hal Hashem, “All the community is holy—all of them—and Gd is among them. Why do you put yourself above the congregation of Gd?”

Under this mantle of self-righteousness, Korach argues that every one should have an equal share of the leadership and that Moses and Aaron have no right to be the sole leaders. Of course that’s not what Korach wants at all. Hidden in his words are tremendous anger and greed. Korach clearly has his own agenda. 

The name Korach is spelled Kuf-Reysh-Chet. The Sages tell us that the Kuf stands for Kinah, “jealousy,” the Reysh stands for Romemut, “arrogance,” and the Chet stands for chemda, “personal desire.” Korach’s argument is not about working things out but getting his due. And such an argument is doomed to destroy any relationship.

In Pirke Avot (5:20), we learn that Korach’s rebellion is a classic example of a machloket shelo l’sheym Shamayim, “a controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven.” Such a controversy is doomed to failure because it’s not about working things out, but about “divide and conquer.”

So one of the qualities of a good marriage, I would argue, is learning how to fight fairly and effectively. Here’s a practical tip. If you come away with nothing else this morning come away with this: When arguing, be self-reflective and not reactive. Ask yourself—even in the heat of the moment: “What do I really want and what can I say or do to be most effective to get the most positive result—to get what I want?” Remember, throwing verbal darts to hurt each other really doesn’t get you what you want. It may feel good for a second, but it only makes thing worse. So when arguing, be self-reflective and not reactive.

And let’s be honest about why we are really arguing. Most often we don’t argue about what’s really bothering us; we allow petty issues to be the subject of contention that hides the real issues.

Here’s the amazing thing: how we argue can influence the kind of person our spouse becomes. We have the power to bring out the best and the worst in one another. What was it that made Korach so bitter and angry? According to the Midrash it was his wife! Of course! As a couples therapist I can tell you that wives have enormous power to bring out the best or the worst in their husbands.

Korach is an example of the worst. The Midrash claims that Korach’s wife was very ambitious. They already were perhaps the wealthiest family in all of Israel and very prestigious. Korach was the 1st cousin to Moses and Aaron. But that wasn’t enough for her. She desperately desired to be the wife of the king or the High Priest and so she stirred him up into a frenzy that ultimately led to his rebellion.

One of the chief followers of Korach, On ben Pelet, is an example of how wives can bring out the best in their husbands. In fact, he is mentioned in the opening verse of Torah reading along with Korach. But we don’t see his name again—not even when the followers of Korach were swallowed up by the earth. What happened? At the last moment he dropped out of the dispute. Why?

The Midrash tells us it was his wife. She was very wise and could see the selflessness of Moses and Aaron. She understood that if Gd chose them to lead the Jewish people, it would not be good to try to change that. She also saw right through Korach—that he was only out for himself. The Midrash tells us that to prevent On from joining Korach, she spoke with her husband and convinced him that he would gain nothing from the rebellion. She also succeeded in preventing the other leaders of the rebellion from forcing her husband to join them. She saved her husband and her entire family from the destruction of Korach’s followers. (with thanks to Rabbi Mark Greenspan for introducing me to this Midrash)

If Korach’s rebellion is an example of a machloket shelo l’sheym Shamayim, “a dispute not for the sake of Heaven,” then, according to that Mishnah in Pirke Avot, Beyt Hillel and Beyt Shamai are the prime example of a machloket l’sheym Shamayim, a “heavenly dispute.” What was it that made the literally thousands of disputes between these 2 major schools of thought in the Mishnah so heavenly? The Talmud tells us: “Although Bet Shamai and Bet Hillel were in disagreement on matters of who can be married to whom and on matters of kashrut, etc.…nevertheless Bet Shamai did not refrain from marrying into the families of Bet Hillel, nor did Bet Hillel refrain from marrying into Bet Shamai and they ate at each other’s tables. This should teach you that they showed love and friendship toward one another, thus putting into practice the injunction, ‘Love truth, but also peace.’”

We must learn to strike a balance between truth and peace not only in the community but in our personal relationships. Truth and peace are not always the same. While it may feel good to be right, right doesn’t always make for a good marriage. Every couple knows that there are times when it’s more important to promote peace than to win an argument.

It sounds almost cliché to say it , but never go to bed angry. A good marriage is one in which the partners not only know how to fight fairly and honestly but they also know when to put aside their differences because what they share is greater than the issues that divide them. And, in fact, a good marriage celebrates some of their differences—allowing each other a bit of personal space.

It’s like my colleague who celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary and when a congregant asked him what was the key to the success of his marriage, he replied, “My wife and I agreed long ago that no matter how busy we were, no matter what our professional obligations, once a week—no matter what—we would go out to dinner. She goes out on Tuesdays and I go out on Thursdays!”

So there you have it: some of the truths, but not really the secret of a happy marriage. Maybe there is no secret. And maybe at the end of the day it takes a little bit of mazal to be blessed with not only a loving marriage but a friendship that lasts a life time.

I learned the most important lesson of all about marriage just a few months after I became a rabbi. I was asked to visit an elderly congregant whose husband had passed away while she was in the hospital. This couple had no children and there was no one else to break the sad news to her. Standing at her bedside holding her hand, I told her that her dear husband of over 65 years had passed away. She cried and said, “Rabbi, it seems like we met just yesterday.” Wow! After 65 years it seemed just like yesterday.

I marveled at those powerful words and I realized the truth in them. A good marriage passes in the blink of an eye but a poor marriage, a marriage with little love, can seem like an eternity, like the refrain of George Carlin that, “I do,” is the longest sentence in the English language. In the end we must make every day count, and never miss an opportunity to tell one another, “I love you. I need you. I want you in my life. I thank Gd for you.” Hey, maybe that’s the secret…Amen!

                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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