Tomorrow I have 2 weddings—David and Stefany’s in Atlanta and Cheryl’s nephew in Pittsburg. No, I won’t make it to Pittsburg but my heart and prayers are with them in their simcha. June is the time for weddings. I once had 5 weddings in one week in June! That’s a lot of weddings, and it’s a joy to be a part of them. The bad news is that statistics show that more than 2 out of 5 marriages will end in divorce. But, I’m happy to say, my 42 years as a rabbi has shown me that the couples I marry usually beat the statistics by a significantly wide margin and I’m confident that David and Stefany will as well.
I once read an insightful article in the New York Times by Lois Brady titled: “The Seven Year Itch—Where Are They Now?” Brady looked at the wedding announcements in the Sunday paper one week and focused on 7 of the weddings. She wrote an article about the details of how they met, and what the weddings were like. 7 years later she followed up on their lives with another article: 5 marriages are still intact, 2 are over–one after only a year. She writes:
Over the years I’ve asked grandmothers, rabbis, cake designers, matchmakers and famous novelists how one can tell whether a marriage will last. No one knows. Some of the most volatile couples I’ve interviewed, ones who fought and bickered throughout their wedding day, are still together. Many of the seemingly perfect ones, the ones who looked at each other like a President and First Lady during a photo shoot, divorced within a year or two.
Yes, there’s no way of knowing who will make it and who won’t. And the very thought of that has changed our entire thinking when it comes to marriage. Let me give you 3 examples:
#1: I’m sitting having my hair cut. A woman in the next chair says to her hair-cutter that she’s about to celebrate her 47th wedding anniversary. The hair-cutter says, “Really? Now how many husbands was that?”
#2: This comes from an actual court case from Marin County, California. A man died in an accident. The accident was caused by the negligence of the city. The wife asked for $4 million in compensation based on the fact that her husband was 35 years old at the time and assuming he would have worked till he was 65, he would have probably earned $4 million. Sounds fair, right?
The city admitted its liability, but only offered to pay $250,000. Why? because the couple lived in Marin County—which has the highest divorce rate of any county in the country—and they had each been married before. Statistics show that the divorce rate is highest among those that have been previously divorced. So the city argued that they would probably have gotten divorced long before he got to be 65. The jury weighed the arguments for both sides…and decided in favor of the city!
#3: There was an article about marriage on the financial page of the newspaper. It told how more and more newlyweds are now maintaining their own checking and savings accounts. And we’re not talking here about 2nd marriages where children’s lives are involved. No, these are young, excited 1st timers, ready to share their lives together—but not their bank accounts. That’s already too much of a commitment. In the words of the article: “This is prudent, given the realities of modern life. This is a result of the shifting role of women and the erosion of the presumption that marriage is forever.” So much for the commitment of “till death do us part”!
In the article focusing on those 7 marriages after 7 years, Brady writes about one she thought the least likely to succeed. The bride was a feminist, a Sarah Lawrence college graduate, a liberal, self-described “chicken soup Jew.” Somehow she became inspired to learn more and more about Judaism, and eventually became a Lubavitcher Chasid. She quickly met Chaim Meiseles and they dated according to Lubavitcher customs: they didn’t kiss nor even touch before their wedding day. They became engaged after only 8 dates. Here was a modern liberal woman who was sexually active and socially mature. No touching? Engaged after only 8 dates? It didn’t have a chance.
But 7 years later, Shayna and Chaim are doing just fine, Baruch Hashem. She describes herself as being, “a suburban mom with a wig” whose marriage she describes in these words: “Once you cross the threshold into something in which you’ve sunk your total devotion, it forces a new gravity. You are sucked in and utterly changed by the commitment.”
Commitment—that says it all! Once you commit yourself to someone, it’s just you and him/her together, and you’re going to make it work, no matter what! That kind of commitment to each other is missing today in too many marriages.
It was missing in the marriage of another of the 7 couples. Brady describes calling one of the brides 7 years later: One of my favorite brides, a strong, sassy woman, who didn’t want her name used, now answered the telephone in a shaky whisper. I could barely hear her as she said that her marriage had begun deteriorating about 3 years after the wedding. “He was never around,” she said. “He didn’t come home from work until 3 in the morning. I just kept giving him more space and more space, and he just took more space until he was gone. I tried every angle. I tried screaming, I tried talking, I tried therapy, I tried sweetness, I tried firmness. And nothing worked. He was never around.”
It’s hard to understand how that happens. How it can go so quickly from “can’t live without you” to “can’t find the time to be with you.” But it happens too often these days. And not just these days! You know whose marriage suffered from this same malady? You’re going to find this hard to believe, but it was the marriage of the greatest Jew who ever lived—the marriage of Moses and his wife Tzipora.
The story is right there at the conclusion of today’s Torah portion (Num. 12:1-16). It’s one of the strangest and most misunderstood stories in the Torah. Miriam, the sister of Moses, went and spoke behind his back to their older brother Aaron, Al Odot Ha-isha, which we usually translate as, “regarding the woman.” Miriam is speaking to Aaron about Moses’ wife, and for this she is punished and afflicted temporarily with leprosy. On 1st sight Miriam seems to be bad-mouthing Tzipora. But that’s not the way most of our sages understood it. They translate Al Odot Ha-isha, not as Miriam speaking about the woman, but as Miriam speaking on behalf of the woman. Miriam was complaining to Aaron on behalf of Tzipora. Tzipora was unhappy because she felt neglected—Moses had so little time for her.
Miriam was punished because she talked about it to Aaron when she should have confronted Moses directly. She wasn’t punished for what she said. No, Miriam was right! As a woman, she identified and sympathized with the feelings of neglect and of loneliness that another woman feels, so she felt it her duty to do something.
Tzipora was not the only woman to go through that kind of neglect and abandonment by a leader. Almost all wives of leaders feel what she felt because their husbands are so involved in public affairs…so caught up in running the world…that they have little energy or time to spare for their wives and children—or to even notice how lonely and how neglected their wives and children feel.
How did Moses react when he heard that his sister was stricken with leprosy because of what she did? Moses prayed for her. He didn’t say, “Good for you. You got what you deserved for gossiping about me and not minding your own business.” Instead, Moses prays for Miriam because he understood that she was only trying to help him and his wife. He understood that she was right.
The Torah tells us, the people waited 7 days until Miriam was healed from her leprosy and would not journey forth without her. The whole camp of Israel—millions of people—waited 7 days because they felt that they needed her.
I think we need her too. I think we can’t journey forward very far without taking the lesson of Miriam with us. It’s a lesson that not only husbands need to learn today, but wives with their careers as well. Somehow we’ve got to struggle to put our spouses back where they were when we married them—at the very center of our lives, the very core of our existence. It’s a struggle, I grant you, because all of us are so very busy, all of us have “more important things to do.”
So, my friends, listen very carefully to what I’m about to say and don’t forget it. There’s nothing that a husband or wife has to do…nothing, no matter how important one’s job may be, not even if you’re a CEO of a big company or a banker, or investor, or a composer, or a doctor, or even a rabbi. There is nothing that a husband or wife has to do that is so important that it justifies not having enough time for your spouse, or paying attention to your kids. Nothing! Nothing whatsoever! That’s what commitment is all about!
I’m really looking forward to the wedding tomorrow. This is a weekend filled with simcha—great joy. That’s the way all marriages start, with great joy! But as the great sage, Mae West, once said, “The most difficult years of marriage are those following the wedding.” Think about it.
I pray for the 2 couples getting married tomorrow. Indeed, let us pray for all of us who have embarked on this great journey in life, no matter how many years we’ve been married. Let all the years to come be filled with the hopes expressed in the prayer uttered under the Chupa: Ahava v’achva shalom v’reyut, let all our marriages be blessed with “love and harmony, peace and friendship.” And to this let us all say, Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis