SHABBAT BERESHIT 5776
Should a man always listen to his wife? Not according to today’s Torah portion because listening to his wife is what got Adam into big trouble. When Gd put Adam into the Garden of Eden he gave him one command and only one command (Gen. 2:16-17): “Of all the trees in the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you must not eat thereof; for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.”
Almost as soon as Eve is created she is tempted by the snake and eats from the forbidden fruit. Not wanting to be alone in her crime the Torah (3:6) tells us, “she gave also to her husband with her and he ate.” Adam listened to his wife, ate the forbidden fruit and then Gd punished him. And so perhaps, it’s not such a good thing to listen to your wife.
However, later in the Torah we read the story of Abraham and Sarah. In fact we just read that story on Rosh Hashanah. Sarah is barren and gives her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham as a surrogate, so she could have a child through her. As a result Ishmael is born. However, after Sarah is blessed with her own child, Isaac, and she later sees Ishmael playing inappropriately with Isaac, she demands Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham is deeply troubled because he loves his son Ishmael. He turns to Gd for advice and Gd then tells him (Gen. 21:12): Kol asher tomar l’cha Sara, shma b’kola, “Whatever your wife Sarah tells to do, listen to her voice.”
Does this mean we must listen to our wives and do what they say? Whom do we follow—the story of Adam or Abraham? What do you think? Discuss…
Let me tell you what modern psychology has to say. John Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and founder of The Gottman Institute of Relationship Research (who, by the way is a religious Jew) reports: “The secret of a happy marriage is a husband who says ‘Yes, dear.’” Gottman and his colleagues followed 130 newlywed couples for 10 years to discern the causes of marital success and failure.
For years, the psychological community believed successful marriages sprang from “active listening”—hearing the real meaning behind what a spouse says. I teach couples active listening in my role as a relationship therapist and have found it quite helpful. But the Gottman study found that although it may be a helpful tool, active listeners actually had no greater success than couples that slammed doors.
Gottman’s study appeared in The Journal of Marriage and the Family and showed that marriages that worked had one thing in common: a husband who is considerate, caring, and responsive to his wife’s wishes. From the perspective of modern psychology it seems that Abraham wins the day and we husbands should listen carefully and follow what our wives tell us. It was my wife Cheryl’s suggestion that I give this sermon today and you can tell her that I listened to what she said.
Now let me tell you what Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, has to say. Rabbi David Aaron—a modern teacher of Kabbalah whose books are always inspiring—in his 1st book, Endless Light, asks: In the very opening sentences of the Torah we are told that the 1st human being was created in Gd’s own image. And what was that image? The 1st human being was actually a man and a woman—a single entity that included the 2 sexes. “And Gd created man in His own image, in the image of Gd created He him; male and female created He them.” (Gen. 1:27)
In this union of male and female, in this oneness of opposites, the 1st human being reflected the image of Gd—a oneness that includes otherness and yet remains one.
This is a very important concept. A lone individual does not reflect the image of Gd; an individual in unity with another individual does. So until an individual makes a space to include another, and allows that other to do the same, we do not have the oneness that reflects the image of Gd. I thought this is an exquisite thought? Don’t you? Aaron continues:
The Torah records that after the human being was created, Gd said: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Gd determines that the human being needs “a helper,” but it is a while before Eve is created. Instead, all the birds and animals are created and the human being is asked to name them. At the conclusion of which, the Torah tells us that he did not find a helpmate.
What does naming the creatures have to do with finding a helpmate? The Midrash explains that Gd was playing matchmaker. Gd was fixing up the 1st human being with all the animals in the garden. And Adam was going out on dates. Well, imagine Adam standing there in the lobby of the Paradise Hotel. He is waiting anxiously and who walks in but...“That’s a...that’s an...elephant! Umm...this isn’t going to work, Gd.”
Poor Adam! He was surrounded by all these animals but he wasn’t happy. Now why couldn’t he be happy with an attractive giraffe or a cute little chicken? Because an animal is subordinate to man; it’s not his equal. In fact, Adam was commanded to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Adam cannot overcome his loneliness and find true love with a subordinate being over whom he rules.
The Torah is very clear in describing an appropriate spouse. Gd said, “I will make a fitting helper who is kenegdo”—against him, opposite and parallel to him. In other words, Gd will create for him someone who, in a very positive, respectful way, will stand opposite him and engage him on parallel ground.
An animal may be a great help to man in doing his work, but an animal cannot be the “significant other.” You will not be ultimately satisfied in the quest for love unless it is with someone you acknowledge is your equal, and whose difference you respect.
This is not to say that some insecure men would prefer not to be challenged. I’ve heard guys advise: “Get yourself a young girl, one you can mold.” And yes, a man might find someone young and vulnerable and try to make this woman fit his ridiculous fantasy of a wife who considers him the lord and master. But he will only make his life harder and very lonely. He will deprive himself of spiritual growth that comes with making a space within himself to include a unique other. What does this mean?
Kabbalah teaches that in order to create the world, Gd had to do a tzimtzum. Tzimtzum is a Hebrew word meaning, “contraction.” Before creation, teaches Kabbalah, there was no room for the world because Gd’s Light filled everything. Gd had to contract himself in order to make space for the world. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik makes the exquisite point that the creation story should be a model for our relationships. If we are so full of ourselves that there’s no room for anyone else in our lives, how can we possibly have a relationship with anyone? All relationships to be meaningful require a tzimtzum—contracting some of one’s own desires in order to make a space for another. As Rabbi Aaron puts it: “Love starts only when you…move your self out of the way to make room for another person in your life.”
And what does that space we make within ourselves for another look like? It looks almost exactly like John Gottman’s husband from the happy marriage who says, “Yes dear.” It’s one who is “considerate, caring, and responsive to his/her partner’s wishes.”
So yes, the Jewish model to follow is Abraham which is: as long as your partner doesn’t ask you to violate Gd’s command—like Eve did to Adam—you should listen to and trust your partner—even if it may sound a bit illogical or even crazy at times because, strangely enough, this is what makes a relationship work. Besides, do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?
And notice I said “your partner,” because as much as husbands need to listen to their wives, wives need also to listen to their husbands as well. That’s the Jewish way; that’s how we’re able to make space within ourselves and join with another and become whole and grow; and that’s what then makes for a happy home. So let’s all of us strive to be the one who tells our partners in life, “Yes dear.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis