Marriage Isn’t What It Used To Be

A number of years ago I shared the essential thought in the essay below with subscribers to my mailing list at the time. But I believe it’s a thought worth repeating, for the benefit of new readers, and worth re-pondering for the rest of us.

My wife and I recently accompanied our second son to the chuppah.  It was an elating experience, understandably, and the sight of the new couple recalled to me the unsettling, if simple, observation of the Netziv.

The Netziv – an acronym meaning “pillar,” by which Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), the famed dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva, is known – noted that the first marriage in history differed in an essential way from all the matrimonial unions that came to follow.  Because, according to a widely cited Jewish tradition, Adam and Eve were created as a single entity, a man-woman coupled back to back, with the “forming” of woman described by the Torah more accurately envisioned as a separation.  The word often translated “rib” is in fact used elsewhere in the Torah to mean “side,” and so should be understood in the light of that tradition as referring to the woman-side who was part of Adam-Eve before Divine surgery provided her an independent personhood.

So, notes the Netziv, Adam’s subsequent union with his wife was in fact a “re-union” – of two entities that had originally been one.  That idea, says Rabbi Berlin, lies in Adam’s declaration when Eve is presented to him:  “This time it is a bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  Comments Rabbi Berlin: “Only ‘this time’ is it so, since she is a ‘bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh’; [here, Adam’s love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand.”

Not so, though, every marriage to follow, where the two people creating a relationship will have been conceived, born and raised as independent individuals before becoming a marital unit.

Yet the Talmud directs that, among the blessings recited at a Jewish marriage ceremony and at the festive “Sheva Brachot” (“Seven Blessings”) meals attended by the bride and groom for the week thereafter, are several references to the First Couple (Eden’s, not the Obamas).  Not only is the creation of Adam and Eve explicitly invoked, but the bride and groom are reminded of how “your Creator made you joyous in the Garden of Eden.”  How, though, can the comparison be made?  The essence of post-Edenic marriages, their emotional and spiritual components, would seem to be of a qualitatively different nature from that of the original one.  As per the Netziv’s observation, they are mergers, not homecomings.

Or, to carry the Netziv’s own simile a bit further, they are not like reattaching a severed limb but like transplanting a newly donated one.

Interestingly, the medical metaphor itself may hold the answer to why we hold up the example of Adam and Eve to those marrying.  Maybe it isn’t a comparison that is intended but a spur to thought – the thought that a successful marriage entails striving for a relationship like that of Adam and Eve, who began their lives as a single being.

Consider why transplantation is no simple matter: It commonly entails a risk of rejection.

The natural reaction of a normal body to the introduction of an “other” with its own distinct genetic identity is to seek to show it the door, so to speak.  There is good reason for that immune response, of course; it helps protect against the introduction of foreign elements that could be harmful.

Likewise, the natural response of a normal human psyche to the intimate introduction of an “other,” with its own discrete emotional and spiritual identity, is to similarly seek to protect the threatened self.

Doctors help ensure successful transplants by administering immunosuppressant drugs, chemicals that prevent rejection.  They operate by lowering the threshold of the immune system’s integrity.  Or, put more simply, they weaken the body’s sense of self.

Might it be that we focus a contemporary bride and groom on the original ones in order to teach them that marriage needs its own form of “immunosuppressant” to succeed – that, in other words, no less than in an organ transplant, marriage requires a weakening of self?

Here, of course, no drug will do; what alone can work is a conscious, determined reorientation of attitude, a force of will born of love.   In the Netziv’s words about post-Edenic brides and grooms, only “deep connection [“d’veika”] will bring them together, to become one.”

Like everything truly important, of course, that is more easily said than done.   But knowing one’s objective is the first step of any journey.

And the second, here, is acting – whether or not one’s actions reflect purity of intent – as if it is not one’s self that is calling the shots.  Jewish tradition stresses that simple deeds can beget essential changes.  As a Jewish aphorism sourced in the 13th century work Sefer HaChinuch puts it: “A person is acted upon by his [own] actions.” What we do, with determination to become someone who naturally does what we are doing, brings us closer to becoming that person.

And so newlyweds might disagree over whether the window should be open or closed.  But the chilled spouse should be the one insisting that it remain open, for the comfort of the overheated one; and the latter should be running to shut it, to keep the other warm.  Even if the result is a compromise, like leaving the window open a crack, the acts of selflessness themselves are priceless.  And they are not limited to windows.

And the marriage-message borne by the Netziv’s observation is, of course, not only for newlyweds.

Transplant recipients, after all, generally need to take their immunosuppressants for life.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran


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