A family member of mine tells the following story about her Bible teacher, a religious Israeli woman who was on the staff of the Jewish day school she attended as a teenager. Angered by reports about the lack of fidelity among married couples in America, she one day lectured her class in Hebrew: “Kiddushin zeh kadosh, zeh lo Ping Pong!” Loosely translated, her colorful remonstrance means, “Marriage is about holiness, not playing Ping Pong”, a reference to Americans’ supposed predilections for bouncing back and forth cavalierly between relationships and romantic partners.
Despite her simplistic distortion of the complexity of others’ relationships, this woman’s essential argument was correct: marriage and its discontents are not frivolous games. ProfessionalIy, I have witnessed the traumatizing, damaging effects of marital discord and divorce, especially when they have been caused or catalyzed by infidelity. Certainly, some couples and their families are better off not remaining married, and divorce gives them a well deserved second chance at life and happiness. Still, I have watched more than my share of families, children, and spouses crushed under the weight of dying marriages. Too often their aftermaths play out as dramas of hate and vindictiveness on the stages of lawyers’ offices and the American family court system.
My experiences have not been all bad. I am blessed to stand under the huppah with couples whose young, romantic love blossoms into strong families with wonderful kids who become great adults. I am rabbi to a whole community of middle aged couples whose love and friendship deepen with each year that passes. I have walked away from the sick beds and graves of very old people who have been happily married for six-plus decades.
Nonetheless, as someone with much rabbinic experience who has also been married happily for quite a number of years, I find myself at times asking how couples succeed at all. As important as marriage is for the health and happiness of individual lives, families, society, and more specifically, for the sake of Jewish continuity, successful marriages are generally not easily achieved. The human heart can be fickle at best, incredibly complex and irrational at worst. Add to this the growing pressures of an overly individualistic culture that bombards young people with stereotyped images of perfect bodies, sex, relationships, and emotional states. Our culture then also harangues them with messages about their sacred right to “have it all” and with simplistic notions of what true fulfillment is. What often results is a climate so inimical to meaningful and happy marriage that it is remarkable the venerable institution has not altogether crumbled by now.
An ancient rabbinic story provides us with great insight from a Jewish perspective about how hard it is to make marriage successful, and what it takes to make it so. A Roman noblewoman asked Rabbi Yose ben Halafta what God has been doing since the creation of the world. “God has been pairing people together as married couples, ” he replied. Unimpressed, the woman responded, “That’s it? I can take a thousand male and female slaves and do that in one night!” The rabbi retorted, “You may think this is easy to do, but for God it is as hard as was dividing the Red Sea during the Exodus.” The woman paired off all of her slaves in one night, yet the next day, each couple came back to her utterly miserable. She called for Rabbi Yose to acknowledge her defeat, whereupon he said, “I warned you that, for God, bringing two people together as a couple is as hard as was the splitting of the Sea!” If this is hard for God to do well, how much more difficult is it for us.
We do not need to believe that God literally creates each married couple to recognize this story’s spiritual value. Marriage begins with romance, love, and desire. These are all God’s sacred gifts built into the fabric of the human body and the human soul, without which no one would ever pursue a life with anyone else. God, as it were, is invested in the success of every marriage, for each one is an extension of God’s greatest project, the creation of our world. However, as effortless as the creation was for God who merely called everything into being, making marriages requires supreme effort even from the Master of the universe. Like the splitting of the Sea, love and marriage are miraculous and can be liberating, but marriage can also go against our natural tendencies. Successful marriage requires time, patience, and the active involvement of community, much as God involved Moses and the Israelites in making the splitting of the Sea happen.
Most of all, this story is telling us, a good marriage does not simply happen; it requires work. As I repeatedly counsel couples, this work can be exhilarating, fun, gratifying, and fulfilling, but it is still work. The work can become quite graceful over time, but it is nonetheless a discipline that needs to be cultivated with patience, compassion, acceptance of one another’s imperfections, love and forgiveness. Perhaps Jewish tradition’s wisdom about building good marriages can be summarized in the following manner: you make marriage work by making marriage work.