When I walked out the doors of rabbinical school, I felt prepared to teach Talmud, to expound on the teachings of the Torah, and even to help pastor those seeking to better understand God.
What I was ill-prepared for when crossing the threshold from the ivory tower to the real world was how many challenges people face in the routines of daily life and the counsel they seek from their spiritual leaders. This, for me, was my greatest surprise and largest challenge in the pulpit rabbinate.
One topic that seems to bring many a congregant into the confidential space of my office relates to marriage. Obviously, officiating at weddings requires a lot of rabbinic energy to ensure that each couple not only celebrates a Jewish wedding, but also lives a Jewish marriage. But after the nuptials, the works of maintaining a sense of passion, communication, respect, fidelity, and the many other core ingredients of a healthy relationship proves to be challenging for many in our community. Managing young children and their demanding schedules, maintaining a taxing work schedule, and earning salaries that enable Jewish education, Jewish summer camps and kosher food all add stress. Throw into that the issues that face the sandwich generation. It is enough to make any marriage — a healthy one, working on all cylinders — inherently challenging. Throw one ripple into that intricate machine, and it operates inefficiently and comes off center. The engine that helps run a marriage is no longer humming. Instead, it’s starting to squeak.
I found it to be ironic that I was the one to whom people turned for direction. Marriage is the hardest job I have ever held. Not because of the spouse I chose. Like many Jewish men, I over-married. My wife is a person much smarter, more attractive, and wiser than I ever will dream of being. But, for all the reasons listed above, and the pace of the lives we lead, it is hard to keep balance.
When my engines squeak when they should hum, I regularly turn to our tradition to serve as a compass to orient me in the path I take forward. What is blaringly obvious yet often overlooked is that the Torah does a poor job of modeling healthy marriage and family dynamics.
When the book of Genesis concludes and the story of Moses and the Exodus begins, we pivot not only in character but in narrative as well. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman teaches, Genesis is a book dedicated to peoplehood. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are books dedicated to nation building. In theory, this seems like a great model. But in divvying up airtime, nationhood gets short shrift. One book is filled with many characters — Adam and Eve; Noah and his family and animals; Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Our foreparents are real figures with beauty and warts, strengths and weaknesses that make them real, not like fairy tale figures but people whom we can seek to emulate. However, once we enter Exodus and the three books that follow, very little attention is given to character development as it relates to interpersonal relationships and marriage.
In strange ways, this is echoing the model that many who visit my office share in confidence. Happy couples fall madly and deeply in love. The pair joins hands in marriage. And then kids enter the scene, work gets demanding, and the partners start relying on each other instead of appreciating one another. The hum becomes squeaky.
One of the primary culprits for this disconnect is not exercising our relationship.
Recently, I became part of the special society of parents who have both kids away at summer camp. Our house is very quiet. My wife and I seem to eat a little later, never go down to the basement, and focus on each more than we do during the 10 months when the kids are at home. In fact, we find that we fall back and ever deeper in love each summer. We even have half jokingly suggested that we should look at boarding schools. (Maybe not so jokingly…)
There are two major problems with this eight-week opportunity to reconnect with our partners while the kids are away.
First, would anyone consider that exercising for eight weeks a year exempts us from exercising the other 44 weeks? That approach is imbalanced, ineffective, and not a healthy solution. The same is true for exercising our relationships.
Second, when we are demonstrably in love with our partners, and engaging in kinder, less charged ways of expressing ourselves, using a softer touch, our kids are at camp. They cannot witness the greatest lesson we could model. What a wasted opportunity! Our kids, who learn much more from what they see than from what we instruct, lose the peephole into the happiness and satisfaction that partners can afford one another.
For our nation to succeed, first we must have a strong foundation in our peoplehood. The same is true of the families we want to raise. We first must have a strong groundwork in the love and values we work to espouse.
Do not take love for granted. Spend time training that force, so it does not atrophy and can be trusted if and when the hum of the machinery called life gets squeaky. Use those muscles in front of the kids. Carve time out for your spouse, so your kids see your priorities, and they can follow your example in the relationships they seek to build for themselves.