I don’t know if the shidduch world was like this before things got really crazy, but singles are no longer allowed to be unhappy.
That’s not entirely true – single women are allowed to cry and bemoan the absence of quality men – but publicly, singles must appear delighted with life at all times. If they are at a simcha or an event with a neutral expression on their faces for more than a few minutes, people will notice and draw conclusions. The single must be depressed. They will never get married this way. A well-meaning intruder might inquire if “everything is okay.” If singles are simply bored or otherwise unengaged in the program, this might be accepted, but the message is clear: you are expected to pretend to be enjoying yourself. People are watching.
If singles dare confide that they are actually not feeling so rosy, their feelings will be invalidated. They may be advised to “talk to someone” or go for “counseling,” which implies that their unhappiness is a mental defect that needs to be repaired by a professional. They may be given unhelpful encouragement, such as “it’s only a matter of time,” “everyone gets married,” and “I’m sure you’ll find the right one soon.” They may be given unhelpful discouragement, such as “you’re not trying hard enough,” “maybe you’re too picky,” or “you’ll never get married if you aren’t happy.” Other favorites include “enjoy being single” and “marriage won’t solve your problems.” (Tip: if you wouldn’t say that to someone mourning the loss of their beloved spouse, you probably shouldn’t say it to someone single who is bereft of ever having met that person.)
Singles quickly learn that they had better not confide that they are not feeling so rosy. So they bottle up their feelings and put on happy airs all the time, so everyone can see how cheerful and positive they are and want to fix them up. They pay money they can’t afford to go to horrible singles events and pretend they are having a wonderful time, every moment. If anyone catches them without a smile on their face, cheerfully engaged in social banter, then something must be wrong – with them.
To make matters even worse, singles are often admonished that it’s a mitzvah to be happy, constantly! In other words, poor boy or girl, God has commanded you to be happy, and if you are not happy then you are commanded to be happy anyway, and if you are still not happy then you are a sinner. Take your misery and add a side of old-fashioned Jewish guilt to it. It’s our version of the Happy Meal.
I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to be unhappy. And I can prove it.
The Midrash states in Bereishis Rabba 17:2 and other places: “Rabbi Yaacov [and several other sages] taught, one who has no wife dwells without goodness, without joy, without blessing, without atonement…without peace…without life…he is also not a complete person…” These teachings are all supported from pesukim in Tanach.
The skeptic will retort that this is “only” a Midrash (a surprisingly acceptable heretical comment), and that apparently the sages’ teachings should just be dismissed. As you wish, dear skeptic. But this Midrash is quoted verbatim in the Shulchan Aruch as the very first halacha in the section on marriage. It’s not “only” a philosophical idea or an allegory. It’s a Torah law.
Of course, this teaching must be understood in the proper context like all others. The message is not that singles must be miserable and that their lives are worthless. Just as they clearly have life, can surely achieve atonement, and can certainly experience blessings, their existence does not have to be devoid of joy. At the same time, we must not avoid the truth simply because it is uncomfortable. There is something fundamental missing from their lives, which impacts the totality of their existence.
The purpose of acknowledging this is not to blame singles or disparage them, but to state an important fact. Singles who have little interest in getting married should understand that they are missing something very important. Accomplished singles who are offended by the notion that they are “incomplete” should understand that their being offended is a secular Western reaction, not a Torah-true position.
Perhaps most importantly, singles who are discouraged by their society from being unhappy should understand that such feelings are entirely normal and healthy. The Torah teaches that God created the world in this fashion. It is natural for someone who is unmarried to be missing joy. For singles to be joyous at all times would be unnatural, and expecting that of them would therefore be cruel.
This is no way contradicts the concept that it is a mitzvah to serve Hashem with joy. We must all strive to find joy in whatever situation we find ourselves and be grateful for what we do have. Just as a poor man – who is likened by Chazal to one who is dead – can be considered wealthy if he is content with his lot, a single who is not blessed with a family can enjoy a rich and meaningful life. The Torah is teaching that he should not fall into the trap of thinking that his life is complete if he is unmarried – even if it is not by choice – and society should not demand that he suppress natural feelings of unhappiness at this grim truth.
We have a role model for perfect balance in this regard. Boaz, the progenitor of King David and Moshiach, was an unmarried man. According to Chazal, he had previously been married with many children, and all of them died. This would only amplify the following point. It states in Megillas Ruth (3:7) “And Boaz ate and drank, and his heart was merry.” He was a wealthy and widely respected man, with much blessing in his life, and this brought him happiness.
He also understood that his life was not complete. The Midrash comments on this very verse: “For he was seeking a wife, as it states ‘One who has found a wife has found goodness’ (Mishlei 18:22).” Chazal understand that Boaz could not possibly have been fully joyous at heart as a single man, and they emphasize that he was committed to finding a wife. Indeed, immediately thereafter he finds an eishes chayil. Perhaps we can also infer that his positive attitude – despite his losses and advanced age – served him in good stead. This is the source of our redemption.
So yes, enjoy life while single, but don’t enjoy being single. It’s important to acknowledge that the greatest joy and blessing comes from a harmonious marriage. And it’s okay to feel pain without that. In fact, it’s healthy.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.