Josh Feigelson
President & CEO, Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Our Spousal Dance with God, and Ourselves

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Sunday New York Times and came across an article by Eli Finkel, a psychology professor at Northwestern. Professor Finkel researches marriages—what makes them work and not work, and how American marriage has evolved over time.

In his piece in the Times, Finkel highlighted a phenomenon of contemporary marriage—at least for well-educated, financially secure couples—and it is this: Our general idea of marriage today is that our spouse is supposed to be simultaneously two totally contradictory things. On the one hand, we want our spouses to be our sources of unconditional love and support, the people who will be there for us no matter what, the people we know we can go home to after a hard day and fall into their physical and emotional arms. We want them to love us unconditionally, to tell us that we can do anything, to be, in the eternal words of the poet, the wind beneath our wings.

On the other hand, we also seem to want our spouse to be the person who helps us become, in the words of Oprah Winfrey, our “best self.” We want them to be the person who helps us achieve self-actualization, finding our highest purpose and calling. We want them to bring out the best in us, to be honest with us, to give us feedback. We want them to push us to do the things they know we’re capable of but that we might not believe in ourselves enough to accomplish, to rein in our worst instincts and amplify our latent greatness.

Now, as Finkel writes, these two objectives are fundamentally at odds with one another. Here’s what he says: “To make us feel loved and valued, our spouse must convey appreciation for the person we currently are. To help us grow, he or she must emphasize the discrepancy between that person and the person we can ideally become, typically by casting a sober, critical eye on our faults.” In short, we are asking for something that, while not impossible, is really hard to pull off: We want our spouses to be our biggest supporters and our most honest critics. And, it will come as no surprise, with such lofty expectations comes ample room for disappointment.

I don’t want to jump to Finkel’s conclusion just yet, because I think the problem he’s articulating is deeply resonant with where we are today, here on Rosh Hashanah.

The basic tension Professor Finkel outlines is a problem that those of us who are married may experience. And regardless of whether we’re married, it is a tension woven into our relationships with ourselves, with the world, and with God. It is the tension of teshuva.

The Torah gives us a vision of who and what we are capable of being: shomrei mitzvot, people who do ha-tov v’hayashar b’einei Hashem, what is good and right in the eyes of God. In the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah we hear the words of Moshe week after week challenging us to achieve the lofty aspirations he has for us: doing justice, loving the stranger, being honest in our business practices, taking care of one another, keeping Shabbat and the holidays, being pure and ethical with our appetites, teaching our children, being good Jews! The Torah inspires us with an idea of what we can and should be individually and collectively, a lofty and noble idea: “Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”

And yet we know we will fall short. We will fail. We will be selfish. We will lie. Our eyes and our hearts will wander. We will forget or ignore the people who need us. We will fail to help our neighbors. We will let hatreds go unanswered and injustices go unchecked. We will be willfully or negligently deaf to the cries of those who need us. As high as our lofty ambitions are, failure is inevitable. We’re human. We will fall short.

And here’s where Professor Finkel’s observations about spousal relationships come in. Our spouse in this case is God, and the gap between who we can be and who we are at this moment is the gap we stand in during this season. God is the spouse challenging us to be our best self, unsparing in criticism in order to force us to reckon with ourselves: Hinneni he-ani mi-ma’as – here we stand, empty of deeds, in turmoil, fearing the One who sits enthroned on high. The gap between who we are and who we hope to be could not be greater than it is today.

And yet God is also that supportive spouse, the one who, in Finkel’s words, “makes us feel loved and valued, who conveys appreciation for the person we currently are.” How does God express that? By assuring us that we’ll be welcomed back unconditionally. As we read just last week in Parshat Nitzavim: “When you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. God will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.”

Moshe reassures us that Hashem will accept us with open arms! Even after all the horrible things we may have done, if we are ready to come back, God will take us back. The gap is not destiny. The gap is completely surmountable. Lo bashamayim hi – It is not in heaven, but rather our aspiration, our lofty vision, is in our mouths and on our hearts, and completely doable. This is unconditional love and acceptance.

Finkel suggests that marriages in which spouses attempt to play both these roles, of supporter and challenger at the same time, are ultimately really, really hard. “Helping a loved one achieve his or her goals can require criticism rather than warmth, harshness rather than comfort,” he writes. “It’s difficult to give complacency-shattering feedback while simultaneously making someone feel valued and loved.” And I would add, it’s perhaps even more difficult to accept both judgment and love at the same time.

This leads Finkel to write that we have two options: The first is to let go of the idea that our spouses can be our biggest critics. Let spouses just focus on love and acceptance. There are other people to be our loving critics. Maybe a friend, a therapist, a coach, a partner can be the person who gives us unvarnished feedback. But let our spouses be our reservoirs of love and encouragement. And that’s a perfectly reasonable approach.

But Finkel also suggest a second option, which is to really try to embody both stances in the relationship. “This option requires that the couple continually recalibrate their behavior,” he writes, “adopting tenderness or tough love as the situation requires.” If we are willing to accept and offer both love and critique; if we can give and receive criticism in a spirit of love and concern; if we can be attuned to what our partner needs and has the capacity for in the moment, then we might just have a chance. This option “is not for the weak of will,” Finkel writes. “But for those couples who can pull it off, something extraordinary awaits.”

Our challenge today, hayom, is to do the extraordinary. It is to hear the voice of God and experience ourselves as both judged and accepted. It is to experience the shevarim-terua, to feel ourselves humbled and broken, to feel how far we are from the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal country, the ideal planet we aim to be. And it is, on the very same day, to hear the tekia, to feel and to know that we can reach those visions.

Hayom, Today we blow the shevarim: we judge ourselves for all the ways we have failed, all the times we haven’t been present, all the times we haven’t paid attention, when we have averted our eyes and closed our ears, our hands, our hearts. Hayom, Today we blow the terua: we judge ourselves for the times we failed to speak when we should have, and the times we spoke in a way that didn’t improve upon the silence. Hayom, Today we blow the shevarim and the terua together: we judge ourselves for falling short in our relationships with our loved ones, our families, our communities, our people, our fellow humans, and our Creator.

And on this very same day, hayom, we surround those broken notes with the solid and regal blast of the tekia. We feel how much God is rooting for us, how God believes in us, how God loves and accepts us. On this day, hayom, we sound the tekia and we know that God hears our voice, the voice we may not even be able to articulate, the still small voice, just as we are, ba’asher hu sham, wherever we are. Today, hayom, we blow the tekia and we draw strength from the memory of generations of our forebears who confronted the most daunting of odds, who had far fewer material resources than we do, and who achieved miracles. Today, hayom, we sound the tekia and, knowing how broken we are, we at the same time manage to be whole.

We are living in extraordinary times. (Was there ever an ordinary time?) The world around us challenges us in ways that can sometimes leave us feeling broken. Today, hayom, I bless us all that when we listen to the shevarim-terua we feel that brokenness—in ourselves, in our loved ones, in our neighbors, in our community, in creation. I bless us that we feel pain at how far we are from where we need to be. And I bless us that we surround that pain and brokenness with listening to the tekia, that we feel that no matter how far we have to climb, God will be with us if we’re really ready to do it.

Gemar v’chatima tova.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD is President & CEO of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. He is the author of "Eternal Questions: Reflections, Conversations, and Jewish Mindfulness Practices for the Weekly Torah Portion" (Ben Yehuda Press, 2022) and the host of the podcast, "Soulful Jewish Living: Mindful Practices for Every Day," a co-production of Unpacked and the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
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