Shared Responsibility, 100%
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph discusses the opinion of Rabbi Nassan who holds that if two people or agents caused damage, though they split the payment, if one is unable to pay, the other assumes 100% liability. Rabbi Nassan seems to hold that instead of looking at each damager to be 50% responsible, we look at each one as 100% responsible. It just so happens that ordinarily since both can pay the debt, they split the cost. But when one cannot pay, the other must make full restitution.
This idea of whether a shared responsibility is considered as fractionally divided amongst the parties or whether all parties are fully responsible can be applied in the social contract as well. When two people are responsible for something, do each of them see themselves as fully responsible, even when the other does their share?
In relationships, it is key to avoid a pattern of measuring or comparing output. Often, counting how much you do versus how much the other does leads to frustration and making you feel even more resentful. There may be cognitive biases that emphasize and cause you to notice how hard you are working, versus your spouse. A better model for behavior in a relationship is values based, and not reactive. The person’s behavior should not be contingent on the other spouse’s actions, but based on what is believed to be a good spouse. Couples can discuss definitions of responsibilities and agree upon roles, but the day-to-day actions or inactions cannot be retaliation.
Often when a relationship heads into a downward spiral, each will feel the other somehow “started”, and they are only reacting. While this might be technically true, it also could be that the other may have unwittingly caused hurt or distance first. That is why it is wise to behave based on what you believe a spouse should do, not based on how your spouse treated you today. I emphasize that this doesn’t preclude discussing overall trends, and to confront patterns of failure to live up to expectations – just don’t make your actions contingent upon it.
If our behavior is reactive instead of values-based we will end up getting lost in cycles of tit for tat. It also is a violation of the halakhic definition of nekama, which is defined as withholding a chesed from another based on how you were previously treated. (“Do not take revenge nor bear a grudge.” Vayikra 19:18. The Gemara (Yoma 23a) defines what exactly constitutes taking revenge: Taking revenge is when one asks his neighbor to lend him his saw and he says ‘No.’ The next day, his neighbor asks to borrow his axe and he says, ‘I will not lend it to you just as you did not lend to me.)
It is statistically likely that spouses will have strengths and weaknesses in different areas, and it also is likely in many areas one spouse could carry more of the load. This alone is not a problem. In almost any system, micro or macro, such as families or government, it is given that some individuals will far exceed others in contribution and productivity. Such inequities are stable, so long as there is a general sense that each person is doing the best they can. By each person taking 100% responsibility for the relationship stability, there is a good chance that between the human imperfections of each person, the other can compensate and cover. Even when gaps or unfairness becomes apparent, the problem stays localized and isn’t translated into a cycle of withdrawal or retaliation. The issue is confronted, but if one doesn’t do their 50% share, the other still meanwhile takes full responsibility.
I say meanwhile, because every situation has limits. If a person is in a relationship where there is consistent lack of responsibility taking, and extended periods of not putting in reasonable efforts, sometimes it’s only fair that the functioning spouse be allowed to leave the relationship and find a suitable partner in life if there is no effort nor hope for progress. Even so, a decision to divorce based on a spouse’s failure to meet minimum standards of a relationship does not justify withholding or retaliation while still in the relationship. Divorce may be halakhically permitted, but revenge is not.
Good, Is Good Enough
Our Gemara at the end of Daf 54 into Daf 55 shares a seemingly bizarre dialogue, where a great Rabbi and sage appears to be ignorant of a basic verse in the Ten Commandments:
שָׁאַל רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בֶּן עָגֵיל אֶת רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא: מִפְּנֵי מָה בְּדִבְּרוֹת הָרִאשׁוֹנוֹת לֹא נֶאֱמַר בָּהֶם ״טוֹב״, וּבְדִבְּרוֹת הָאַחֲרוֹנוֹת נֶאֱמַר בָּהֶם ״טוֹב״? אָמַר לוֹ: עַד שֶׁאַתָּה שׁוֹאֲלֵנִי לָמָּה נֶאֱמַר בָּהֶם ״טוֹב״, שְׁאָלֵנִי אִם נֶאֱמַר בָּהֶן ״טוֹב״ אִם לָאו – שֶׁאֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם נֶאֱמַר בָּהֶן ״טוֹב״ אִם לָאו; כְּלָךְ אֵצֶל רַבִּי תַּנְחוּם בַּר חֲנִילַאי, שֶׁהָיָה רָגִיל אֵצֶל רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי – שֶׁהָיָה בָּקִי בְּאַגָּדָה.
Rabbi Ḥanina ben Agil asked Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba: For what reason is the word good not stated in the first version of the Ten Commandments, whereas in the latter version of the Ten Commandments, in the context of the mitzva to honor one’s parents, the word good is stated there: “In order that it shall be good for you” (Deuteronomy 5:16)? Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said to him: Before you ask me why the word good is stated, ask me if the word good is actually stated there or not, since I am not sufficiently proficient in my knowledge of the biblical verses to remember the precise wording, and I do not know if the word good is stated there or not. Go to Rabbi Tanḥum bar Ḥanilai, who was commonly found at the academy of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who was an expert in aggada. Perhaps he heard something from him on this matter and can answer your question…
הוֹאִיל וְסוֹפָן לְהִשְׁתַּבֵּר.
since they were ultimately destined to be broken after the Jews made the Golden Calf.
וְכִי סוֹפָן לְהִשְׁתַּבֵּר מַאי הָוֵי? אָמַר רַב אָשֵׁי: חַס וְשָׁלוֹם, פָּסְקָה טוֹבָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל.
The Gemara asks: And even if it had mentioned the term good, and they were ultimately destined to break, what of it? Rav Ashi said: If this term had been mentioned in the first tablets, all good would have, God forbid, ceased from Israel Once they were broken. Therefore, only the second version, which was written after the breaking of the tablets, contains the word good, so that there would always be good for the Jewish people.
It is hard to take at face value that Rabbi Chiyya Bar Abba could not have been proficient in the basic text of the Ten Commandments. If so, what did he mean when he said, “I do not know if “good” is written in the first set of Ten Commandments”? And what does the given answer about first and second set signify?
Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael 35) explains this beautifully. He defines the first set of Ten Commandments as representing an ideal state, such as Adam before the sin or a post messianic era. The word “Tov” or “good” has a connotation of a practical earthly accomplishment. Thus, when God creates the world, the completed acts of creation are deemed “Good” – “Tov”. Thus the first set of Ten Commandments (Shemos 20:12) describe “lengthened days” as the reward for honoring parents, but the second set (Devarim 5:16) adds the reward of “good” – “Tov”. Lengthened days is an allusion to the ultimate long days of eternal life, but “good” refers to existence in this world. If the original commandments included “good”, then it means that even the first commandments were meant for this world leaving, the Jewish people with no “plan B”. Meaning to say, if the first set of Ten Commandments represented an angelic primordial ideal, the sin of the Golden Calf and whatever spiritual gaps it represented, would not mean a total cutoff because they have the less ideal, but practical second set of commandments. But if even the first commandments were meant to be fulfilled practically, then the Jews would be unable to fulfill the covenant.
The question Rav Chiyya Bar Abba was pondering is whether the Tov or practical real world standard was in the first set of Ten Commandments. He was taught that the first set of commandments were destined to break, and thus Tov was not in them, and this would ensure that “Good would not cease from Israel”. As we explained, the second set of commandments were the real world expression and expectation of the commandments.
The Jewish covenant to God is often compared to a marriage (for example, see Hoshea 2:21-22). In a marriage we also may have ideal expectations of ourselves or our spouses, but then after a few Golden Calf betrayals, we have to adjust to what our spouse and what our marriage really is. This might sound pessimistic, as if I am saying, “Settle for less, grow up and be practical.” But that is not what I mean, or not what I mean exclusively. Rather, the point is to embrace that despite certain ideals and wishes that may not be fully realized, there is an expression of them that still exist and can be honored. Yes, perhaps some accepting of practical limitations is necessary but not to the extent of no fulfillment, rather a reframing of the fulfillment.
As an example, a person had hopes for certain connection or intimacies, and in real life there is much frustration and disappointment. Yet, efforts to connect and find love can be met in different ways by a spouse and often require communication, compassion and flexibility. Those real world experiences are not pure fantasy and wish fulfillment and can nonetheless be gratifying. Good might be good enough.
Predictions or Warnings?
Our Gemara on Amud discusses a portent in a dream when one sees the word “Hesped” “Eulogy” in a written form:
וְאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: הָרוֹאֶה הֶסְפֵּד בַּחֲלוֹמוֹ – חָסוּ עָלָיו מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּפְדָאוּהוּ. הָנֵי מִילֵּי בִּכְתָבָא.
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: If one sees a eulogy [hesped] in his dream, it is an allusion that in Heaven they had pity [ḥasu] on him and saved him [peda’uhu] from actually being eulogized. The Gemara notes: This statement applies specifically when he actually saw the word: Eulogy [hesped], in writing.
Ben Yehoyada asks the obvious question, why shouldn’t the dream portray its information in a straightforward manner? Why have it written as “Hesped” instead of “Chas-Pad”, which would clearly connote mercy and redemption? Ben Yehoyada answers, that part of the process was to first be anxious and disturbed by the morbid omen of eulogy, then the person will reflect and repent, and it will turn into redemption. Meaning to say, indeed a person may receive a message in a dream that directly predicts a positive future, but this Gemara is teaching that something that looks grave can be redirected into something good. A prophetic intuition that something bad will happen is not a fixed fate, instead it’s a warning to change in order to avoid the fate.
The Jewish prophets such as Yirmiyahu and Yeshaiyahu did not prophesy to doom Israel with a pessimistic future, but rather as a final call to repent and change the future for the better. Bereishis Rabbah (53:4) states that though God keeps His promises to grant goodness, and will be honored without contingencies no matter whether the Jews keep their side of the deal, a decree of punishment from God can be reversed. This is a fundamentally optimistic and resilient outlook that can also be applied as a way of living and reacting to all events. Nothing that happens seals our fate, rather what happens is an invitation to reassess and consider what we can do to create a different future. The Chazon Ish’s Emunah Vebitachon (ch. 2) famously makes the point that faith or bitachon is not believing everything will be good, in a sense that it will be what we wish for or feel we deserve. Bitachon is believing that everything happens for a purpose and God is in communication with us about it. If something happens, we are supposed to learn from it, make meaning of it, heed its message so as to transform our future. Chazon Ish adds, if we believe God is omnipotent and that everything is directed by God, then no situation is doomed. Just as God brought suffering to you as a warning or message, so can He immediately change the situation. The future may be predicted for what it might be, but it can change based on what we do now.