It was Voltaire who apparently said: “Marriage is the only adventure open to the cowardly.“ The truth is that marriage demands an extraordinary amount of courage. It is not for the faint hearted. Good marriages ultimately depend on the boldness of both partners, their willingness to share their most intimate secrets and their capacity to be transparent and open about their fears, disappointments and dreams.
From its very inception, Judaism has recognised marriage as one of the most exciting and exacting challenges of life. The Book of Genesis which we resume reading in our synagogue cycle this Shabbat is not only about the creation of the world. It is also about the genesis of relationships, the struggle to love and live with other human beings. Parashat Bereishit or the first chapters of the Book of Genesis encapsulate both the toho vavohu, the void or the wasteland of human relationships and the vayehi ohr, the original light to illuminate the world or the extraordinary hope and power unlocked each time we meaningfully connect to another.
When describing the creation of the first woman after the creation of man the Torah records: “And the Lord God said: it is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmate.” (Gen. 1:18).
On this point, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asks: “Why was it necessary to create a lonely man? Why was social man not created at the outset?” He responds that the awareness of being alone is responsible for the singularity of human beings. “Social man is superficial; he imitates, he emulates. Lonely man is profound; he creates, he is original.” The first human being had to be created alone in order to discover his own unique power. A superb sense of selfhood is nurtured in the stillness of the heart and aloneness of the soul.
Singularity, no-matter how well-developed, is not however completeness. Human beings need each other to discover shlemut or wholeness. So God says: “I will make him a helper, an ezer kenegdo.” A relationship is formed and community finds its origin.
It is through words that we usually make that first contact. Adam reaches out of his aching solitude in wonderment:
“And the man (Adam) said:
At last this one is it!
Bone of my bone
Flesh of my flesh
And she shall be called
For this one was taken
From a man (ish).”
Words link Adam to Eve and create the world’s first recorded poem and its first couple. More importantly, these words reflect the need to recognise the other in order to know ourselves more deeply. Adam discovers himself, his own identity and the poetry of his being only when he perceives the otherness of the woman.
In my years as a Rabbi, I have always insisted that couples do pre-marital work on the understanding that the wedding is but a moment and marriage a lifetime. To this end, I utilise a pre-marital programme called Prepare, an online questionnaire with questions ranging from personality issues, conflict resolution and communication skills to the role of family, the sexual relationship and spirituality.
The results highlight both strengths and ‘growth areas’ of the couple and allow them to immediately explore their ability to talk right (communicate) and argue well (conflict); their practical skills in things like financial management; their relationship with their own families; their own personal issues; and their commitment to community. This pre-marital tool is a down-to-earth way of engaging some of the finest ideals and deepest ideas of marriage.
Maimonides describes three levels of relationship. First, a ‘pragmatic relationship’ (chaver le-ezrah or ledavar), a utilitarian association where people need each other for practical benefits, as in a business partnership.
Secondly, an ’empathetic friendship’ (chaver lid’agah), a comradeship involving a caring responsiveness, a sharing of innermost feelings. Life’s burdens are lightened and its celebrations are heightened in an emotional closeness that is rooted in faith and confidence. Such friendships are grounded and enduring.
Finally, a ‘value relationship’ (chaver l’de’ah), an association which allows for the deepest level of friendship to thrive, for besides their commitment to each other, they share a dedication to a noble ideal. There is a unity of purpose and a joining of dreams. The relationship is deepened as they transcend their personal concerns.
Not all are fortunate to find a life partner but we can all reach out and create partnerships and friendships with others. As the proverb has it, you can travel fast on your own but you travel far when you travel with others.