Rabbi Shraga Neuberger
Klal Perspectives, Symposium on Preparedness for Marriage
To read this issue’s questions, CLICK HERE.
Shalom Bayis: The Crown of Personal Growth
Are the challenges facing married couples in contemporary American life actually that unique? Ultimately, the answer is no. Marriage is fundamentally about growing beyond one’s self, and – though the circumstances may change from one generation or locale to another – the struggle involves many of the same natural qualities and midos with which men and women were created. When understood correctly, the Torah sources that shed light on the enterprise of marriage, and on interpersonal relationship in general, provide the essential guidance needed for every generation.
However, although the challenges themselves may not be unique, there are a variety of factors in today’s society that can make it extremely difficult to confront these challenges effectively. In other words, the challenges inherent in today’s world – from those affecting how children are raised to the process of shidduchim, and from the fast pace of life to the shallow culture around us – can substantially undermine our ability to focus on and to embrace the values, attitudes and ideals upon which a successful, Torahdikke marriage is based.
The first part of this essay will review some of these complicating factors that obscure the Torah’s path to successful marriage. The second part will then present some of the most vital steps along this path, albeit in brief form.
Part I: Unique Challenges of Our Time
The following areas of concern strike me as the most frequent obstacles that prevent young people from focusing on, and dedicating themselves to, the Torah’s path for a successful marriage:
Today’s dominant values encourage expectations about married life that are not only misplaced, but thoroughly incompatible with the Torah’s path. In particular, many expect that the right families, the right living arrangements and the right amenities, along with a natural attraction between husband and wife, will lead to marital joy and happiness.
Torah wisdom takes a completely different view: that is, marriage – like life itself – presents a person with a designed set of challenges to engage. Joy in marriage comes from joining together to engage these challenges and to thereby – over a period of years – nurture a relationship and a home that express the eternal truths of G-d’s Creation. The joy is a function not of what you can take from the marriage right away but of what it becomes – and of what you can become – when you invest yourself in it.
Today’s young people too often arrive at marriage with the convictions that they should be able to remain the “same person” in marriage as they had been before, and that their spouse and home environment are meant to faithfully reinforce their self-image, sparing them the need to change. They do not anticipate, nor are they prepared for, a process of self-development in which they grow together with a spouse into an interdependent couple.
Couples must recognize that marriage is meant to change a person. Indeed, if you ask any long-married individual if they are the same person they were – or expected to become – on their wedding day, you are likely to get a wistful smile and a “no.” Marriage is about strategic compromise, as husband and wife slowly discover their differences and respective needs – as well as their strengths and weaknesses – and learn how to adapt to the realities of their emerging, interdependent relationship.
“Interdependent” means that each spouse recognizes that they can no longer be themselves by themselves – that, on a certain level, their very identities now depend on one another. They must each shape their approach to the shared spheres of their lives – from minor habits and mannerisms to what kind of Shabbos table they want, to the father or mother they hope to be – with their spouse’s perspective prominently in mind. Such an approach requires an openness to learning not only about one’s spouse – how he view things, what she cares about, what makes him uncomfortable or gives her joy – but also about one’s self as part of this new couple.
As we will see in Part II, this very process is essential to the development of each individual, as he or she overcomes self-centered instincts to live a shared and responsible life of love and connection.
A second mistaken expectation that must be overcome if marriage is to succeed is that of instant gratification. Most young people rarely have worked hard over an extended period of time in order to achieve a meaningful goal. As a result, they are ill prepared for the long-term investments necessary to allow their marriage to mature. With a field of vision limited to the immediate future, young couples place unreasonable pressure on their marriage to quickly live up to impossible expectations and, not surprisingly, each blames the spouse for the inevitable failure.
An Absence of Depth
Another factor placing today’s generation at a distinct disadvantage in meeting the challenges of marriage is the widespread deficiency in depth of character. For a variety of reasons, most people live relatively shallower lives than in previous times, rarely facing the sort of wrenching tests of character that were once commonplace. Such tests (nisyonos) draw out a person’s character and deepen his appreciation of who he is and what he can do. This character development enables the individual to evolve into more of a giver in life, with greater inner-strength from which to draw.
Today, life choices typically follow one well-beaten path or another, going through motions that countless others have gone through already. As a result, people are far less inclined to dig deeper in search of independent solutions to problems or to extend themselves for the sake of a relationship. The common view is that if something does not seem right on the surface – if it doesn’t fit with standard expectations – it must be no good.
Most of life’s challenges require depth of character, and marriage is chief among them. Lacking in this area will certainly hamper one’s ability to implement the Torah’s vision of a successful marriage.
The increase in divorce is a problem that feeds on itself, as children who grew up in unstable homes are more likely to experience challenges in establishing their own marriages. Even the increased acceptability of divorce as an option is weakening the marital bonds that keep families strong.
Though marital problems are experienced by children of the best homes, and products of unstable homes often make very good spouses, the incidence of difficulty is higher for those who grew up with undesirable models of marriage.
In such cases, children often commit to themselves that they will not repeat their parents’ mistakes, especially when those mistakes caused them to suffer. Nevertheless, despite their good intentions, these patterns are not so easily dismissed, often taking root in their own marriage, as well.
It is important to look out for such signs in one’s relationships during school years, as chronic difficulties with roommates, chavrusahs (study partners), etc., can foreshadow similar problems in marriage. In such instances, it is vital that opportunities to develop relationship skills be embraced, as “I’ll do better in my marriage” is a hollow promise.
The awareness that they may have problematic tendencies, along with the proactive commitment to replace these tendencies with positive behaviors, can enable these young people to have as successful a marriage as anyone else.
The shidduch process itself has the potential to steer a couple off course, both in choosing the right spouse and in commencing a new marriage. Ideally, a couple should enter marriage from a position of strength, making a confident choice in establishing a home they can believe in. Too often, the shidduch process leaves individuals off balance and unsure for a variety of reasons.
In the worst cases, young people – or not-so-young people – feel pressured to say yes to a shidduch for fear of being left without a spouse. Sadly, one of the words most associated today with “shidduch” is “crisis,” as many are all-too-aware. The dating process can feel like a slow game of “musical chairs,” dominated by a sense of pressure to grab a seat before there are none left. This is not the ideal frame of mind from which to enter the lifelong commitment of marriage.
Additionally, in some circles, parents tend to play a primary role in identifying prospects and, while this is often beneficial to children who may not be equipped to navigate the scene, parents sometimes pursue the sort of spouse they would want for their children rather than the spouse their children actually need. Children often sense this, but may resign themselves to “doing the best they can” with the options made available by their parents. When things don’t go very well in these types of situations, it is too easy to feel the marriage was not meant to be.
Conclusion to Part I: More Help Needed to Make Things Work
Marriage takes a lot of hard work, but when the couple is not sufficiently focused, or is at a loss as to how to proceed, that hard work needs to be shared by parents, rabbeim, mentors or advisors. In many cases, when a commitment of time and energy is forthcoming, marriages that seem at risk can be stabilized and set on a positive path of love and joy. Sadly, many young couples do not have the benefit of the “angel” they need, and, perhaps after years of unsuccessful efforts during which children are born, find no choice but to end their marriages.
Part II: A Torah Path for Marriage
The Torah’s teachings about marriage cannot be squeezed into the space we have available, and really require personal guidance from a rebbe. Nevertheless, below is a brief synopsis of several primary concepts, as presented in Ner Yisrael’s Kollel Avodas Levi as part of a program for students in their first year of marriage. This program is intended to bring into focus the essential growth opportunities marriage was intended to provide – and upon which its success ultimately depends.
I. A Culture of Shalom
There is no greater value in marriage than shalom bayis – a peaceful home. Achieving this goal, however, is dependent on virtually every good quality we can hope to have – ideal midos, understanding others, good communication, healthy emotions, physical strength after a tiring day (especially when dinner is delayed), etc. All of these impact on shalom, and will be addressed in the coming sections.
Shalom itself, however, has two dimensions, as revealed by two separate comments of Rashi about Aharon Hakohen – the paradigm of shalom. In Bamidbar (20:29), Rashi explains that Aharon would instill love between parties to a conflict and between a husband and wife (matil ahava bein baalei meriva uvein ish l’ishto), while in Devarim (34:8) he writes that Ahron would establish peace among people and between a husband and wife (nosein shalom bein ish l’reyehu uvein isha l’baala) with no mention of conflict.
While the earlier Rashi speaks of remedying discord and restoring peace and friendship, the later Rashi seems to echo the practice of Aharon Hakohen that is described in Avos d’Rabi Nassan. There, we are taught that that the very manner in which Aharon related to people would inspire them to greater heights and contribute to an environment of joy and satisfaction. As a result, people would be more inclined to appreciate what they had and to be good to each other, resulting in a long-term culture of shalom.
An individual who wants to enhance his marriage and raise the level of his home should dedicate himself to developing a culture of shalom, in which everyone can trust, respect and appreciate each other with openness and confidence. This primary goal will influence and guide all other efforts within the framework of home, marriage and family.
Achieving shalom is, in fact, one of the primary goals of tikun hamidos (character development) in general, and it is among the most important chochmos (topics of wisdom) to be learned from the Torah. The discussion below will further develop this idea, but it takes a lifelong process of learning to grow into an ish shalom – a man of peace.
II. Navigating Differences and Tikun Hamidos
In seeking a spouse, we naturally look for shared values, interests, perspectives and background. No matter how perfect the match, however, there is no escaping the eventual realization of just how different husband and wife really are. It is very common, in fact, for newlyweds to wonder at some point during the first several months of marriage if they married the wrong person. This is a completely natural response as the realization of differences begins to set in.
As explained by the Midrash, the story of Creation itself highlights just how difficult these differences can be. The Midrash teaches that G-d created Adam first without a wife because He knew how much Adam would complain about her and wanted Adam to know what it would feel like to be alone first so he would request a mate. This way, when Adam would complain, G-d could respond – you were the one who asked for her!
Apparently, these differences – and the feeling of incompatibility – are essential to the creation of man. In fact, the Torah describes the mate Adam was missing, and that he was given, as an “ezer k’negdo” – “a support opposite him.” Rashi quotes the famous Midrash, which says, “if he merits, she is a support; if not, she opposes him.” “If he merits” means that if he views his wife’s differences as a support to his personal growth, seeing her as a perfectly designed companion who can bring out his best qualities as part of a couple, then she will be a support. If he does not merit, if he expects to remain his own individual, whose companion is simply meant to complement him as he is, he will experience his wife as “opposing him.”
These differences, and the challenge to navigate them and harmonize them, are essential to what marriage is all about: an opportunity to establish an ideal relationship – through which to create and raise a family – through tikun hamidos.
There are three areas of difference between husbands and wives that pose challenges to the marriage and that serve as calls to improve midos: gender, family/background and strengths and weaknesses.
The most obvious is gender differences. The midrash points out, for example, that man was created from earth (“G-d made man from the dust of the earth”) and woman from bone (“G-d built the tzela [bone] that he took from the man into a woman”), and that their natures are thus inherently different. They think differently, feel differently and communicate differently, and therefore, they do not readily understand or appreciate each other all the time. A successful marriage depends on each spouse learning as much as they can about the other’s nature.
Perhaps the most commonly faced differences are found in the particular customs and traditions each brings from their families and backgrounds. It is important to understand that even minor customs can represent deeply held values for the newly married husband or wife, carrying associations with precious memories and symbolizing their respect for their parents and grandparents. Dismissing such practices can be taken as an affront to one’s entire upbringing.
Simply becoming used to one way of doing things can also cause someone to see other ways as inferior, or even wrong. A husband may have grown up with real dishes used on weeknights, while the wife’s family may have preferred plastic. Before long, the husband may feel his wife is not taking meals seriously and he is liable to express this to her in a manner that seems to belittle her parents and her childhood home.
Young couples must be helped to recognize that different families express their values in different ways, and that they must be extra sensitive when discussing even the most minor of issues. “My mother never bought that kind of soap” may seem to be an insignificant observation, but it can easily be interpreted by a wife to imply that her family must be inferior if that was the brand of choice in her parent’s home.
Ideally, by the time a couple is married, they have learned that there are a variety of honorable way to conduct a home and that young couples will inevitably experience minor clashes as they merge their manners and customs into a new household.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in marriage is to accept the weaknesses of one’s spouse in a good-natured and understanding manner. A married couple consists of two people who have the closest possible view of each other’s weaknesses. To make matters worse, each individual has had two decades or so to get used to – and to justify – their own weaknesses, as opposed to their new spouse, whose weaknesses seem to stick out and to be completely unnecessary.
The desire to overcome this challenge is one of the most important motivations to develop one’s midos as much as possible. It takes many positive midos to overcome the negative feelings that are aroused when one has to bear someone else’s shortcomings, especially when they come up repeatedly. This is at the very core of the path to shalom, which extends beyond merging differences to specifically include covering for each other’s weaknesses, as well. Shalom exists when each person recognizes his or her relative strengths and weaknesses and the relative strengths and weaknesses of others, contributing their strengths to cover for the weaknesses of others and accepting the strengths of others to cover for their own.
III. Simcha and Ahava Temidis
There is a tried and true method of strengthening one’s self to accept the shortcomings of others – simchas hachaim (joy in life). In fact, maintaining simchas hachaim is one of the most powerful drivers of shalom bayis available.
This wisdom is reflected in a comment of Rashi to a well-known account in Taanis 23a, in which Eliyahu HaNavi identifies two brothers in a busy marketplace as the ones who are deserving of eternal life in the World to Come. We are told they are “funny people who make sad people happy and bring peace between those who are fighting.” Rashi adds, “They are happy people who make others happy.” Why did Rashi add that they are happy people? Because the only way to make others happy is to be happy yourself.
Comedians who are not happy can make people laugh for a while, but they cannot really lift their spirits, enabling them to be happier. If you have spent time with someone who is truly happy, you know how much it can affect you. One key to shalom bayis, therefore, is to focus your efforts on developing your own joy in life. Not only will this lift you up and enable you to keep everything else – including the shortcomings of others – in perspective, it will lift others up as well, creating the kind of positive atmosphere in the home in which shalom comes naturally.
A family needs more than simcha and shalom, though – they need love. It is clear in the writings of the Rambam that a necessary component of love is that it is expressed continually (see footnote for examples). In marriage, this means looking for daily opportunities to make a husband or wife feel loved – a thoughtful gesture, a sincere smile, a kind word. Love in marriage is a davar sheb’tzina – a private matter between husband and wife, and so it is easy for some to imagine that, since they never see it, it is not an essential part of marriage. Nothing, however, can be further from the truth. Remember the Rashi we quoted about how Aharon Hakohen was a rodef shalom (pursuer of peace): “He would instill love between parties to a conflict and between a husband and wife.”
IV. Knowing Each Other
It may seem obvious, but a married couple is meant to enjoy feelings of closeness to each other. On one level, such closeness is inevitable, as they share so much of their lives together. But true closeness depends on how well a couple really knows each other as individuals, which is far more difficult than it may seem.
In fact, even self-knowledge does not come easily. Consider the following discussion in the gemara (Shabbos 10b):
Rav Chisda was walking around with two portions of meat, saying, “If anyone teaches me something new from Rav I will give him these portions.” Rava bar Mechasya told him [a halacha] and Rav Chisda gave him the meat. Rava bar Mechasya then said to him, “The words of Rav are so precious to you? I suppose that is what Rav meant when he said, ‘Clothing is valuable to the one who wears it’ (i.e., one who is used to wearing certain clothes most appreciates having them, implying that Rav Chisda so appreciated the words of Rav because he was used to learning from him – Rashi).” Rav Chisda answered back, “Rav said that? This thought is even more precious to me than the first one! If I had another portion of meat, I’d give that to you, also!”
The Maharsha questions how the second quote from Rav – which was just a general observation about people – could have been more precious to Rav Chisda than the halacha he had heard first. He answers briefly, saying that “more precious to me” meant it was more personally meaningful. Through this story, the gemara seems to be teaching us an especially important principle: The halacha Rav Chisda heard taught him Torah, but the second thought he heard taught him about himself. He recognized more deeply why he was so eager to learn from Rav and this increased self-knowledge helped to put so much more into perspective, contributing substantially to his avodas Hashem (service of G-d), as well as to his understanding of Torah itself.
Self-knowledge is the foundation of all our knowledge, as it is the prism through which we see everything else. Just as we need to know ourselves to understand our own avoda, we need to understand others to succeed in bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal relationships) – especially bein ish l’ishto (between husband and wife). The more we know about our spouse as a person – and there is always more to learn about every person – the closer to each other we can become and the better we can care for their needs and enhance their simchas hachaim, strengthening the shalom in our homes.
V. Romemus Habayis
Lastly, it is important for each new couple to consider how to raise their new home above the mundane by adopting practices of spiritual value. Whether in the area of kedusha (holiness), such as a love of Shabbos or an appreciation for tznius (modesty), in chessed, through community activism or inviting guests, or in an extra dedication to Torah study, each home should reflect a special commitment to Torah values.
Choosing what special values or practices to embrace, however, must be done with careful deliberation between husband and wife, and preferably with the guidance of a rebbe. Sincere commitments are terrific – unless they are made on someone else’s back. Rav Yisrael Salantar, zt”l, would emphasize that one should not add to mitzvos on someone else’s account – and this applies to a spouse, as well. It is wonderful for a husband to invite guests, but if his wife is not quite up for her share of the work, his invitation is a mistake.
Before a couple extends themselves beyond the development of their relationship, they must be confident in the strength of that relationship. This means recognizing that that the greatest way to uplift one’s home begins with reaching out to one’s own spouse – showing patience, sensitivity, concern, respect. Establishing a home of chessed begins by looking within. Be sure your spouse is ready for whatever steps you propose – and keep in mind the inclination of a newlywed to say yes simply to please their new spouse.
This applies especially in the area of chumros (stringencies). The Gra taught a classic rule in adopting chumros: any chumra adopted bein adam lamakom (between man and G-d) should be matched by a greater chumra in the realm of bein adam lachaveiro (between man and his fellow). All chumros should be adopted only with deliberation and confidence that each is appropriate under the circumstances and is not being adopted just for the sake of chumra. And the best chumros are those that contribute to shalom bayis.
B’ezras Hashem, with proper concern for doing what is truly best, each couple will merit a home filled with mitzvos that is blessed always with the presence of the Shechina.
Today’s world is dominated by distractions that obscure the true path of growing through marriage according to the Torah. That path is defined by the ideal of shalom bayis, with everything it takes to create and maintain it. Practically, this means embracing the opportunity to learn about ourselves and our spouses and to discover how we can each develop our midos to merge our different personalities – with our respective strengths and weaknesses – into one unified couple sharing life with simchas hachaim.
Tikun hamidos is a lifelong process, and there are many Torah sources to study that can lead us in the right direction. Anyone who is not sure where to begin or how to proceed should definitely discuss this with their Rebbe or Rav.
Contemporary life, with its many challenges and distractions, does not make it easy to embrace this path. But there is nothing more central to our success – as individuals and as a people – than the strength of our families. We owe it to ourselves as well as to our children to make the extra investment it will take to nurture homes of simcha and shalom that are the very foundation of Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Shraga Neuberger is a Rosh Yeshiva at Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, Maryland, and a sought-after address for marital guidance. This article was prepared for publication by Rabbi Dovid Goldman, Managing Editor of Klal Perspectives.
To view the other responses in this issue, CLICK HERE.
 Rav Yechezkel Abramsky explained “talmidei chachamim marbim shalom baolam” (Torah scholars increase peace in the world) in line with this idea – that they very manner in which they conduct themselves contributes to greater peace in the world.
 Differences, of course, enhance marriage, as well. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky offers a beautiful explanation to the holiday of Tu B’Av that points to this value: Chazal identify one of the reasons to celebrate Tu B’Av as the permission that was granted that day to members of one tribe to choose a spouse from another tribe. Rav Kaminetsky explains that the celebration was specifically about the increasing differences between spouses that would now be possible, with husbands and wives coming from such different backgrounds.
 Adam himself felt that he was missing an ezer knegdo specifically – see Bereishis 2:20.
 This is the meaning of the beginning of the verse, “lo tov heyos haadam levado, eeseh lo ezer k’negdo” – it is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a support opposite him (Bereishis 2:18). It is not good for man to remain as an individual – he must become part of a couple, within a relationship of two different people sharing life together.
 There is some doubt as to whether the commentary printed in Taanis in Rashi’s usual place is, in fact, Rashi or another early commentator.
 Some examples are: the Rambam introduces the sefer haahava (Book of Love) about love of Hashem saying, “I will include in this book all the mitzvos which are constant, which we were given to love Hashem and remember Him always,” and stressing that milah is included because “it helps us remember [this love] always, even when we are not wearing tefillin or tzitzis, etc.” The verse he chose as a heading for this sefer is, “How much I love Your Torah – all day it is my conversation.” He describes the mitzvah of loving Hashem as “until one thinks about it all the time.”
 Interestingly, this discussion in the gemara immediately follows a discussion about shalom!
 Each portion was the zroa, lchayayim and keiva (foreleg, cheeks and stomach) given to him as a Kohen.
 Tenuas Hamussar, Vol. 1, P. 305.