Rabbi Moshe Aaron Stern, a great rabbi who passed away a number of years ago, would often tell this story: When he was a student in yeshiva, he was heartily enjoying his dinner at the end of a long day of studies. "Moshe, you really love that fish, don't you?" his teacher asked.
"Yes," he responded between bites. "It's delicious, I love it."
"Moshe," his teacher gently admonished, "it's yourself you love. If you really loved the fish, you wouldn't eat it!"
This lighthearted example can be applied to more important relationships, particularly to marriage. Is your marriage about the fulfillment of your needs and your passions? Or is it about giving to your spouse? What would he like? What does she need? How can I make him more comfortable? How can I contribute to her happiness?
The Torah tells us that when Yaakov worked seven years for Rachel it was like a few days to him. This is puzzling. Usually when we want something badly, the days drag on slowly, the hours seem endless. (Think high school waiting for the phone to ring!) Why was Yaakov's experience the diametric opposite of ours?
Because, as traditional sources suggest, it wasn't about him. It wasn't about satisfying his body, his needs. His goals were spiritual, transcendent and he was content to rely on the Almighty's wisdom in fulfilling them when appropriate.
This may be a loftier ideal than many of us aspire to or can even imagine. But here's a much simpler suggestion. Examine your actions vis-a-vis your spouse and ask, "Who do I think about more: my mate or myself?" This tool is not limited to marriage. All your relationships -- with your parents, children, friends, and colleagues -- could be deepened by the application of this principle.
And be careful. Don't underestimate our power to rationalize. We are adept at discovering sophisticated reasons why what we're doing is really for our partner. It only appears to benefit us! After all, if we're happy, they're happy, right?
Gifts are a perfect example. How often do we buy gifts for others that we really want for ourselves? And vice versa? (A new chain saw? Just what I've always wanted!) For my first birthday as a married woman, my husband bought me the camera I had requested. So far, so good. However in the purchasing and experimenting with the camera, he became so fascinated by photography that I have yet to take a picture with it! Okay, he gets credit for starting off with good intentions...
Once a day do something for you spouse you know they will enjoy.
Thinking of the needs and desires of others isn't easy. We are inherently selfish and it takes tremendous effort and strength of purpose to rise above it.
I recently heard a radio show featuring women widowed in their sixties, women who claimed to have enjoyed good marriages. This particular sampling was now enjoying their single life also. "No one to answer to, no one else's needs to consider, no one to plan around" they all proclaimed excitedly.
Even with the appreciation of the power of beauty of a good marriage, the desire to satisfy only ourselves rises strongly.
By constantly asking, "Who am I doing this for?" we can shift the focus towards others. "Constantly" is a lot. Let's try once a day. Once a day do something for you spouse you know they will enjoy. Make their favorite dinner (not your favorite dinner!) Get a book you know they want to read, bring a cup of coffee and a Danish to their office even if it's out of your way -- especially if it's out of your way. Call your spouse just to say, "I'm thinking of you" --unless they don't like being interrupted at work in which case your act of kindness would be to leave them alone!
There are no guarantees that your mate will reward you for your efforts. But there is a guarantee that you'll grow from it yourself, perhaps ultimately making it a selfish act after all.