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Marriage: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Marriage: From Caterpillar to Butterfly

Lessons from the first marriage in history.


When we study the chapters of the Torah dealing with Creation, it almost seems as though Eve was created as an afterthought. Adam was created alone, and only afterward did God say, “It is not good that man be alone; I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (Bereishis 2:18).

In his commentary to this verse, Ramban states that Adam, the First Man, must have had a method of procreating even before Eve was fashioned. All creatures were created male and female in order to procreate. If so, why was it necessary for God to make Eve into a separate being? Wouldn’t it have been more convenient to be self-sufficient — to be able to bear and raise children without the need for another person? Isn’t that total independence a utopian dream?

The answer appears in the verse quoted above. "It is not good that man be alone." There is something “not good” about being alone. The entire purpose of Creation is for us to perfect ourselves, and one of the most meaningful ways of doing so is by learning to do for others. In the words of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin “For this is the basic principle of mankind: he was not created for himself, but to help others, as much as is possible for him to do with the strengths he was given.”

Had Adam functioned on his own, he would have been lacking one of the keystones of humanity and would have been branded "not good" for life.

We all entered this world as consummate takers.

We all entered this world as consummate takers. Anyone who has had a baby or has been in close contact with one knows that babies are the greatest takers. They never worry about anyone else. Their entire focus in life is to be fed, warm, dry, and cuddled, and they have absolutely no interest in how their needs affect you. They couldn’t care less whether you had a hard day or whether you haven’t slept for two nights. Their motto is, “Feed me; clothe me; diaper me; burp me; love me; take care of me.”

And that lasts … for a long while.

Pardon me for reminding you, but you, too, were born this way. You, too, were once self-centered, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. The purpose of life is to transcend that natural inclination toward taking and to become a giver. It is a lifelong endeavor, but if there is one turning point at which we must make the switch from taker to giver, that point is the day of our marriage. Marriage requires us to undergo a metamorphosis -- to go from caterpillar to butterfly.

In marriage, we can no longer think primarily about ourselves. The “me” must become “we,” and the “I” must become “us.” That is the entire purpose of marriage, and that is why God said, “It is not good that man be alone."

This does not mean that a person who never finds his or her soul mate is doomed. One of the most famous charity workers in Jerusalem is a man who never married, and he is a giver of the highest degree. But the process of learning to be a giver is far more difficult if one is not married. The ideal situation, which is what God had in mind for each of us, is to marry and have someone to whom to give.

There is a common misconception that one’s love for another person increases when he or she receives from that person. The true way to build love is to give unconditionally. As we have mentioned elsewhere, the Hebrew word ahavah, love, is related to the word hav, to give.

Since giving builds love, we can perhaps understand the inordinate obsession people have for their pets. If children are the hardest thing in the world, pets are the easiest. They don’t give you heartache, they don’t need braces, and they don’t have to be accepted into a seminary or school. But above all, you have to give to pets unconditionally. That is why people are literally in love with their pets. They treat them better than they treat their children.

When I travel, I generally do not make conversation with my seatmates. I exchange pleasantries, and then settle in for a flight in solitude. Once, however, I was flying to Brazil, which is a 10-hour flight. When you are going to spend 10 hours sitting next to someone, you feel that you must make some attempt at conversation. My seatmate turned out to be a cardiac-care nurse who was on her way to a medical conference. She was obviously an intelligent individual. In the midst of an otherwise sensible conversation, she took out her wallet and said -- and I’ll quote verbatim -- “I want to show you the love of my life.” She flipped open her wallet and showed me a collage of her three children, lovingly surrounding the most prized member of the family: her dog. “This is the love of my life,” she said, pointing to the dog -- lest I foolishly assume that she was talking about her children.

“What kind of dog is it?” I asked, for lack of a better rejoinder.

“It’s a Rottweiler,” she said proudly.

This dog was the love of her life because she had to give so much to it unconditionally.

I don’t know much about dogs, but I do know that you stay far away from Rottweilers. But this was the love of her life. Why? Because she had to give so much to it. Now, unlike her children, her dog probably returned her love. It was probably very happy to see her. But that is not where her overwhelming love came from. It came from unconditional giving.

For Her Sake

To make a comparison from the ridiculous to the sublime, when we look at episodes in the lives of our great rabbis, we find Torah giants whose thoughtfulness and willingness to give to their wives made their marriages so beautiful. I could write an entire book of such stories, but I’ll share one that has had the most profound impact on me. It is a story that occurred with Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Twerski, the Hornosteipel Rebbe of Milwaukee.

Two months before his passing, the Rebbe was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. From the Rebbe’s 50 years of experience visiting sick patients, he understood that his end was near. He summoned his son, Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski (who is a medical doctor), to discuss his options.

“The doctors suggest that I undergo chemotherapy,” the Rebbe said. “It is ‘blessing in vain’ [i.e. — a waste of time], no?”

The son nodded in agreement; based on his medical knowledge, his father had already suffered irreversible damage.

“I am going to suffer terribly from chemotherapy, right?” asked the Rebbe.

Rabbi Dr. Twerski nodded again.

“It is not worthwhile to go through it,” concluded the Rebbe. “It is not going to help, and I will suffer. I am going to inform the doctors that I don’t want chemotherapy.”

Painful as it was to confirm his father’s analysis, Rabbi Dr. Twerski had to agree that it was the right move.

While this conversation transpired, Rebbetzin Twerski was outside discussing her husband’s illness with the attending physician, who told her that chemotherapy was an option. She walked into her husband’s room, and, unaware of the previous conversation, she said, “I want you to have chemotherapy.”

A moment later the attending physician walked in, and he said, “So, are we going through with chemotherapy?”

“Yes,” replied the Rebbe, leaving his son opened-mouthed.

Later that day, Rabbi Dr. Twerski had an opportunity to ask his father why he had changed his mind so quickly.

Here is a man who knew that there would be no payback.

“We both know that the chemotherapy won’t help. We both know that I am going to suffer from it,” said the Rebbe. “If I don’t try the treatment, however, your mother will not forgive herself. She will always think to herself, ‘I should have insisted that he have chemotherapy. I’m sure he would have lived longer if he had done so.’

“I don’t want your mother to suffer from such guilt, so I’ll do it for her sake,” the Rebbe concluded.

We all have times in marriage in which we go beyond the call of duty for our spouses. In many cases, however, our actions are fueled by a “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” attitude. Here is a man who knew that there would be no payback. But he was ready to suffer through the horrific physical discomfort of the chemotherapy anyway, just to spare his wife feelings of guilt.

A Second Opinion

There are other reasons why Eve was fashioned from Adam. A spouse plays an important role that can be fulfilled only by a separate party: a spouse provides a second opinion.

One of the basic human traits is that we have a difficult time viewing situations in an objective manner. Our vested interests will taint our view on a matter, even if we try to ignore it. It is important, therefore, to have the input of an impartial second party to help us view our lives properly.

The problem is that we also have egos, we crave independence, and we tend to chafe when people tell us what to do -- especially when that person is an outsider. This leads to a situation in which we cannot judge issues in life on our own lest our subjectivity lead us to make a mistake, but when objective observers weigh in with advice, we are inclined to reject their opinion.

God did us a great favor. He provided us with an insider who can provide us with an unbiased, loving opinion. A spouse has the advantage of being part of you — as our Sages said, “Ishto kegufo -- one’s wife is like himself” — but he or she is also objective enough to tell you, “I’m sorry, but you are viewing this issue incorrectly.”

The Netziv finds an allusion to this idea in the words, “It is not good that man be alone, I will make for him a helper, corresponding to him [an eizer kenegdo].” Although the term kenegdo may be translated as “corresponding to him,” the more common translation is “opposite him or opposing him.” This leads the Talmud (Yevamos 63b) to point out that eizer kenegdo seems to be an oxymoron. A wife is either a helper to her husband or opposite him. How can she be both?

On occasion, the "helper" must be “opposing him.”

The Netziv explains that a wife is indeed a helper, but the help may sometimes come in the form of opposing him. It may be difficult for us to hear our spouses tell us, “Honey, you’re making a mistake,” but the alternative is to stumble through life repeating our blunders or committing even greater ones. On occasion, the "helper" must be “opposing him.”

It is important to remember that, like everything else in life, "opposing him" can be overdone. Have you ever noticed that a salt shaker has several holes, while a pepper shaker has only a few? Food is enhanced by the sharpness of pepper, but only if it is applied in small measure. Criticism, like pepper, must be used sparingly. If you lay it on too thick, it has a negative effect.

Remember the Past

I would like to draw one more lesson from the very first marriage in history, and it is one that we must all incorporate into our marriages if they are to succeed.

As we all know, on the very first day of that marriage, God told Adam that he could partake of the fruit of any tree in the Garden of Eden except for the Tree of Knowledge. Adam relayed the commandment to Eve, but before long, the Serpent enticed her into eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and she, in turn, gave Adam to eat from the tree. This sin affected the world in the worst possible way, for one of the curses that came upon mankind as a result of that sin was death.

Directly following the verse in which God informs Adam that he would eventually die, as would all of his offspring, the Torah states, “The man called his wife’s name Chava, Eve, because she had become the mother of all the living” (Bereishis 3:20).

Have you ever noticed this strange juxtaposition? If we were to name a person who just brought death upon mankind, we might have been tempted to call her Misah (death). It may not sound as good as "Chavah," but it certainly would have been appropriate given the situation that had just unfolded.

At the moment when all seemed bleak, Adam took note of what chesed, kindness, is all about.

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) states that the Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness. The final verses of the Torah deal with God burying Moses. Performing a burial is called a chesed shel emes, a true kindness. Where is the chesed at the beginning of the Torah? As a result of partaking of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve were suddenly aware of the fact that they were unclothed, and they became bashful. Although this bashfulness was a result of their sin, God nevertheless performed a kindness and made clothing for them. This, says the Talmud, is the first chesed mentioned in the Torah.

Left to our own devices, we might have assumed that there was an immeasurable kindness that preceded this one. God had no need for us mortals in the world. He created us to enable us to reap the reward for our mitzvot. Why doesn’t the Talmud consider the creation of mankind the first kindness in history

The creation of Adam was indeed a chesed, but not a particularly difficult one. Adam was the most perfect being ever created, and he was to perform an important function in the world. But when Adam and Eve sinned, bringing death and destruction to the pristine new world, they felt terrible about themselves. When God showed them that He was willing to look beyond their mistakes and love them and take care of them despite their wrongdoings, that was a tremendous kindness.

If our marriages are to succeed, we must all learn to look beyond our spouses’ mistakes.

Adam perceived that, and put that form of chesed into practice. Eve had committed the greatest mistake imaginable. No one would ever make such a grave error again. Adam looked at her and said, “You are still Eve. You are still the mother of all mankind.”

If our marriages are to succeed, we must all learn to look beyond our spouses’ mistakes. We must learn not to narrow our focus to the present state of affairs, but to look at the totality of our relationships and consider all the good our spouses have done for us.

Don’t dwell on mistakes. Forgive and forget. Remember, no woman will ever make a greater mistake than Eve did. Even forgetting to mail the mortgage check is not as bad as eating from the Tree of Knowledge. (It’s pretty bad, but not as bad.) Look at the totality of your relationship, and remember that your spouse is the one who has provided you with so much happiness and blessing.

Patience for the Future

The Hebrew word for marriage is nisu’in, which has its roots in the word naso, to carry. In marriage, one must carry — and sometimes it can indeed be a schlep — his or her spouse’s foibles and negative traits, along with the idiosyncrasies that so endear us to one another.

In our world of instant communication, we are no longer used to waiting. In order to succeed in marriage, however, you must have the patience to allow your spouse to change, to grow, and to overcome the obstacles that he or she has been born with. People do change, but it takes years. Marriage is not instant. Changing oneself is not instant. You must learn to have patience with the other person’s foibles and carry them until they can change.

And that is what marriage is about — learning to have patience to allow the other person to become better, and to schlep around their idiosyncrasies until that happens.

Like everything that is worth having, a happy, successful marriage requires work. But there is not a more worthwhile investment in the world. Nothing is as rewarding as a good marriage.

Whether you are a single person -- may God send your soul mate speedily -- a newlywed, or an old hand at marriage, remember that marriage is about giving, about caring enough to criticize respectfully, about willing to forget and to forego -- about willing to make that change from caterpillar to butterfly.

Excerpted from Rabbi Frand's new book, "It's Never Too Little, It's Never Too Late, It's Never Enough" Artscroll publications.
Click here to order your copy

November 7, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Elana, November 25, 2009 2:57 AM

Loved the article until the end

Loved this article, until it stated, "you must have the patience to allow your spouse to change, to grow, and to overcome the obstacles that he or she has been born with. People do change, but it takes years...Must be careful; learn from my mistake...I've been married for 13 years and have given my spouse numerous chances...promises of never to gamble or drink again, etc. 13 years and three children later, I'm finally getting a should have been much, much sooner. Articles like this make it sound like you should stick by your spouse thru everything...and it is not true.

(6) Anonymous, November 11, 2009 6:18 PM

great points very well said

(5) Anonymous, November 9, 2009 5:42 AM

Simply Beautiful

This article describes the basics of a marriage so clearly and elgantly. I actually enjoyed getting critcism I know I deserve!

(4) Goko Trajkoski, November 9, 2009 1:03 AM

Beatiful and inspirative.

(3) Anonymous, November 8, 2009 7:31 PM

grammar.. sorry can't help it

The “me” must become “we,” and the “I” must become “us.” I know it may have been written this way for the rhyme but the grammarian in me needs to point out that the "me" actually become the "us" and the "I" becomes the "we".

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