Be Pleasant to Bring Holiness
Your desire to walk in the ways of Hashem with your spouse may at times involve struggle. Be careful of the tactics you use to accomplish your goal, because the evil inclination is incredibly cunning at insinuating itself into such situations. The means you use to maintain and enhance the purity of your home should be refined and pleasant. Shlomo Hamelech said of the Torah (Proverbs 3:17), “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace.” You cannot bring someone to a peaceful path if you yourself are not walking that path; you cannot have a positive influence on your spouse unless you yourself model appropriate behavior.
Paved With Good Intentions
Two Biblical stories teach that a person must be exceedingly careful not to engage in thoughtless and wrong behavior, even when the goal is laudable.
The first story tells of Reuven’s attempt to uphold the honor of his mother, Leah.
Yaakov was the father of the Twelve Tribes through four women: his two primary wives, Rachel and Leah, and two secondary wives, Bilhah (Rachel’s maidservant) and Zilpah (Leah’s maidservant). Yaakov loved Rachel most of all. After she died, Yaakov’s eldest son, Reuven, assumed that Yaakov would choose Leah, his first wife, to take her place as his favorite. But to Reuven’s horror, his father instead placed his bed next to that of Bilhah.
Rashi tells us that Reuven saw this as a humiliation of his mother. He therefore impetuously stormed into the tent and moved his father’s bed. At that moment, it was decreed from heaven that Reuven would lose the ranks of kingship and priesthood that would ordinarily have gone to the first-born son.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains why Reuven suffered such drastic consequences for actions which stemmed from his desire to honor his mother. Reuven’s character flaw is apparent from his father Yaakov’s blessing to him (Genesis 49:3-4): “Reuven, you are my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power. [But you are] unstable as water, and you have not the excellency, because you went up to your father’s bed; then you defiled it.”
Reuven showed himself unsuited for a position of leadership in either the political or spiritual sphere. First, a king is expected to have control over his emotions. When Reuven entered Bilhah’s tent and moved his father’s bed, he demonstrated that he was lacking in this essential quality. He should rather have said to himself, “I am shocked that my mother is not next in line. But if I move the bed, I will be dishonoring my father, who is a great tzaddik and whose wisdom is superior to mine. He undoubtedly has a reason for doing what he has done. Let me calm down and wait until later to discuss this matter with him.”
Second, the High Priest represents the Jewish people and serves as an intermediary between them and Hashem. This position requires faith and subservience to G-d’s will. In moving Yaakov’s bed, Reuven displayed a lack of faith in Divine providence. When he saw his father’s bed in Bilhah’s tent, he should have realized and accepted that Hashem plans everything, and that it was not his place to second-guess his Heavenly father or his earthly father.
The severity of Reuven’s punishment is all the more puzzling in light of the fact that when his younger brother Yehudah sinned egregiously, he was not punished at all. To the contrary, he was seemingly rewarded. To him, Yaakov stated (Genesis 49:10), “The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet…and unto him shall the obedience of the peoples be.” Yehudah was given the kingship.
The episode in question involved Yehudah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, who had been widowed of two of his sons. Seeing that Yehudah was not marrying her off to his third son, as he was obligated to do, Tamar disguised herself as a harlot and succeeded in having Yehudah impregnate her, while unaware of her true identity. When Tamar’s pregnancy became visible, Yehudah convened a court and called for her to be executed. She did not want to humiliate Yehudah by making it known that he was the father. Therefore, she secretly sent him proof that he was the father and left the decision as to what to do up to him.
Yehudah faced a difficult choice: either let his daughter-in-law be executed or let himself be publicly humiliated. He could have allowed Tamar’s execution to proceed and rationalized his silence by telling himself: “I have much holy work to accomplish, which will be destroyed if the community finds out.”
Nevertheless, he did not take the easy way out. He knew that he was wrong for having denied his younger son to her. Instead of shielding his reputation, he took responsibility for his actions and saved Tamar from shame and death.
Why did Tamar seduce Yehudah? In Yaakov’s blessing to his sons at the end of Bereishis, he tells Yehudah that the descendants of this union with Tamar will serve as the rulers of the Jewish people and that one of them would be the Moshiach. Our Sages explain that Tamar had known this through the gift of prophecy.
But why should Yehudah be rewarded for an act that appears to have been rooted in passion rather than in holiness? Some commentators explain that Hashem deliberately overwhelmed Yehudah with an irresistible desire, in order to fulfill His Divine plan (and his reward came for nobly putting Tamar’s life before his honor).
The Rebbe explains that the end is what counts. Yehudah’s act of acknowledging responsibility was the first step toward redemption—Peretz, one of the twin sons born to him and Tamar, indeed became the forebear of King David and ultimately, of the Moshiach.
In Reuven’s case, by contrast, we see a missed opportunity. Here, the starting point seemed holy, but the end result was tragic. After sinning by moving his father’s bed, Reuven was so brokenhearted that he spent the rest of his days in sackcloth and ashes. When the moment that he could have saved his brother Yosef from the pit came, Reuven was so preoccupied by his desire to do teshuvah that he ran to his father to ask forgiveness. In the meantime, Yosef was sold into slavery.
Reuven’s act of neglecting responsibility was the first step leading to the exile of the Jewish people.
Wanting Is Not Enough
From these stories, we learn that whether or not one’s original motive is holy is of little consequence, if in the end, a person behaves in a manner contrary to holiness.
When you attempt to maintain and increase the holiness in your home, be careful not to allow yourself to engage in any negative emotions or actions. If they do intrude, acknowledge them, reminding yourself that they are wrong, then stop them, and attempt to correct yourself.
Accept that you have work to do if you are to eradicate this behavior. A simple desire to change is not enough. It takes effort to maintain the holiness of your initial intention and implement it in your daily life.
Strengthen Your Relationship
Do your utmost to deepen your marital bond. You can achieve this by being emotionally open, which means communicating your deepest thoughts and feelings with your spouse; by allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your spouse; and by sharing your love freely with your spouse—not withholding expressions of affection, even when your spouse fails to live up to your expectations.
Upgrade the level of your communication. If T-Mobile and AT&T can upgrade, certainly Jewish couples can do so as well. (I once went to a cell phone outlet to replace a stolen cell phone and became very flustered when the salesperson repeatedly bombarded me with a sales pitch to upgrade my cell phone. All the while, I kept thinking to myself, “I only want to upgrade my soul, Hashem. Please help me achieve this.”)
When you work to improve communication with your partner, the ripple effect on your overall relationship is likely to bring dramatic rewards and most likely, sooner than you expect.
In the midst of a contentious moment, it is difficult to grasp the higher purpose of elevating one’s soul to a more peaceful and unified state. You can mitigate feelings of pain and despondency by remembering that provocations with your spouse, child, or other, are all meant to result in you being more patient, enduring, understanding, and tolerant.
To prevent yourself from losing your equanimity when conflict with your spouse looms, engage in some positive thinking to help regain your inner strength and outer calm. No one gets it right all of the time—or even half of the time. Perfecting a relationship is a lifetime journey—one interaction at a time. It is all right if you do not have all of the solutions at your fingertips at every moment.
Remember the importance of silence. It is best to speak from a place of calmness. You will be heard better if you speak less, or at least if you speak less angrily.
If you have had a conflict with your spouse, do not confront him while you are still angry. Wait until your anger dissipates before bringing up your concerns. For the time being, you can remain silent—not as a way of punishing your spouse, but in order to quiet the storm roiling within you, until your equilibrium is restored.
This technique will help you pause mentally and emotionally, so that you can keep your composure, while in a pleasant tone of voice, you can say something like: “I hope you understand that I never meant to hurt you. Let’s talk about this in a little while, when I’m feeling calmer.”
Bring up the topic again when the atmosphere is calm. This will give each of you time to reflect on your behavior and its effects, and to think about how you might have handled it differently.
Accept To Be Accepted
Reciprocity is a major factor in a good relationship. Bear in mind that when you act more lovingly, it induces your spouse to respond in kind and to be more affectionate. Provide a model of the qualities of thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and generosity that you wish to see in your spouse. If you want to make your spouse feel comfortable in your presence, help him feel comfortable about himself. When you are more accepting of your spouse, your spouse will grow to become more accepting of himself and of you.
Presenting Your Feelings
If your negative thoughts about your spouse are so numerous that you do not know where to begin, ask yourself, “Which of these thoughts are worth bringing up for discussion?” If you limit yourself to your most essential concerns, you will feel less overwhelmed when initiating a conversation on this topic with your spouse. Your spouse in turn will not feel that he is being attacked on many fronts. You are also more likely to achieve some resolution on important issues if you deal with only one or two at a time.
Before you have that conversation, envision how you will discuss the situation, using empathetic, compassionate, and healing words, rather than words that blame and moralize. Imagine how you would like to be spoken to if you were on the receiving end of this conversation.
Alternatively, imagine that you will be speaking to someone whose friendship you value and want to maintain. (People are usually very careful to avoid offending their friends. If they feel the need to reprove them, they do so as gently as possible—even if they themselves have been offended. If people had the same degree of consideration for their spouses that they display toward their friends, Moshiach would arrive sooner.)
Start the conversation with words of appreciation. You can either speak the simple truth, exaggerate to help boost your spouse’s ego or, if you think it necessary, even engage in a “white lie”.
This lays the groundwork for the next step—the more difficult task of presenting your complaint. Engage the “I” mode as you do so. For instance, “I know that right now, I’m a little sensitive, but I feel it is important that you know that it really bothers me when….” And now, you can express what has been bothering you.
While you are discussing these contentious issues, try to be aware of when you are allowing your ego to interfere with the resolution you are attempting to achieve. Pay attention to body signals, which can warn you when you are about to lose control. For instance, before you raise your voice to yell, does your stomach tie itself into knots, does your nose flare, or does your face get hot? These signs are warning you to calm down.
If such signals occur during the discussion, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and if necessary, walk away, until you regain a measure of self-control. Then resume the conversation by thanking your spouse for giving you that personal time.
When there is either nothing else to say, or no more time in which to say it, review the major points that have been discussed. Share a moment of peace, and verbalize your feeling of resolution, for example, saying, “I’m glad we talked,” to reaffirm your bond once a decision has been reached.
Exercises and Meditations
Faced with a recurrent challenging situation, take the time to write down an inner dialogue with which you intend to combat your habitual responses to these upsetting situations. After you have done this, at another calm moment, write down a dialogue between you and your spouse regarding the situation.
Visualize the goals you would like to achieve (e.g., the eradication of this situation) and the desired results of the conversation. Visualize your success in actualizing them. Realize that this may take considerable time.
Practice speaking in ways in which you yourself would prefer to be spoken to. Put yourself in your spouse’s place when you prepare your conversation.
Remember: “There is an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and a cell phone that records it all.” Imagine that your conversation is being recorded and filmed, and may go viral on social media. Imagine your reaction to such a circumstance.
POINTS FOR PRACTICAL REFLECTION
· Model the behavior you wish to see in others.
· Pleasant ways accomplish more than force.
· Improved communication leads to improved relationships.
· Do not respond in the heat of the moment.
· Address contentious issues when you are calm and prepared.
· Avoid overwhelming yourself or your spouse: prioritize and limit the number of issues to be addressed.
· Preface your discussion with words of appreciation for your spouse.
· End the discussion by expressing appreciation to your spouse for cooperating and sharing time with you.
 Rabbi Chaim Miller, The Gutnick Chumash, Genesis, 1:349-351 (NY: Torah for Life,
 Likkutei Sichos vol 15 p. 439ff.
 Midrash Rabbah to Gen. 38:18; Sotah 10b.
 Bereishis Rabba 85:8, quoted on p. 211 of the Stone Edition of the Chumash, Artscroll Series, edited by Rabbi Nosson Scherman (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 1993).