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Harbor and Homecoming: Reflections on Marriage

Remember how people — old people in particular — used to say that marriage was one of the hardest things people ever do? How stupid that used to sound. I have a whole mental file filled with dumb things old people say that turn out to be true. Top of the list: marriage is hard work. As the Talmud (Sotah 2a) notes: “Matching couples is as difficult as the splitting of the sea.”

It’s also not for everyone. For those of us whose temperament seeks that kind of intimate, round-the-clock companionship, and who are ready for the equally consuming challenge of raising children, marriage is a time-tested partnership that can transform like no other. But it’s not for everyone, and each of us needs the courage to honestly assess what our souls need to thrive. The Talmud (Yevamot 63b) records the example of one such sage who knew himself to be happiest when single: “Ben Azzai said, ‘What else can I do? My soul craves the Torah. The world can be preserved through other people [having children].” The work of marriage is too demanding to fake.

But if your truth is one of pairing for life, and if you are fortunate to find another person who can live with your idiosyncrasies, inspire you to be a better version of yourself, mold you into a true partner and hold space for love and joy, there is nothing like marriage. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) gives voice to the sense of many married people when it exclaims: “One who does not have a spouse lives without joy, without blessing, and without goodness.”

One of the early memories of my rabbinate was meeting with Rabbi David Lieber, first full-time president of American Jewish University and already a rabbi’s rabbi. His wisdom was matched only by his kindness. As we were schmoozing, he told me that while marriage was almost impossibly difficult to navigate, at some point you found yourself sailing into a sheltered harbor. From that point on, there was primarily tranquility and joy.

I now know what he meant. For my wife and I, the early years of marriage were marked with the thrills of youth: a relatively carefree undergraduate experience, the joy of moving to a big city, pursuing graduate education and launching our careers, settling in Southern California, building our reputations, raising our twins, becoming a family. 

The demands of our careers and raising children exacerbated sources of natural tension. We each had different default positions, different ways of responding. And the challenges didn’t stop coming: caring for aging parents, raising a child with special needs, the public life of a rabbi, the endless work of a criminal prosecutor. The easy thrills and relative luxury of just focusing on ourselves gave way to not enough time, too little sleep, endless demands on each of us. 

It is relatively easy to stand under a chuppah and exchange rings. Much harder to navigate is life demanding more than we could possibly give and the attendant sense that each of us were victims. Life can pull couples apart and it is easy to slip into a provisional marriage, to leave an exit route open should it prove too much to stay. In the language of the Talmud (Yevamot 37b): “Don’t marry and have in mind to divorce.” So long as that escape hatch is mentally open, the tentative nature of the connection precludes the possibility of reliable love.

Only when we close that door does true marriage and its attendant trust-building launch. That’s when the real work begins.

It takes a deliberate mindfulness to choose to stay together even during the tough times, to act lovingly even when the feelings wane. Trusting that love will return is as pure an act of faith and hope as exists. 

Learning to articulate one’s needs rather than demanding that a partner intuit our hurt, predict our desires, and compensate for our lack was the great turning point for us. We worked to create an explicit, verbal marriage. It was a risk each time we expressed those feelings, hoping that the other would respond with care. And each gutsy act of candor, spoken in the language of loyalty and unity, summoned into reality a renewed love and trust. 

That’s where the harbor awaits. After the harshness of life breaks open our expectation to be intuited, after the years of misreading each other gives way to patient conversation and gentle clarification, there we find ourselves in a lucid lagoon of love. 

Today is the 38th anniversary of the day my wife and I stood under the chuppah — young, raw, and full of hope. Today, we are still hopeful, but perhaps more modestly. We have learned to speak our love and our needs. We have learned to make room for each other’s differences — and sometimes, to enjoy them. 

We can now say, in the words of the ancient promise, I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. 

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