Building a Marriage by Aviva Meshwork
Remember ‘celebrating’ Valentine’s Day in elementary school? I have vivid recollections of my early school days when I would eagerly prepare my Hallmark boxed set of assorted perforated Valentine’s Day cards for all my classmates. Remember those? All I had to do was detach the cards, fill in the “To:______” and “From: ________” parts and voila, I was ready to participate in the festival of love. I would come home with as many cards as there were kids in my class, some Hershey Kisses from the teacher and maybe a cute teddy bear from my ‘best friend.’ Ask me today if I could tell you a single quality about the kids with whom I was exchanging cards that read “Be Mine” or “You are my one and only” and the answer would probably be, ‘No’. Lack of affection and personal connection aside, it was still amusing to swap those ‘heartfelt’ cards with my classmates, (even if you were the new kid in class from a week ago).
Perhaps Valentine’s Day was seen as a teachable moment by my elementary school teachers who sought to impart the value of positive relationship building on us. However receiving a card with a picture of Garfield or Snoopy saying an intense yet impersonal message didn’t inculcate that message. What was missing from the cards and from the experience in general was an awareness that quality relationships such as marriage for example, need to be built from the bottom up based on a solid foundation of two undeniable ingredients. One is love and the other is commitment.
But when it comes to building a marriage, what is the correct order for these two ingredients to take? Do you need to have love for one another first leading to commitment, or does commitment lead to love?
I live a religiously observant life in a secular and modern world and am therefore often putting cultural norms and practices through the filter of my worldview. From what I gather on matters of dating, secular society generally suggests that love comes before commitment citing that a couple ought to get to know one another well and fall in love before they are willing to commit to marriage. In many ways, this makes sense since this is after all the person you will be sharing your life with. I understand the thinking, except the formula of love then commitment doesn’t seem to be working. The divorce rate in America is about 50% and even higher for subsequent marriages.
Judaism takes the opposite approach and says that commitment comes first and love follows. Some of my friends’ children are in the dating process/are engaged/are newly married and I am therefore gaining some insight into Jewish dating rituals. While I am no pro at this it seems to me that the name of the game is dating for marriage. Via various channels, young singles seek out someone whom they feel they have a certain amount of attraction to and compatibility with. Once that is determined there is an enormous emphasis on establishing if that person is committed to living and furthering a shared set of values and ideals together in marriage. Forever. Once that is decided, and some other ducks are in a row, the couple usually gets engaged and a wedding takes place.
We see how this formula has been functioning for our People for millennia, especially through understanding an important aspect of our upcoming festival called Tu B’Av, a festival associated with love! Tu B’Av may be a may be a lesser-known festival but it is nevertheless discussed in the Talmud to be of great significance. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said; “There were no greater festivals for Israel than the 15th of Av (Tu B’Av) and Yom Kippur. On these days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out… and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? "Young man, raise your eyes and see which you select for yourself…" (Talmud, Taanit 26b) It was a matchmaking ritual for the young singles of those days and therefore the day has been associated with marriage and matchmaking for ages. Who knew?
The vineyards would fill up with young, marriageable women ready to meet their b’sheret (soul mate/predestined spouse). Something so spectacular about this ritual was that all of the women, the rich and the poor alike, would wear borrowed white dresses and dance together. No one knew which girls came from means and which ones didn’t and no one was dressed prettier than the next. Why? Because it wasn’t important. For in the absence of lavish and high pressure dating rituals a different kind of dating scene prevailed- one that was based on finding a strong life partner to share a committed life of shared ideals and values in which to further in unison.
They must have understood then that commitment is like a firm solid that doesn’t budge and is ultimately required as a relationship’s primary foundational piece. Love, while it adds flavor and energy to the relationship is an emotion that moves around like a fluid. Therefore a strong commitment ensures that when your spouse disappoints you, you don’t just walk out the door even if you aren’t feeling particularity loving towards him/her at the moment. Love is crucial, but alone doesn’t keep a marriage strong.
When it comes to G-d, this formula works too. If we commit to having faith in G-d and towards a desire to be in a ‘relationship’ with G-d, then we don’t run when the going gets tough. The late Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel penned a moving ‘reconciliation’ letter to G-d in the New York Times called, “A Prayer for the Days of Awe.” What was so moving about his letter to G-d was his heartfelt expression that despite his perhaps harsh feelings towards G-d both during the Holocaust and after, he never gave up his faith- his commitment towards his belief in the Almighty. Regardless of the amount of love he had for G-d over the years, (or a lack thereof) he remained devoted to his Jewish identity, no matter what. His love may not have always kept him close to G-d, but his commitment surely did.
In today’s day the message of old has never been more necessary to hear. Love waxes and wanes, but a real commitment keeps a relationship from crumbling.
Aviva Meshwork is an educator, writer, and Trip Director for the JWRP. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in Israel with her husband and children.