By Rabbi Yehoshua Berman
Yevamos 117 – My Mother and My Wife Hate Each Other?!
In laws. It’s a touchy subject, isn’t it? Some people have a pretty decent relationship with their in laws. Others less so. Some people may even have a great relationship with their in laws. But one thing is clear. Everyone realizes that the relationship with in laws is sensitive. It’s a delicate balancing act that doesn’t always lend itself to an ease of execution.
This difficulty that is inherent in the complexity of in laws relationships is not a pleasant matter. We would prefer to kind of sweep it under the rug and perhaps pretend that it isn’t really there.
But Chazal don’t do that.
The Mishna in today’s Daf tells us that although women are generally relied upon for testimony that a man died in order to enable the widow to remarry, there are a few exceptions to this rule. A lot of these exceptions are in laws. Mother in law, sister in law, daughter in law. The exceptions of co-wife, step-daughter, and step-mother are also very similar in nature to the in laws type of relationship.
The reason, explains the Gemara, that these women cannot be relied upon to testify is that they hate each other. Why does a mother in law hate her daughter in law? Because one day the latter may inherit – through her husband – all the wealth of the former’s hard work and investment. The husband’s sister hates her sister in law for the almost identical reason. When the former’s parents die, the yerusha will go to her brother and thereby effectively to her sister in law, while she is left behind. The wife of the husband’s brother also hates her. Why? Because she could theoretically one day become her co-wife. If either brother dies and yibum is done, these women are now co-wives and have to share a husband. So they hate each other already. And so on and so forth.
You get the gist of it.
As we said, these are really unpleasant things to even think about, let alone talk about. It just doesn’t feel nice to consider the fact that “my mother hates my wife and my wife hates my mother.” So much so, to the extent that we have to be concerned that the one may deliberately try to cause the other to remarry illegally and thus become forbidden to her husband forever! Can we be blamed, then, for urgently wanting to bury this issue?
But that is precisely what we need to take out of this sugyah. Chazal did not mince words about this issue. They address it head on in the most explicit and blunt of terms. We need to take our cue from there and learn to call a spade a spade.
No, this does not mean that when a woman meets her son’s kallah for the first time she should tell her that “even though we b’etzem hate each other, it’s ok, because we’ll work on it.” What it does mean, though, is that you cannot bury your negative feelings. Be honest and real with yourself. Recognize within yourself and admit to yourself the negative tendencies and emotions that exist within you.
A woman who is not consciously aware of the fact that it is completely natural to deep down hate her daughter in law can be caught totally unawares and taken completely by surprise by some really nasty thoughts and feelings that can pass over her like a tsunami. Repressed emotions are the ones that can do the most damage. They can cause a lot of inner turmoil and can sometimes erupt like a volcano.
But let’s not even go there. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we’re talking about a refined person regarding whom outward conflagrations with in laws are not of concern. What, though, with her inner sense of guilt and anguish at experiencing such uncharitable thoughts? A woman who is unaware of the basic fact that it is natural to have feelings of real hatred – yes hatred, as strong as that word is – for her daughter in law (and vice versa) can wind up eating herself up inside. She can become confused, disillusioned, and even bewildered.
The most basic point that we have to come away with from this sugyah is that the only way to work through negative emotions is by first recognizing that they exist. Admit to yourself how you really feel and realize that it is normal that you feel that way. This yesod, by the way, applies to men as much as it applies to women. Chazal identified that with women these negative feelings about female in laws are so common to the extent that it was necessary to implement particular legislation in regard thereto. However, in any human relationship negative feelings can creep in; for a host of understandable reasons.
When we feel the undercurrents of these feelings rising to the fore, we tend to react sharply (whether verbally or just in the recesses of our own thoughts) with, “Chas v’shalom! That is sinas chinam! Of course I don’t hate that person; on the contrary, I love that person!” What we urgently need to realize though, is that this wishing-it-away approach simply doesn’t work. On the contrary, it can only make things worse. Much worse.
The only way to deal with an issue is to first recognize it as such. Accept the fact that this is how you currently feel. Try to understand a little bit about what makes you feel that way. And, perhaps most importantly, realize that it is normal and understandable that you feel that way, and it doesn’t make you bad. Once you’ve brought yourself to a state of conscious recognition, awareness, and acceptance, you are empowered to deal with those negative emotions. To address them and work through them.
Equally important to recognize is that, although sometimes one may in fact manage to develop mechanisms and skills that allow for a pleasant, mutually satisfying relationship, sometimes the best or perhaps only way to effectively manage negative feelings towards in laws is by creating a healthy distance. Yes, that sounds harsh. But so does “a woman cannot testify for her daughter in law because she hates her.” Being honest and real with our feelings inherently includes recognizing that sometimes they are bigger than we are, and the best or perhaps only way to deal with them is by minimizing the triggers that arouse them.
Of course, as always, consulting Daas Torah is key. These issues are indeed quite sensitive and speaking about it with one’s Rav or Rebbi can be a big help towards making mature, well thought-out decisions. You’ll only get there, though, if you first take that mature step to recognize and accept what’s going on inside of you. When you get to know yourself well, even those parts that are not so appealing, then will you be truly empowered to refine and improve that self. To formulate positive, effective approaches that will catapult your personal growth to ever greater vistas.
Rabbi Yehoshua Berman serves as the Rosh Kollel of Kollel Reshet HaDaf in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. In addition to having authored Reflections on the Parsha, Rabbi Berman regularly delivers shiurim on Halacha and Hashkafa, writes comprehensive chazara questions (in Hebrew) for the advanced Daf Yomi learner, and weekly words of inspiration from the Parsha. Rabbi Berman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.