Shovavim Shalom Bayis Initiative – Week Four, Parshas Beshalach


yehoshua-bermanBy Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

Respectful and Respectable

In this overall discussion of cultivating proper respect and honor for a wife, it is important to point out that a big part of acting respectfully is acting respectably.  Think for a moment, if the Rav of your Shul was visiting your home, would you walk around the living room in your undershirt and boxer shorts?  Obviously not.  Why not?  Because that would be an extreme sign of disrespect (and perhaps mental illness as well).  Although the familiarity of marriage does not demand the same formality of respectful expression as a Rebbi-Talmid relationship, the point is nonetheless clear: acting in a respectable manner is an intrinsic part of being respectful.

Although it is hard to unequivocally say that doing something like making a habit of walking around the house in your underwear is wrong, it can definitely be said that it is highly discouraged.  The same goes for other forms of uncouth behavior such as lack of table manners or repulsive matters pertaining to personal hygiene (such as cleaning your nose or passing gas in the presence of others).

Also bear in mind that, in addition to the implicit lack of respect for your wife (and children for that matter) that unrespectable behavior conveys, it also can serve to undermine the respect that you want your family to have for you.  It is very difficult to feel a sense of respectful awe for someone who exhibits behaviors fitting for a lout.  Even if you grew up in a family wherein these matters were not assigned importance, you should make a point to grow in your refinement.  It is only fitting of a Ben Torah, and it is what Shalom Bayis calls for.


Your Home is a Mikdash, Literally

Understanding why it is that regarding one’s wife showing her honor and love is not just something you do, but an intrinsic part of who you are, can go a long way in helping motivate you to actually do it.  Indeed, why is it that this needs to become a state of being that stays with you wherever you are?

The Gemara in Maseches Sotah says ish v’isha zachu Shechina beineihem, when a husband and wife live in a meritorious manner together, the Divine Presence dwells amongst them.  Rav Shimshon Pinkus writes emphatically[1] that it is critical to realize that this and all the other maamarei Chazal that compare shalom bayis to the Beis Ha’Mikdash are not mere allegorical analogies, rather they are literally true.  Every Jewish home that functions al pi Torah and is permeated with real shalom literally serves as a Mikdash for the Shechina precisely like the Beis Ha’Mikdash.  The most fundamental facet to this Mikdash is the complete unity between husband and wife.  When they create a true, deep bond with one another, they are together becoming a unified whole, and that is what serves as a dwelling place for the Shechina.

So, as Rav Pinkus emphasized, achieving this state of being wherein honoring and loving your wife is in an inseparable part of you is not only a mitzvah of bein adam la’chaveiro of the highest order, it is also a mitzvah of bein adam la’Makom of the highest order.  With every smile, empathetic ear, and kind word you are literally laying the bricks of the Mikdash.  Honoring and loving your wife need to become an essential part of you because that is at the beating heart of what marriage is all about.


Expansion of Self = Enrichment of Self

Working hard to understand your wife’s unique feminine needs, and cultivating the state of being in which you honor her, communicate successfully with her, and forge a deep emotional bond with her, is not meant to be something that you will find to be a burden.  If you do feel that way, then take it as an indication that you still have quite a ways to go.  For, on the contrary, despite the fact that the feminine manner of relating is so different from the male way, the more you learn to adapt to her way and truly internalize it as a facet of your expanded persona, you will discover an immense enjoyment and fulfillment in it.  You will not find it burdensome, because when you start to really understand her way of relating to things, you will see and feel the beauty in it.  No, it will not come to define you exclusively – you will not transmute from a masculine type of creature to a feminine type – but it will expand and enrich you.  You will be able to incorporate another, great facet into your persona that will make you into such a greater person.  Yes, you will learn, to an extent, how to see, understand, and process things from a feminine perspective as well, and it is going to make you into an adam ha’shaleim.  And in addition to the incredible emotional and spiritual enhancement that you will gain from forging this true bond with your wife, you will be rewarded with an even much, much greater benefit which is that bond in of itself.  When you are truly connected and have a deep, powerful relationship with your wife, the simchas ha’chaim and satisfaction that permeates your entire life is simply indescribable.

Learning the Language

Now, you may be wondering to yourself, “I can understand approaching my marriage as a deep, complex sugyah that needs to be learned up very well; that I need to work hard to understand my wife in terms of her unique needs and character as a woman and in her own, individual way.  I can also understand the need to accustom myself to demonstrating honor and love to her to the point where it becomes so ingrained in me that it is second nature.  Despite the immense amount of hard work involved in all of this, I can at least understand how I am to go about doing it.  But you spoke before about marriage being akin to moving to a foreign country wherein I will have to learn a completely new language and mode of behavior.  I have no idea where I am supposed to even start!  It is not as if there is a dictionary that will translate men phrases into women phrases.  How am I supposed to learn a completely new way of thinking, processing, and communicating?!”

That’s a really good question.  The truth is, though, that it is not as hard as it sounds.  If you go into marriage with the drive and desire to do it, you will definitely manage to pick it up.  Listen to your wife carefully.   Study her.  Take close note of how she tells you things, what types of things she focuses on, and so on.  If you really put yourself into it the way you put yourself into a sugyah, you will definitely be able to do it.

That being said, always keep one basic yesod in mind.  Both men and women are comprised of intellect and emotions.  However, men primarily function with their intellect and women primarily function with their emotions.  This is at the heart of all the vast differences in the way men and women think, feel, react, deal, talk, act, etc.  In describing the phenomenal difference between the way men and women communicate, one wise woman put it this way, “Men are: listen, solve, fix.  Women are: share, care, and encourage.”  Although certainly not an exhaustive description of all the many nuanced differences, this statement gives us a big foundation to work with.  Let’s describe a true-to-life example that will help us understand this a bit better.

Baruch had a hard time concentrating on his learning today.  Life was busy in the past few months and they had pushed off filing for their tax discount until today.  And today was the deadline.  So, Penina made sure to clear her schedule so that she could go to the appropriate government office to submit the forms.

                                When Baruch arrives home he finds a distraught looking wife.  “What is it Penina,” he asks, “did you manage to get the discount?”

                                “I cannot even begin to describe to you what my day was like,” began Penina.  “As soon as you left for Kollel, Ruchy threw a tantrum and absolutely refused to go to gan-“

                                Baruch quickly cuts her off, “Penina (with a slightly exasperated tone), did you get the discount?”

                                “Well, because of Ruchy’s tantrum, which I haven’t even told you about yet, and the baby coming down with a fever – it took me two hours to finally get him into the doctor, I’ll have you know…”  By this point, Baruch’s head is spinning and the pit in his stomach keeps getting deeper.  They really cannot afford to lose that discount, and his wife’s sob story is starting to drive him bananas!

                                Penina continues, “I wasn’t able to get to the office until 12:34, which was exactly four minutes after they closed!”

                                By now, Baruch is starting to feel faint.  Desperately, “So, Penina, are you telling me that you didn’t get the discount?”

                                “Well, I pounded on the door until finally someone opened it and I just barely managed to get a word in edgewise seeing that they were being so rude to me and yelling at me for just wanting to submit some silly forms…”  Baruch feels his lips starting to go dry.  Almost in a yell, “Penina, please just tell me, did you get the discount or not?!”

                                “Listen, I practically had to beg and cry for them to even listen to what I had to say – which only took me all of 30 seconds…”  Baruch thinks to himself, “Thirty seconds!  How is that possible?!”

                                “And they told me that the office opens again from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm.  I was floored.  How in the world was I supposed to make it at that time?!  That’s when all the kids are home!  I practically kicked and screamed for them to just take the form from my hand – I was waving it in the clerk’s face! – but they just slammed the door on me and told me to come back at 3:30!  Can you believe the chutzpah of it?  I was so upset, I didn’t even know what to do with myself-“ 

                                Again, Baruch cuts her off.  This time pleading, “Penina, could you please, please, please just tell me if you got the discount?”

                                “Baruch, if you’ll just listen to me you’ll understand everything!  So, I was standing there outside the building under the scorching sun, holding our feverish baby, and my mind was so clouded and I was physically so exhausted that I couldn’t even move.  Finally…”

                                This is how the conversation progresses (or perhaps digresses would be a better expression) until Penina finally gets to the end of her saga, and explains how with beyond-herculean effort she managed to find a baby-sitter to take care of the kids, while she went back to that awful office for a second time in the same day, had to stand inside the stuffy building on an interminably long line, deal with the rudeness and gruffness of the clerks, until she finally, finally did manage to submit the forms and get the discount.  Throughout Penina’s soliloquy, Baruch vacillates between feeling dizzy, sick, interrupting her with more demands of “just tell me already”, and just spacing out of despair and utter helplessness.

                                When she finishes, Baruch says to her in a completely wiped out and utterly exasperated tone of voice, “Penina!  Why couldn’t you just tell me that right away?”  To which Penina responds, “That’s precisely what I was trying to do, but you have no patience and you never listen to me…”

Let’s step out of this screen before it gets really ugly.  Although perhaps somewhat exaggerated to add a bit of literary flair and entertainment, the above description is not far at all from reality, is it?


Understanding Her Point of View

As a man, it really can be difficult at first hash to understand what in the world is going on with Penina.  I mean, fine, we can understand that you have a need to share your incredibly frustrating day with your husband, and we can understand your need for an empathetic, encouraging, and supportive ear.  But why not just tell him the conclusion that you got the discount right away, so he won’t be kept waiting in anxious suspense, and then go through the whole megilah with him?  Penina isn’t sadistic, is she?  So why can’t she just tell Baruch the information that he wants to know right away and spare him suffering the unbearable suspense?

This is a really good question and its answer is multifaceted.

For starters, Penina is a woman.  Women are emotional, delicate, and sensitive.  She had a very difficult experience today.  She needs Baruch to lend her a supportive, empathetic, encouraging ear.  She recognizes very clearly from the way Baruch is speaking that the only thing he really cares about is if at the end of the day they got the discount or not.  But she needs him to care about her and the difficult experience she went through.  If she tells him the conclusion of the story right away, he will most likely not pay much attention to the whole story that led up to it.  He will, in the words of one wise woman, “just go about munching on his supper while grunting ‘um-hmm’ every now and then with barely a lift of his eyes.”

So, no, Penina is not sadistic.  She is desperate.  She is desperate for her husband to be the source of honor, support, and respect to her that she so acutely needs, that the Torah and Chazal imposed upon him, and that he explicitly obligated himself to in the kesubah that he gave her when they married.  Because this need is so critical to her, she sees no other recourse than but to keep him in suspense the whole time so he will have no choice but to pay attention to her story.  It is her desperate bid for a bit of attention, care, and empathy.  And, it should be noted, with every repetition of “could you just tell me if we got the discount”, he is effectively screaming at her, “I don’t care about you and your silly story, I only care about the money!”  He is crushing her.  Not good.  Not good at all.  It goes without saying that he is very, very far from even honoring his wife, let alone setting himself on the path that will lead to be honoring his wife.


A Serious Achrayus

At this juncture, we need to pause for a moment because a bit of mussar needs to be said.  It is going to be sharp, so please brace yourself.

Imagine for a moment that you accepted responsibility to care for someone who has a unique, medical condition.  This condition causes that every single time anyone holds his hand without positioning it in a very particular way, he suffers excruciating pain, but it is suffered in relative silence.  Sure he cries bitterly now and again from the horrific pain, but part of his condition is that he is unable to verbalize precisely what it is that is causing the pain.  Now, despite having accepted caring for him, you don’t know about this condition.  If you would have acted responsibly and spoken to those medical experts that handled his case, and investigated the matter, you would have discovered this point with relative ease and been able to adjust yourself accordingly.  Sure it would take some time getting used to holding his hand in such a unique way, and you would inevitably make mistakes from time to time.  But overall, you would be a good caretaker because you are working hard at your job and over time you would get it just right.

But you were neglectful.  You were lazy.  You just arrogantly assumed, “what could be so complicated about caring for this guy?  Yeah, he seems a bit sensitive and fragile, but no sweat, I’ll be able to manage it with no problem.”  For years you subject him to indescribable pain without ever having the slightest clue as to what you are really doing.  Yes, you definitely notice his frequent bouts of bitter crying and general state of malaise as a result of his constantly being subjected to such horrible pain, but that only bewilders you.  Because, as far as you are aware, you are providing him with wonderful care, and his situation in general is fine and even very good.  This bewilderment eventually leads to resentment and anger: “This is how he repays my dedication and devotion?  This is what he calls hakaras ha’tov?!  What an ingrate!  He is just a terribly, immature mess of a person; I cannot believe that I was ever insane enough to accept his care!”  Of course, whatever general good treatment you were giving him up until this point is going to obviously decline and decay.

Now, you need to ask yourself, after 120, aren’t you going to have give a din v’cheshbon for all of the intense pain and suffering that you inflicted on that person?  What do you think the chances are that the Beis Din shel Maalah will accept the excuse, “But I didn’t realize!?”  True, ohnes Rachmana patreih, Hashem doesn’t hold us accountable for those things that are beyond our control.  But this is not ohnes; not at all.  This is a serious peshiah; it is flagrant negligence.  You accepted the responsibility to care for this person, and the claim “I didn’t know” is just not going to hold water.  It was your responsibility to ensure that you care for him properly; and certainly to not inflict unnecessary pain!  You could have known, you should have known, and if you had not been too lazy and conceited, you would have known.

Rabosai, getting married is a serious responsibility.  When you put that ring on her finger and give her the kesubah, you are accepting full achrayus to care for her and provide her with all of her needs.  If instead of doing that you inflict untold pain on her because you are simply too lazy or too arrogant to figure out exactly what her unique needs are, and work on adapting yourself so that you can provide them properly, well, such a sentence is better off left unfinished.  The excuse, “How could I possibly have known?!” is just not going to cut it.  Not at all.  The fact that her needs and sensitivities are completely foreign to you is not going to get you off the hook.  She suffers terribly when those needs are not met, and how much more so when instead of being met they are put down and trampled upon.  There is no excuse for causing her to suffer like that.  You have a responsibility.  You must learn her up well and put forth the effort to care for her properly.  To not do so is an act of gross, criminal negligence.  Yes, you read that right: from a Torah perspective it is nothing less than criminal negligence.


First Things First?

So, coming back, yes, by repeatedly begging Penina to just tell him if she got the discount or not, Baruch is crushing her inner world.  Instead of receiving the caring, supportive, empathetic ear that she so badly needs, all she is hearing is, “I could not care less about your silly sob story; all I care about is the money!”  So her keeping him in suspense is her last ditch, desperate bid to try to somehow extract some attention and caring out of him.

It goes further than that, though.  Let us now imagine a Baruch who is far more considerate and caring than the first depiction.  If Penina will tell this Baruch right away whether or not they got the discount, he will in fact afterwards listen to her whole story with concern and empathy.  And wouldn’t it make so much sense to do so?  First get the distraction out of his mind, alleviate his sense of anxiety, and then he will have so much clearer a head to focus on what you’re saying?  No?

Well, no.

It’s funny, because as men, that suggestion makes so much sense to us, doesn’t it?  Once you see it from her perspective, though, we are exposed as the louts that we really are (that is, until we work hard to refine our character).  The fact that it is so burning a need for you to first hear the tachlis-conclusion of the story, before you are able to process even a bit of what your wife needs to tell you about her day, means that push-come-to-shove, the money issue is in fact SO much more important to you than her feelings!

And how do you think that makes her feel?!

If you would truly respect and love your wife then it would be the exact opposite.  Her need for empathy and encouragement would be SO much your primary concern that you would have no ability whatsoever to hear a thing about the tachlis-conclusion of whether or not you got the discount before hearing her whole story and feeling everything about it along with her!  Penina cannot possibly acquiesce to first telling Baruch whether or not they got the discount, even if he will afterward listen to her story with caring and empathy, because that would mean that he cares about the discount so much more than he cares about her.  And, even though his constant refrains make it plainly obvious that that is so, she cannot emotionally accept it.  She just can’t.


Understanding the Nature of Feminine Communication      

There is yet one more facet that needs mention here.  Let us now imagine for a moment that Penina’s story-line is completely different than the one described above.  She had a wonderful day.  Everything went smoothly.  The kids got off to school easily.  The baby ate beautifully and slept on the bus ride to the office.  She arrived there with plenty of time to spare.  The building was comfortably air-conditioned and the lines moved quickly.  The clerks were courteous, helpful, and solicitous, and the whole process was successfully completed expeditiously, leaving her time to even do a bit of window shopping before she headed home and prepared lunch for her family.

Penina is in a very good frame of mind.  She feels happy, accomplished, and content.  She does not need any empathy or encouragement right now.  Not at all.  She feels great!  And, yet, the same type of scene occurs when Baruch gets home and she begins to tell him what happened that day.  She insists on going through every, small detail of what led up to finally getting the discount, and he is going bananas from the fact that she won’t just first tell him about that one point.

Now, it could be that instead of empathy and encouragement, this Penina needs recognition and appreciation in addition to really wanting her husband to share with her the wonderful, positive experience she had that day.  That is almost certainly the case.

But, for the moment, let’s assume for argument’s sake that she does not have any particular emotional need right now – not for empathy and encouragement nor for appreciation and sharing – but she still insists on telling it her way!  What then?

This brings us to a facet of feminine communication that is no less important to understand than what we have elucidated thus far.  Rav Eliyahu Goldschmidt explains that whereas men have no problem distinguishing between the logical component of an issue and its emotional component, for women that is not possible.  Men analyze things with an eye on tachlis.  Afterward, they may or may not take the emotional side of the issue into account.  Women, though, do not even see that distinction; at all!  For them there is no differentiating between an issue’s emotional load and its logical/practical ramifications.

Therefore, Penina cannot just isolate the point of whether or not they got the discount from the rest of the day’s experience.  In her mind it literally makes no sense to do so!  It is all one thing.  A distinction that to us men is simple, basic, and straightforward is completely and utterly counterintuitive to women!

If you insist on your way being right, you are going to upset and insult her because you are belittling the mode of communication that is so much an essential part of who she is.  For men, their mode of communication is not something that they associate with how they feel about themselves; it is just pragmatically the most efficient, sensible way of going about things.  If someone were to insist on a different mode of communication, a man does not get hurt and upset, he just gets frustrated by the lack of sensibility and efficiency.  So, since for her it is a matter of self-definition, whereas for you it is just a matter of pragmatic efficiency and logic, you are the one who must give in and be mevater.  This would be the case even if you were not enjoined to be honoring her more than yourself.  All the more so that you are obligated to honor her so.  Therefore, it is you who must learn her language and form of communication, and not the other way around.

Click here for the previous installments of the Shovavim Shalom Bayis Initiative

[1] בספר תפארת אבות

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