Infidelity wasn’t invented in Hollywood. The Bible is full of it.
A woman told her rabbi that she was going to divorce her husband. The rabbi tried to dissuade her from making a rash decision. He told her that according to the Talmud, “When a man divorces his first wife, the Altar (in the Holy Temple) sheds tears.” The woman replied, “Better the altar should cry than I should cry, rabbi!”
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, deals with the case of the Sotah, a woman accused by her husband of being unfaithful. In a fascinating ritual, the priest in the Holy Temple would administer the ceremony of the “bitter waters.” The name of G-d was placed into a potion of water, and quite miraculously, by drinking the waters, the woman’s guilt or innocence would be verified. Erasing the name of G-d is normally strictly forbidden. The fact that it was done here indicates how important saving a marriage is in our tradition.
With between 40% and 50% of marriages failing in the United States—and the national average length of a marriage lasting 8.2 years—one might consider it rather miraculous that the institution continues to exist at all. And yet, the marriage industry still thrives as young people continue to aspire to living the perfect dream and raising happy families.
That’s wonderful. But how much effort do we put into making our marriages work? For too many people, work is a four-letter word to be avoided at all costs. But if we would invest half the amount of work into our existing relationships that we will need to survive a divorce, we might have much happier marriages.
Interestingly, the Talmud also criticizes the jealous husband for overreacting and running to the priest unnecessarily.
Today, I fear, we run to the lawyer much too quickly.
Too many young marrieds, after the inevitable first argument, come to the premature conclusion that they must have made a mistake. I have seen it all too often. There is a name for it. It’s called “unrealistic expectations.” We forget that some of the best marriages on earth had rocky beginnings, and that it is normal and natural to take time to settle down and settle into a marriage.
Why do we expect our marriages to cruise along smoothly without the slightest hiccup when we have no such presumptions about any other area of life? Say a business shows a loss in the first quarter. Do we close shop? Of course not. We sit down, we strategize, we find new ways of doing things, and with time and effort, the situation turns around. Why then do we close our marriages with such alacrity at the first signs of difficulty?
Then there are those who are married for years but are locked in loveless marriages. They see no hope for a better future and are resigned to living out their lives, in the words of Thoreau, “in quiet desperation.”
Please believe me, it needn’t be that way. Many a marriage has hit rock-bottom and then rebounded into a beautiful, sensitive, mature relationship.
There are highly qualified counselors in every community who can help you save your marriage and enhance your relationship. And there need be no stigma whatsoever in going for help. If you have the flu, you see the doctor. It’s curable. So is an ailing relationship. And it’s never too late. I’ve seen people embark on a fresh, new path after 18 or 25 years of marriage, and they’ve never looked back.
But what I really want to share is that fixing your existing relationship is by far the best option available to you.
Why? Be practical. Examine your alternatives. Ask yourself honestly: Is getting divorced and then looking for a new partner better? What makes you think they are lining up to marry divorced people with kids or other baggage? And staying single is no fun either. Loneliness is no picnic. And don’t think your miserable ex is going to fall off Planet Earth after your divorce. You will still have to engage him/her on family issues, especially if there are children. So you get to keep most of the headaches with little or no compensation.
A woman I know is now on her third marriage. I tried to counsel her during the first one. But she was headstrong and determined to end it. Today, she freely admits that had she known then what she knows now she would never have divorced husband number one. Because, with all his faults, compared to husbands numbers two and three, he was an angel!
Marriage and family life can bring contentment and happiness to each of us, but only if we work at it. Our lives can be rich and satisfying in that deep, wonderful way—provided we are big enough to seek help and improve an unhappy relationship.
I wish you every happiness in yours.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.