The We Relationship|
by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
One out of every two marriages in North America ends in divorce. Of
those that survive, some should not: The relationships have
deteriorated to the point that dissolution is the only way to relieve
the misery. Thus, the majority of North American marriages are
failures. The explanation for this enormous human suffering is not easy
to see, especially since the statistics for the best educated, most
sophisticated and least inhibited segment of the population are just as
When the patriarch Isaac met his future wife Rebecca he "...took her
into the tent of his mother Sarah, married her, and loved her, and was
comforted from (the loss of) his mother" (Genesis 24:67). From a
Western perspective, the sequence of events is puzzling: Shouldn't love
come before marriage? And why is the development of their relationship
bracketed by Isaac's concern for his mother?
Our Sages tell us (Bereishis Rabbah) that during Sarah's lifetime, her
tent -- which was Isaac's home -- experienced open manifestations of
God s presence. With her death, these signs disappeared. Isaac's
criterion for a spouse was the ability to recreate the Divine
environment he experienced in his mother's home. It was her proof of
this ability that determined Isaac's decision to marry Rebecca. Love
for her was the outcome of the marriage commitment based on that
foundation. Note that the love which grew between them is not
unimportant: The fact that the Torah mentions it shows that love is one
of the goals of marriage.[l]
However, far from being the prerequisite for marriage, love is a
consequence of marriage based upon a common vision and goal of life,
and the perception that the partners are suited to achieving that goal
together. Only when Isaac found a partner for such a marriage and
experienced the resulting love -- only when the divine environment was
recreated -- could Isaac be comforted for the loss of his mother. (Of
course, some emotional bond must be created during the testing period
before a commitment is made to marry. This is included in the
"perception that the partners are suited to one another." How to
characterize the required bond exactly requires investigation.)
The following generation gives what appears at first glance to be a
contrasting paradigm for love and marriage. Jacob meets Rachel at the
well and immediately kisses her. Within thirty days he loves her so
completely that he is prepared to work seven years for the right to
marry her. Here Jacob's love explicitly precedes marriage, and in fact
develops so rapidly that it appears to be almost "love at first sight"
-- the very antithesis of his parents' example. But this appearance is
immediately dispelled by a closer look at the verses and the
supplementary comments of Our Sages.
(a) When he meets Rachel at the well, Jacob first waters the sheep,
then kisses her, and then weeps. This behavior is not typical of
(b) The offer to work for her for such a long period, and the choice of
seven years in particular, needs to be explained.
(c) The Torah's description of the passage of the seven years "...as
but a few days in his eyes due to his love of her" like a beautifully
romantic sentiment -- until we reflect that while waiting for a
longed-for event, time passes slowly, not quickly. His love for her
should have made the seven years feel like a hundred!
(d) When the time is finally up, Jacob requests the promised marriage
with the words: 'Give me my wife that I may go in unto her." Such a
statement seems gross in the extreme. How can we imagine Jacob
A COMMON GOAL OF
The key to the whole story lies in the answer to the last question. Our
Sages explain that Jacob saw his marriage to Rachel as the instrument
for bringing the Jewish people into existence. Since the Jewish people
is the goal and the justification of the whole of creation, and the
Creator made marital relations the only means of procreation, those
marital relations achieve the pinnacle of holiness. As Adam and Eve
before him, Jacob saw no embarrassment in that process when dedicated
to such a goal. His statement "...that I may go in unto her..."
expressed the height of sanctity which he achieved.
Understanding that the creation of the Jewish people was Jacob's goal
in marrying Rachel, we can answer questions (a)-(c) as well. He used
the seven years as a period of preparation for such an awesome task.
The choice of the time period is not arbitrary: seven units of time
connote a complete time-cycle, and a period of purification.
When one is preparing for a challenge which will test all one's
abilities, whose outcome is of enormous importance, and which requires
the meticulous strengthening and training of all one's talents and
abilities, how does the time pass during the preparation period?
Quickly! His love for her was predicated on such a challenge,
therefore, the seven years "...were as but a few days in his eyes."
Finally, we must remember that when Jacob first saw Rachel he was
already a prophet. A prophet by definition sees what the rest of us do
not: Jacob saw in Rachel the mother of the Jewish people. His love for
her and all his subsequent actions were consequences of this vision.
Thus we see that Jacob and Rachel, instead of contrasting with Isaac
and Rebecca, in fact exemplify the same principle: Love and marriage
are consequences of a common vision and a goal of life and the
perception that the partners are suited to achieving that goal
together. This principle is one of the two pillars upon which Jewish
THE INTEGRATION OF TWO
The second pillar of Jewish marriages is found in the Talmudic dictum
that Adam was (or was originally destined to be) androgynous, i.e., a
being combining male and female characteristics in all human dimensions
-- physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. What are we to
learn from this piece of historical information? We are to learn that
marriage is the context in which a man and a woman attempt to recreate
or approximate the perfect male-female union represented by Adam. Let
us examine this lesson in detail.
Human relationships differ in the quality of integration they achieve.
On the lowest level is the pure business relationship: each partner
enters the relationship solely for the personal gain he can achieve
thereby. Personal integration with the partner is nil. We may label
this relationship "I plus I": Each partner is to himself a completely
self-interested "I," but he recognizes that the cooperation with
another "I" can profit him more than can his individual efforts.
On a higher level is the "We" relationship, in which individuals
identify with the needs and goals of a group, and experience events in
terms of their significance for the group. "We" replaces "I" in the
thinking of the members of such a group, at least during group
activities. Anyone who has played on a well-knit sports team, performed
with a music ensemble, or engaged in a similar activity has been part
of a "We" relationship. A score by the opposing team is our loss; my
successful play is our success; the notes I produce is a contribution
to our sound; that is how the activity is experienced. In this context
a new entity is formed; namely, the group. Individuals relating with
one another in the "We" mode become members of this new entity and are
integrated (partially) into it. Their individuality becomes subordinate
to the group's needs and goals.
Although it is a significant improvement on the "I plus I"
relationship, the "We" relationship does not embody complete
integration. The group is an association of individuals each of whom
retains his own identity. He merely plays the role of group member at
certain times, and at these times accepts the group's goals as his own.
This relationship does not affect his essence. Such a total
integration, which transforms the essence of the individual to the
extent that he is no longer truly an individual, is the highest form of
human relationship. The new entity formed by this relationship is not a
group, but rather an organic whole, of which the erstwhile individuals
become parts (rather than members, as in a group). This relationship
may be labeled "I," for two reasons. The singular pronoun indicates
that the new entity does not have the multiplicity of a group, but
rather is a single entity; and the use of "I" indicates that the new
entity is a totally integrated individual, which supplants the
individuality of those who stand in the relationship.
The husband and wife who achieve the "I" relationship do not form a
two-membered group, but rather a new organically integrated whole.
Compare, for example, the human body. It can be divided into head,
trunk, arms and legs. Nevertheless, we do not say that each person is a
group of six! The reason is that the head, trunk, etc. are parts of one
whole, rather than individuals merely associating with one another.
What makes the difference? Integrating functioning: Each of the parts
is totally dependent upon its connection to the rest of the body for
its life and ability to function. Similarly, the "I" relationship
produces integrated functioning for the individuals who stand in that
UNIQUE, AND THEREFORE
It must be emphasized that this integration does not compromise the
uniqueness of those who achieve it. That x and y function together as a
unit does not imply that x=y. On the contrary integrated functioning
usually presupposes crucial differences which are so related that the
whole may vastly transcend its parts Some examples: a violin and a
piano playing together; forwards and guards in basketball; a surgeon
and an anesthesiologist in the operating theater; Sanhedrin, King and
prophet for the leadership of the Jewish nation. The uniqueness of the
individuals forming the 'I" is the very foundation of the integration:
It is because they are unique in precisely these ways that they can
coordinate their functioning so as to form this integrated whole.
How is the "I" relationship expressed in the context of marriage? It is
as if when Isaac says "I" and Rebecca says "I," instead of each
referring to his/her own self, they both refer to the same new amalgam
of which each is a part. If you write "I" on one occasion and speak "I"
on another, we do not understand the written "I" as referring to your
arm and the spoken "I" as referring to your lungs, larynx, mouth, etc.
Although produced by different parts of your body, each refers to the
whole. This is because "I" refers to the smallest whole encompassing
the part which produces it. In the case of Isaac and Rebecca, neither
of them individually is a whole any longer; thus the "I" produced by
either refers to the whole of which each is a part.
The "I"-relationship marriage is experienced differently from other
human relationships. Imagine that Leah is a social worker having
difficulty convincing a client to get psychiatric help. Her husband
Reuven encourages her and gives her advice, and the following day she
succeeds. If Leah and Reuven are related as the "I plus I," the success
is hers; he is at best an enabler, expecting her help in his projects
as quid pro quo for his support of her. If they share a "We"
relationship, the success is theirs, but it accrues to the pair (the
two-membered group) through her action which she performs as an
individual. If they form an "I," the very action itself is related to
Reuven as well: The success was accomplished by a part of the very same
whole of which he is a part.
A second example: A husband and wife are together when one receives a
gross insult from a third party. The spouse protests: "Your words
affect me as well -- I take that insult personally." He responds "Don't
talk nonsense: I didn't insult your person, I insulted your spouse's
person." Is the protest nonsense? Not in the context of the "I"
relationship. Just as any insult to my face is an insult to me as a
whole, so an insult to my spouse is an insult to the whole of which I
am a part.
This, then, is the lesson of androgynous Adam: Man and woman are
created as incomplete parts of a larger organic whole which comprises
both of them. Their complementary gifts and needs enable them to
integrate with each other on the pattern of that original whole. It is
this which gives them the capacity to transcend the "I plus I" and "We"
levels of human relationship, and at least approximate the integration
of the single "I" of which Adam is the paradigm. The goal and challenge
of marriage is to recreate Adam's wholeness to the extent possible for
physically separate beings.
Love -- a deep and abiding attachment to and identification with one's
spouse, coupled with the joy of that attachment -- is the result of
forming the "I" relationship. Without this, there may be a temporary
thrill, an infatuation, a mutually beneficial satisfaction of one
another's needs (characteristic of even "I plus I" relationships), but
not love. The "I" relationship, at once the challenge and the
fulfillment of highest human integration, is the second pillar on which
Jewish marriage rests.
The "I" relationship will not create itself. It must be actively
pursued with intelligence and dedication. No matter how well-suited
husband and wife are to one another when they marry, life's experiences
work to drive them apart. No man has even a vague inkling of what it is
to carry, birth and suckle a child. The loss of a parent cannot be
fully experienced by the mourner's spouse.
Unless there is a commitment to rebuild lines of communication and
modes of sharing, husband and wife will inevitably drift into private
worlds, becoming less and less relevant to one another. Love cannot be
strengthened, or even sustained under such conditions. This means that
time, effort and resources must be dedicated to constantly renewing the
In my opinion, the failure to take responsibility for creating the "I"
in marriage is the single most common factor in divorce. Western
culture has evolved a passive attitude towards love and marriage:
"Let's see if it works. If it does, fine; if not, why spend life
chained to unhappiness?" "If it works" -- not "If I will work" -- and
certainly not "It will work: I will make it work!"
How does one relate to other difficult and important life tasks -- a
school exam, a musical performance, an athletic competition, a medical
problem? One undertakes to practice, study, train, prepare and strive
to achieve (with God's help) the desired result. This is the attitude
one should have in marriage. A successful marriage is the personal
achievement of the husband and wife who worked to create it. A failed
marriage is often their personal failure.
Adopting this attitude of responsibility towards building the "I" with
one's spouse provides a new understanding of typical marital
occurrences. For example, it often happens that the wife (or husband)
starts to tell the husband (or wife) an experience or feeling of hers
which is immensely boring to him. What should he do?
There are two common schools of thought. (1) Marriage is based on
kindness: He should listen anyway as a favor to the wife. (2) Marriage
is based on honesty: He should tell her frankly that the subject is
boring to him and expect her to respect his feelings.
From the vantage point of building the "I," both approaches miss the
crucial point: He should not be listening to the story, but to her. The
story is boring; if he saw it in a newspaper or heard it from an
acquaintance, he might immediately put down the paper or change the
subject. But this communication from his wife indicates her present
state of mind, her present feelings. He wants to know where she is so
that he and she can continue to build their whole together.
A second example, consider the adage: It is easier to give than to
receive. Why is this so? Because receiving often implies weakness,
insufficiency, dependency and failure on the recipient's part, while
giving implies strength, surplus, independence, success, and also
magnanimity. The ego-impact of giving is positive, of receiving,
negative. If so, one of the greatest gifts is to provide another with
the opportunity to give. Often one spouse will not share problems
with the other "in order not to burden her/him with my problems." The
effect is to deny the other a chance to help and thereby confirm
her/his own self-worth. (And the cause is often an attempt to save
one's own self-image.)
After a disagreement we are willing to forgive, but are we willing to
ask for forgiveness? Forgiving, as a form of giving, is easy: It
implies that we were right and the other party was guilty! Asking for
forgiveness allows the other to be charitable in excusing our fault.
It is hoped that these brief examples will indicate how the goal of
creating the "I" provides a new perspective on marital experiences.
Consistent application of this perspective yields a new integrative
approach which helps cement the marital bond even as life's
vicissitudes assail that bond.
We need to strengthen ourselves against the tide of marital misery
which surrounds us and threatens to undermine our marriages as well.
Classes, books, counseling (before and after marriage) and group
discussions are needed to help us construct our marriages in the image
of the Talmudic vision of Adam, and thus fulfill the destiny for which
we were created. 
1. This gives the lie to the Fiddler on the Roof slander of Jewish
marriage as a love-less relationship.
2. See, for example, the discussion of Sefiras HaOmer while waiting for
Mattan Torah in Sefer HaChinuch.
3. Cf. Yalkut Shimoni.
4. Cf. Iggeres HaKodesh of the Ramban.
5. This task is what distinguishes Jacob from Abraham and Isaac, and
makes him "bechir she'b'avos": They each had non-Jewish children and
thus were only ancestors of the Jewish people. Jacob and his family
were the Jewish people in microcosm.
6. The week, shemittah, yovel, Pesach, Shavuos and sefiras ha'omer
illustrate time periods composed of seven units of time. Tumas mes,
yoledes, zav and zavah illustrate seven units of time as a purification
process. The Zohar HaKadosh says explicitly that Jacob used the seven
years to prepare himself for the union with Rachel
7. Think of preparing for an exam, a performance, etc.
8. Eruvin 11a.
9. Of course, many business relationships become more than purely
10. When my hand imprints my name on a check, it is I, the whole
person, who signs the check; the action accrues the whole even though
only a part is in motion
11. See Michtav MeEliyahu, v. 1, Kuntres HaChessed, chap. 12 where
Rabbi Dessler distinguishes between notail and mekabel, the taker and
the giver. Much of the description of the "I" is derived from Kuntres
12. Some will worry that expenditure of time and effort will deplete
our resources for other necessary goals. For example, men learning full
time will regret lost hours of Talmud Torah. This view is shortsighted:
Much more time will be lost (not to mention qualitative deterioration)
from learning in the long run due to the consequences of lost
integration and communication than is needed to prevent that loss.
Compare Rashi's explanation of Rabbi Yishmael's "minhag derech eretz"
(Berachos 35b): "for if you become dependent upon charity, in the end
you will be prevented from (learning) Torah." Rashi sees a regular job
as the most efficient way to maximize hours of Talmud Torah; the same
applies to investment in marriage.
13. I am deeply indebted to my wife, who introduced me to many of the
ideas expressed in this article.
Reprinted with permission from Innernet.org
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