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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


The Secret to Making Marriage Last

In today’s day and age, it may seem that lasting and meaningful marriages have taken a backseat to complete strangers getting hitched on TV. However, in celebrating his own 60th wedding anniversary, Rabbi Benjamin Blech provides us all with the “secret” to making marriage last:

Last week my wife and I hit a major milestone: we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.

Even though people are living longer in today’s day and age, the togetherness of wedded bliss seems to getting shorter. When I happened to mention my personal simchah at a lecture in Los Angeles which included a significant Hollywood crowd, a well-known personality told me with a smile, “Rabbi, to be married 60 years isn’t a big deal around here – but it usually takes us about five or six wives to do it with.”

What struck me most from the countless good wishes and congratulations of young friends and acquaintances was the question that almost all of them asked me: “So what is your secret?”

As if staying married is today considered so unusual that the possibility of its existence requires some almost supernatural mystical wisdom. As if making marriage work is a task almost beyond the capability of a couple who begin a life’s journey together with shared dreams and passionate love. As if there must be some Divine secret hidden from most which would make possible the fulfillment of God’s universal truth that “it is not good for a human being to remain alone.”

So let me answer the question as directly as I can. There is no secret. It is something we knew ever since we were little children. The point is not to discover it – but to remember it. It may in fact be the very first thing we were taught when we began our education in how to live with others.

Years ago there was a book which unexpectedly became an international bestseller. Written by Robert Fulghum, its title said it all: “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”. No one imagined its simple truths would inspire many millions of readers.

That book has a Jewish sequel. It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized that all I really need to know I learned when I began my Jewish studies.

At a very early age I began my study of the Talmud. The curriculum, shared by most schools of Jewish learning, started us with a famous portion from the tractate Baba Metziya that deals with the case of a dispute concerning the ownership of a found garment: “This one says I found it, this one says I found it; this one says it is all mine and this one says it is all mine.” The court needs to adjudicate. Oaths are required to substantiate their positions. And then the final ruling is given. They must divide it between them. Neither one wins it all. The resolution is: they must share.

I used to wonder about the rabbinic wisdom that made this particular discussion be the entryway into Talmudic study for little children. Would it not have been more appropriate for us to be introduced to Talmud and Jewish law with a section about blessings and prayers, about ways to serve God, about holiness and charity?

None of that is as important as impressing upon our young minds the significance of learning that in this world we cannot always win simply because we say “it is mine.” We cannot claim for ourselves something for which another has an equally valid claim. The world is not there for us to unilaterally take – it is meant for us to divide, to share, to give equal validity to the right of another.

This is the same truth Robert Fulghum selected as a key lesson to be learned from kindergarten. We start life as one, a single unit to whom everything is given by adoring and caring parents. To move forward, to be able to enjoy the blissful gift of friendship, to mature and to grow sufficiently to respect the rights of others is to be blessed with the ability to subsequently make marriage possible.

All things are inherently good, but not if they remain unshared.

Sharing is caring. Sharing is the recognition that “I” is not as important as “we” – and that may well be the profound hidden meaning in the word “wedding”, in which the “we” comes before the “I”. Sharing is acknowledging that there must be times when your need is greater than mine, when your want requires my wont. Sharing is knowing that two people are not identical but they are still equal – with different desires which deserve respect even when disagreed with.

When God created the world, the Torah tells us He concluded every act of creation with the observation that “it is good.” The first time the Bible uses the phrase “it is not good” is with regard to loneliness. It is not good for a person to be alone – and the rabbinic commentary makes the beautiful point that this is a reflection not simply on Adam being alone but rather on the evaluation previously expressed with regard to everything the Almighty had made. It is the qualification for all the former expressions of “it is good.” All things are inherently good, but not if they remain unshared.

Today’s world is one which glorifies selfies, self-fulfillment, self-gratification. It is a world in which the word entitlement is supreme – politically, socially and interpersonally. The key phrase is “it is all mine” – and the Talmudic ruling to divide and share is regarded as an ancient anachronism. Compromise is all too often looked at as just another way of half losing – and nobody wants to be considered a loser, even just a little.

Too bad so many people don’t remember what they learned in kindergarten as well as in their first encounter with Talmud study. Sharing is winning. Living life with the credo which replaces “it’s mine” with “it’s ours” is not giving up half but almost miraculously having both marital partners gaining it all.

Entitlement makes demands; commitment creates the desire to achieve lasting happiness by giving, caring, sharing and respecting the other at least as much as oneself. Elaine and I committed ourselves to be there for each other – and that is how we found ourselves. We committed ourselves to work at making our marriage successful – and our commitment to each other made us successful for our family and friends. We shared a profound commitment to God and His values – and we achieved heavenly blessings beyond compare.

The idea of sharing, of commitment instead of entitlement as life’s guide, has never been a secret. It has given my wife, Elaine, and me 60 years of joyous life together. And that’s why, in the same spirit, I’m happy to share it with you as well – with a prayer that you be granted similar blessings from God of health, longevity and His loving-kindness.