A story is told of a young man who approached his rosh yeshiva hoping for a bit of the empathic advice he was known to offer young marrieds. His anguish was clearly visible as he described in detail the transformation of his sweet, loving wife, into a “witch.” After only four years of marriage and three children, her exemplary midot of chesed were long absent in her character.
Instead of the usual sensitivity and words of kindness he expected from his Rebbe, he was shocked when he heard his response: “If your wife, who frequented nursing homes, helped friends in need, and always spoke in a soft, loving voice, has suddenly turned into a witch, one can conclude that it is you, my son, who turned her into this ‘unrecognizable’ person.”
“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” which was considered a novel perspective in the 1980s, advanced the idea that the “need to belong,” to feel connected, noticed, and valued, is among the basic human needs, right along with “food,” “shelter,” and “clothing.” Thus viewed, the experience of emotional fulfillment is just as necessary as physical satiation in order to actuate the fullness of one’s human potential. Interestingly, the idea of equating the value of physical equilibrium with emotional stability also appears in our Torah, thousands of years prior to Maslow’s seemingly novel discovery. And an understanding of how these ideas apply to Shalom Bayit is exactly what the Rebbe was trying to impart to the young husband in this story.
The rosh yeshiva, familiar with the intensity of the spiritual environment in the Kollel, was well aware of how this could impact on the relationship between a Kollel husband and his wife. We can well imagine that this young woman, prior to her marriage, was loved and valued by family, and friends for her very special qualities. Moreover, it was probably these very midot that facilitated the Shidduch. Yet, we can also consider that as they settled into the more realistic realm of marriage and family life, this feeling of connectedness and valuation began to diminish. Perhaps she was home alone all day with her children tending to all of their needs, failing to communicate with another adult for hours. No doubt, as she eagerly waited for her husband to come home, she imagined he would talk to her, share his day, even his learning, and then help her with some of the mundane tasks so they could have some quiet time together. Not a great deal to ask!
Yet, the Rav, also familiar with the young men in the Kollel, knew that perhaps “high in the sky” with his learning, the husband was not always attuned to what was going on with his wife. Maybe he wanted supper on the table, time to think about what he learned, or to just quietly relax. Perhaps, given where he was coming from, he may even have found himself unable to relate to the mundane atmosphere in the home or, in the worst-case scenario, perhaps he felt himself above it all and even blamed his wife for the messy home or burned food he encountered, oblivious to the demands made upon her.
Thus viewed, the Rav’s response was actually an attempt to help to help this young man take ownership of his part in the turn of events the couple faced.
This same message is revealed in Parshat Bereishit in the pasuk where Hashem responds to Cain’s indignation regarding the rejection of his inferior offering: “Why are you angered and why is your countenance falling?” Is it not true that if you do good, you will be forgiven; but if you do not do good, at the entrance stands your sin.”
Rashi, referencing the Targum Onkelus, interprets these words in the following manner: “Is it not true that if you improve your action, it will be forgiven…and if not, your sin will be preserved and it will follow you until your death.”
Rabbi Peysach Krohn offered a novel twist on these words, which resonated so strongly for me that I will never forget the message for its simplicity as well as its strength. Each and every day, before we enter our homes, we have two choices in how we react to our spouses and our children. We can choose to give in to the fatigue, annoyance, or other residuals from our day, and take it out on those awaiting us at the other side of the threshold. Or, we can take a deep breath, remember the “Mini Bait Hamikdosh,” reflected in the holy sanctuaries of our homes, cross that threshold, and thank God and our families for the gifts that greet us. Indeed, “at the entrance stands our sin,” for the good or the ill, the choice remains ours. This is the message the rosh yeshiva communicated to the young husband, and this is the lesson we can apply each and every day as we enter the sanctuary of our homes.
Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at: doctorrenee nussbaum @gmail.com.
By Dr. Renee Nussbaum