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Letter to an Engaged Friend

April 30, 2014

15 Marheshwan, 5774

Dear *****,

My wife and I were very happy to receive the invitation to your wedding. Unfortunately, we can not at the moment arrange to travel to the states for your wedding. I am sorry for disappointing you, but it is also important to know that, as my wife says, “it’s not the wedding that counts, but the marriage.”

I am honored that you asked me to review the laws of nidda with you. I think that becuase of the more than seven-hour time difference, it would benefit you more to study with some one a little closer to home. I will now, however, jot down a few points I feel are important to address beyond the straight halacha.

You have already taken a giant step: deciding to commit to someone else. As you know, many people shun commitments, and many others are too afraid to make big decisions. Both are major factors that prevent many people we know personally and many we do not from ever deciding to marry. That is both a personal tragedy for them and a national tragedy for us. You are to be commended for merely making this awesome decision.

The prophets and sages compared the relationship between God and the Jewish people to one between a married couple. The analogy is apt in many ways. You no doubt have access to quite a few books that flesh out this analogy and the lessons you can gleam from them, but there is one lesson that I would like to address through this letter, one, which because of its gravity and somberness, is not that popular and therefore does not make its way into the usual literature. The Torah is replete with warnings toward the Jewish people, with the metaphorical consequences the unfaithful wife will suffer for her straying. Why would that be? Why, when the Jewish people celebrate their uniuon with the divine, would the groom horrify his bride with visions of what will be in case of the worst? Should they not instead focus on the positive? Just mentioning that things can go wrong puts a damper on the whole mood! Yet that is precisely what God did. Whenever there was an invocation of a covenant, be it at Sinai, or in the plains of Moab, or within the land, the prophets declared that all was conditional, and that there could be a downside.

I tell you this for two reasons: one, because it is good for all proper Jews to be reminded that punishment does exist within our philosophy, and two, the analogy to marriage is worth considering at this stage in your life. Too many couples rush head long into their marriages without obtaining the maturity necessary to care for each other properly and without discussing the even more critical issues and decisions that will inevitably arise once they are bound by matrimony. I am not suggesting that you are immature or have decided too hastily; I am merely trying to point out that with regards to such emotion-laden issues, we sometimes have to step out of our set ways of thinking, and objectively consider the future. Doing so will be of immense benefit, especially to you. We know a few couples who are very happy now because they thought twice before they were married and learned how to communicate and think objectively and maturely, and we know others whose marriages were weakened and sometimes ruined because they either lacked maturity, or they assumed every one of life’s challenges would be easy, or because they never learned how to communicate about anything beyond how they shared interests and “were just crazy about each other.” Returning to the biblical precedent, Moses described the Jewish people’s straying as going to take place once they would be settled and comfortable in the land of Israel. He remarked that even when he was still their leader, before they had attained their portion of the divine heritage, he saw indications of their future unfaithfulness, but that it would be much worse in later generations. This is analogous to what can happen to many couples once they are married for a number of years and settled into their lives together. They, heaven forbid, learn to take each other for granted, or grow insensitive to each other, or are just less passionate. All of these are natural. It is therefore imperative that both partners constantly hear words of reproof and rebuke from those they look up to so that they be constantly reminded of their commitments to each other. Even better, they should set aside time to constantly re-explore that which first ignited their love. To paraphrase our sages, “Flowers before shabbos are a chiyuv, but there is no shiur.”

I can never speak from a woman’s perspective on these issues, but I am pretty sure that I can accurately speak from a man’s. God created the yetzer hara, and therefore it has a necessarily productive purpose. There is a midrash which states that when the sages sought to do away with the main thrust of the yetzer, the sexual appetite, a day later they could not find any fresh eggs in the entire land of Israel, so they abandoned the idea. The meaning of the midrash is that our sages understood this most biological of drives to be on one hand dangerous and on the other hand necessary for both our and the animal kingdom’s survival. As such, you will find that you can not escape it, but rather, you will have to work with it, even at those times when you start to realize it is about more than just physical pleasure. You can only do your best to control it. It is in His infinite wisdom that he gave us the laws concerning the forbidden relations and the avoidance of nidda. You know how when children are warned not to smoke because it will destroy their health or not to play in traffic because they may get run over? These are not scare tactics. We are merely informing the children of what the consequences of their decisions will be. So too, the Torah does not resort to scare tactics in order to induce mitzwa observance. We follow the Maimonidean understanding: the commandments were given to better our characters, and it is a plain fact that one who does not keep the commandments will suffer the moral and ethical consequences. That is not a threat. It is just a result. Keeping the rules helps; breaking them hurts. Therefore, never think that indulging in “just a little bit” of sinning can be countenanced. Our sages said “a sin brings along another sin.” Doing wrong leads to more and more wrongdoing, and never benefitted anyone. If you feel tempted by anything immoral, get away from it as far as you can, and do not even consider giving in a little. I speak about this from unfortunate personal experience.

As for your question regarding marital-like relationships prior to marriage, or instead of marriage, or between those who have no intent to ever marry, It seems clear to me that Maimonides and Rashi correctly undertsood the Talmud as forbidding any of those relationships outright by Torah law. Yes, there were others, like Nahmanides, who argued well that there is no such prohibition, but the Tur and others pointed out that they are still practically forbidden by rabbinic law because it is well known that people who enter such relationships are not keeping the laws of nidda. I would like to add that being that the purpose of these human drives is to fulfill the obligation to bring children into the world, those who would justify their non-marital relationships with the words of those rishonim we mentioned are not even trying to discharge their clear Torah obligations to raise children, and everyone knows that. Such intentionally unproductive and unreproductive adventures can be clasified as at best selfish and at worst disgraceful.

Similarly, lawfully married couples can only benefit from keeping the laws of nidda, and can only expect to suffer from disregarding those rules. It is true that some of them need to be re-evaluted by the Sanhedrin, and it is also true that the conventional wisdom is much more stringent than the actual halacha in many cases. For now, it is important that you know what is actually halacha and what is not, and you should find a good rabbi who could answer your questions when they come up. The Midrashim describe how children’s personlaities are affected by their parents’ behaviors and manners in this regard; once again we undertsand these teachings in a straight forward manner. For example, if the parents act immodestly, then they can expect to have children who are immodest.

You mentioned a horror story about a couple that remained in nidda separation for close to a month due to these laws. That is a very rare occurence, and you should also consider that sometimes life throws us curve balls. People have suffered worse things for weeks at a time, and they survive. Sometimes you can not have what you want for an etxtended period of time. If you take it like an adult, it will only improve your character.

As far as birth control is concerned, R’ Schachter wrote an article for the RJJ journal some years ago if you would like to see all of the relevant sources. Of course I can not add anything to his halachic discussion, but the gist is summed up well by this responsum from R’ Bar Hayim. I can, however, note how people have related to using those halachoth. Some decide that they need to wait a little before having children. Some concerns are legitimate, some are not. I believe that if, for example, the couple feels too busy in their lives for whatever reason, like with graduations and other family s’mahoth, then they need to know that because life is always happening, they will never get to a point where they feel that they are then free to have children. I have heard single people make this argument with regard to dating, or more accurately, pushing off dating. They are “just too busy” or “too much is happening in their lives” sometimes. And they will always be “too busy.” Further, even if a couple have a legitimate reason to use birth control, they may regret it if they end up having difficulty conceiving when they finally want to. Again, I know of a few couples who pushed off their first attempts for a few years, only to then wait more than four years until they succeeded. Some have yet to succeed. The day I became a father was the happiest of my life, and seven years later, my children are my singular source of happiness. And it is a lot of happiness. You should also choose to enjoy that happiness as soon as possible.

On the other hand, there are many potential circumstances whereby it would be wise to eventually make use of birth control. As you probably surmised, even the most punctilious rabbis you know do not have children born every year, and few couples end up with offspring in the double digits. If either of you is ever, God forbid, in ill health, or if you can not afford more children, then there is no mitzwa to have more if you already have fulfilled your obligation, but one should always strive to have as many children as reasonably possible. The midrash says that Miriam showed her father Amram that he was mistaken in having the Israelite men in Egypt divorce their wives. Despite the death sentence against the boys, the Israelites could at least have female children, and as we know, it was just as impossible then as it is now to decide the child’s sex, so in practice they just had to keep trying. The sages obviously favored Miriam’s view. We should just do our part, and He will do His.

The next test is one that comes along usually even later than the others I have mentioned, and it is also the test that best fits into the analogy of our relationship with God. Being that the yetzer you have now is the same you have had since your youth and the same you will have for the rest of your life, you may find that at certain points in the future, when you have already gotten used to that which was once new and exciting, he will incite you to seek more than you have, or just something different. This test is also natural and beatable. All healthy men struggle with the prohibition of lo thathuru, following their eyes. Sometimes it may lead them to consider that which is beyond the confines of their own houses. It happens, but the good ones conquer it by acknowledging that it exists, and then fighting it. Do not be ashamed of speaking to others who can help you if this happens. Many men have been saved from mistakes that could have instantly destroyed their marriages thanks to the wise counsel of others who only needed to remind them that the imaginations of their heart were wrong and evil. Those who do stray, deserve to suffer the repercussions, just like when the Children of Israel strayed after foreign gods. The sages ordained the laws against yihud, isolation with members of the opposite sex. Keep them, and you will never have the opportunity to sin.

The last piece of the analogy is positivity. At the end of the tochaha, Moses says that all of the punishments shall befall us because we “did not serve God in happiness and with a good heart.” If only we had done so… Ths same is true for marriage. If you approach your marriage with a positive and happy attitude, you will be spared the vast majority of tribulations that could potentially afflict your relationship. Patience, forgiveness, and spontaneous acts of kindness first build marriages, then families, then communities, and then nations. That’s how it started with Abraham, and that’s how it continues today.

I am sorry if I may have frightened or disturbed you with all this, but I know that you know that I was ready to respond this way, and there is much more that needs to be said, but this should suffice for now.

May you be blessed with children that demonstrate your success in attempting to heed God’s word, and please send my warmest regards to your parents.

Avi

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