Words spoken at the festive meal (Sheva Berachot) on the occasion of the marriage of our grandson and his bride, Lakewood, USA, 24th of June.
My dear grandchildren, Chatan (groom) and Kalla (bride), Yaacov Shlomo and Chava,
Oma and I were 20 and 21 years old when we married. This was only a few years after the Inquisition in Spain in 1492 when we were exiled to Amsterdam! Today we are 76 and nearly 77 years old. (How did that happen?)
Like you are today, we, too, were still children. And, when our first child, Debora Sara, Yaacov Shlomo’s mother, was born, our family existed of only three members, Yaacov Shlomo’s mother, Oma and I.
At the time, we lived in the north of England in Gateshead, which housed the largest yeshiva in Europe, like the city of Lakewood where we find ourselves now that houses the largest yeshiva in the USA.
We had not the slightest clue what the future would bring. Ours was a highly unusual life. Full of twists and turns which could not be foreseen. Crazy incidents, and unusual experiences surrounded us. I studied hard in the yeshiva. I had no intention to become a rabbi or teacher. I just wanted to have a comprehensive Jewish and Talmudic knowledge before switching over to other studies.
I was thinking of going to university to study philosophy and perhaps become a professor of philosophy, or going into business or becoming a physician.
Yet, Oma and I were not really bothered by the insecurity of our future. We were pleased living in a city which was a “Makom Torah” (a place of Torah) where the greatest of the Talmudists of the century were my teachers. My love for Talmud increased every day. I could not get enough of it.
Yaacov Shlomo, when your mother was born, I was so busy learning Torah that I missed her birth. When I came home, I was told that Oma was already in hospital and had given birth to a girl! What a slipup! That your mother and Oma spoke to me afterwards, is a mystery I was never able to solve!
Later on, as our other children were born, matters became more hectic and trying. After receiving my rabbinical ordination, we had moved to The Hague in Holland, and after 4 years we decided to go to Israel so that I could study for a few more years. By that time, we had to decide what to do with our lives.
I then learned what is perhaps the greatest gift in life: marriage. It is the gift of, among other things, never having to make a decision on your own, but to be able to discuss everything with another person – however difficult the matter may be.
Marriage is the antidote to loneliness. To face problems and opportunities together means the problem is “half” as difficult. Sure, only one of us may actually have to take action, but that is only after both partners have discussed the issue at hand from every point of view, have both taken the issue as seriously as each other – even when it is really only directly the problem of one of the parties.
The story is told of the great tzaddik (saint) of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who accompanied his wife to a physician and said: “My wife’s leg is hurting us.” He felt the pain in his wife’s leg just as much as she did.
This is only possible when both parties are prepared to open up to each other and speak. Without being open there cannot be discussion. There is only monologue, which can achieve very little.
Marriage means words and words mean a relationship, and commitment. If one party does not or no longer speaks or responds, the marriage has ended.
Marriage is a pledge to speak. Not about trivialities, but about issues that are crucial to the lives of both.
A marriage declaration does not mean: “We are wife and husband as long as we find each attractive and have passion for each other.” It means: “I will be with you, whatever fate will bring us, as long as we are constantly communicating even when one of us may have lost the physical ability to speak but we continue to communicate through a loving smile, a hint, a little note or a hug.”
The greatest danger to a marriage is when a party refuses to speak. Whatever the cause for this silence may be and however hard it is to speak, once the willingness to speak has ended there is no recourse.
The great blessing of a marriage is that the bride and groom now face their challenges together. They are not alone. Marriage is a journey across an unknown land. Nothing can completely protect one from the possible (and often almost certain) obstacles, disappointments, setbacks and painful experiences.
However, as long as the couple are together, they will be capable of weathering all of these. This does not necessarily mean they will be able to solve all of these, but they will experience them together – which makes the journey lighter.
This partnership is only possible through constant dialogue between husband and wife. Dialogue can take place on many different levels – speech and various forms of body language, for example, yet the most important way is speech.
The wonder of speech is that we are able to relate to each other through the creation of sounds. These sounds are objectively quite meaningless, but through an ingenious transformation which takes place in our brains, they become meaningful. This is indeed a miracle since the brain is nothing more than a piece of flesh with millions of blood vessels. How these produce thoughts and meaningful words is still beyond human comprehension. The more we know about the brain, the more we become astonished by its mysterious composition.
The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) spoke about a “language game” (“Sprachspiel”) in which human beings decide on rules as to what these sounds should mean. This is a “game” that human beings play throughout life. The fact that they are able to do so is indeed mysterious.
But, speech also leads to a great amount of confusion because these words are used in the context of something larger. One word can have many meanings – this is one of the most fascinating dimensions of language. (Consider, for example, some of Wittgenstein’s famous observations: “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”; “One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word ‘I’”; “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”)
In whatever manner this process occurs, words become meaningful – without them a dialogue cannot take place. But in all these cases dialogue keeps the parties together.
It is important to remember that the essential dialogue and communication does not mean that the parties to a marriage need to agree on every matter. Marriage is complementary: it is a balancing act in which two perspectives complement each other. However, this is only possible when ideology, such as religious or philosophical foundations, is clear to both parties.
Within a true Jewish marriage, the husband and the wife live in accordance with a worldview based on Judaism to which both are committed. They may differ in approach, but they are in agreement with regard the basics.
Still, once the dialogue, in whatever form, ends, there can no longer be a notion of marriage. The marriage falls into an existential hollow space resulting in a reality of two separate individuals simply sharing one roof.
This is a critical moment, which, especially later in life, nearly all marriages encounter. After all, how long can one maintain speech? How long can one speak about the grandchildren, the weather or shopping? And once speech stops altogether, the smiles, winks and other non-verbal communication slowly disappear as well.
The Jewish tradition offers a most profound solution to this problem: studying “Torah” together – whether sections of Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, Jewish philosophy and so on.
Once daily speech has been exhausted, studying a religious text together is both healing and uplifting. This study brings souls together.
Studying Torah together is an existential experience. The Torah is not an academic work but an existential journey. It is the story of every human being, a spiritual narrative, within a historical context, that touches the soul and raises the spirit. It is not an epic about the life of heroes, but the story of human beings who searched constantly for holiness, at times failed, and then tried again.
Nothing can be more deceptive than trying to understand the Torah as a work that can be subjected to academic dissection, as so often happens in universities.
Such activity is akin to deciphering the notes of a composition of Mozart while refusing to play the notes and thus hear the music – yet declaring it out of tune. This may quite simply be compared to rejecting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity owing to his terrible handwriting!
Torah study is a search for inspiration, and existential meaning where both parties become uplifted and cling together. The sacred text becomes the “shadchan”, the “marriage broker”, whereby the marriage is recreated and rejuvenated. Husband and wife tread on holy ground and together see new dimensions that bind them afresh and with greater might.
Through the act of joint study, they perceive the infinite. This results in the renewal of the marriage on a higher plane – a renewal that has saved many a marriage.
To be continued.