April 22, 1999
Love and Marriage
Parashat Achare Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)
The midrash says that poverty is the worst of all afflictions. But I think it's something else -- loneliness. Human beings are lonely creatures, craving love. I see it in the eyes of elderly men who lose their wives of half a century or more. I see it in the longing and desperation of women in their 40s who cannot seem to find the right man. We all want to reach out to someone who will reach out to us. We all want love.
It's not that marriage is a guarantee against loneliness. There are plenty of married people who are lonely, who, because of the mortgage, the children, or the lack of will, suffer but tough it out. It's just that marriage is a calculated and magical approach to fighting loneliness, which seems to work better than any other.
I remember when my parents told their five children that they were getting divorced. We were gathered around the dinner table; red sauce on white spaghetti noodles covered my plate. How like my mother to feed us, to do her duty, before delivering bad news.
"I think we have to talk," my father said. Then, for the first time in my life, I saw him cry. My mother wanted freedom. He wanted to stay. No, neither of them had cheated on the other. Dad would get an apartment nearby. Mom would make him a soup for us to bring when we visited. I was 14 and, in my adolescent simplicity, I asked them only one question: "Do you love each other?"
I don't think they answered. At least I don't remember their answer. I do remember the look on their faces. It was a look that said: "You are only 14. You have so much to learn. Marriage is not as simple as love."
I told my dad to get a big enough apartment for me, too, because I was going with him. Two of my older sisters tore into my mother and told her that if she was so unhappy, she could move out of the house and we'd bring her a nice soup. The Leder children were not going to take this lying down. We united, we protested, we sulked, and we succeeded. Somehow, after seeing our reactions, my parents realized that they had built more together than they thought, and that the downside of loneliness was steep. They decided to fight for their marriage. So far, it has lasted 48 years.
Because it was almost snatched away, I learned at 14 that marriage was not the perfect or the only answer to the human condition, but it was the best answer. Since then, I've come to appreciate more how most men and women need each other and how much children need them both. I've come to appreciate the role God and destiny play in the miracle of human love -- how lucky we are to find what other creatures on Earth lack.
When I stand under the chuppah with couples, I always remind them that their wedding is not their marriage; marriage doesn't happen on a particular day or place. A marriage is built through months and years of laughter, toil, adventure, sex, lack of sex, rest, no rest, understanding, confusion and forgiveness. I remind grooms that the Talmud says, "If your wife is shorter than you, bend down and listen to her"; that they have to try and understand each other with all their might. I remind them that the Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, taken directly from this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim. Both words have as their root the word kadosh, meaning holy or separate. So I tell these couples that if they treat each other as kadosh -- sacred, fragile vessels, easily shattered -- they'll be able to hang on, snuggled beneath the blanket of years, come what may.
Then, when all the words have been spoken, they break a glass to remember there will also be sadness. They kiss. They feast. They dance, and they love. Later, if they are lucky and devoted, they will find another kind of love, built together through the years, a richer, deeper love -- a love that is a marriage.
Steven Z. Leder is rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
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