A Marriage Forever Young
When we read the story of the angels visiting Avram and Sarai, we marvel at the miracle of the child foretold. What we too rarely recognize in this remarkable narrative is the warmth, respect and intimacy evident in the marital relationship between Avram and Sarai.
When the angels asked Avram where to find Sarai, Avram responded, “Hinei ba’ohel – behold, in the tent.” Soon after, one of the angels delivered to Avram and Sarai the incredible news that, “I will surely return to you at this time next year and behold – hinei – Sarai, your wife, will have a son.
In using the same term Avram used to describe his wife, hinei, the angel was indicating that it was because of Sarai’s modesty that she merited to have a child.
I read in Avram’s response and in the angel’s good tidings – in the repetition of the word hinei – that when we laud, praise, lift up and support our mates, even in (especially in!) difficult times that we should anticipate God likewise raising and reinforcing our spirits; that in response to “our” hinei He will grant us an hinei. That is, when we are fully present for our mates, God too is present for us.
A highly respected mashgiach, spiritual guide, of a well-known yeshiva in Israel traveled extensively both in the country and overseas, giving guidance to disciples anxious for his insight and wisdom. When he traveled, he was always accompanied by several of his talmidim, who not only continued to learn from their teacher but who attended to many of his everyday concerns.
One evening, one of the students stood alongside his desk as he was writing a letter to his wife back home. “To my dearly beloved kallah (bride)…” the teacher wrote. The student, who happened to glance over and see the salutation was astonished. Kallah? What kallah? The mashgiach had been married for a great many years! How is it that a long-married wife is referred to as a kallah?
Careful to apologize for his possible trespass in accidentally seeing what his teacher had written, the student asked what his teacher meant by these words. “I do not understand,” the student confessed.
The teacher was bemused. “What don’t you understand?” the rav asked gently. “I want to feel – and I want my wife to feel – the same love, infatuation, and devotion today, as the day we stood beneath the chuppah as chatan and kallah. So, whenever I write, particularly when I am far away from her, I always address her as kallah.” The teacher closed his eyes and a smile came to his face. “I never want that feeling to fade.”
Those who have been married for any number of years understand how challenging it can sometimes feel for a long-time relationship to feel as fresh as new love. Yet that is the Torah ideal!
When the three angels came to visit Avram Avinu, they asked, “Where is Sarai, your wife?” He responded saying, “In the tent.” (Bereishit 18:9)
We read these words and think little of them until we stop to think, how could the angels not know where she was? And if they knew, why did they ask? Certainly, not to make small talk! Rashi tells us that, “…the ministering angels knew where our mother Sarai was, but they nonetheless asked, to make it known that she was modest, in order to endear her to her husband.”
In their simple question, the angels were giving Avram the chance to sing his wife’s praises, to appreciate her anew, to make her more precious to him, and to be sure that Avram was not taking her for granted.
Curious. Avram and Sarai had been married for many long decades. Was she not sufficiently endeared to her husband? Sarai was an older woman. She had “lived a life” with her husband, with all its ups and downs. Wasn’t she way past the point of needing or wanting praise from her husband? This was Avram Avinu, the most righteous of men. Surely, he appreciated Sarai, and then some. She certainly knew that. Why did he have to say so?
Rav Wolbe, the great mashgiach-baal mussar once wrote in an essay with advice for grooms (quoted by Rav Yissocher Frand). When one speaks at a Sheva Berachot in front of newlyweds, he is certain to laud and applaud the groom and bride. He will seek to enumerate the special qualities of the newly marrieds in order to solidify the relationship just beginning to confront life’s joys and challenges.
That newlyweds need words of encouragement and support is no surprise. But Avram and Sarai? They too need this reinforcement. They are like bubba and zayde, married forever! Rav Wolbe asked, Why would the angels need to further endear Sarai to her husband by pointing out how special and modest she was? This was no nervous chatan. This was Avram, a tzadik, our father. What kind of “further endearing” did he need?
In Avram’s example, we see the roadmap for our own lives. Simply, the need for increasing and further endearment never stops. It is never finished. As long as there is another day, another hour, another breath, there is more to give and to share. There is never a moment when it one can say, I’m done.
Every relationship – business, friendship, student-teacher – is dynamic. None more than marriage, which adds deep intimacy to the mix. Dynamic relationships need to constantly grow and adapt, to develop and renew. For every moment a dynamic relationship is not growing, it is getting stale and boring.
Rav Wolbe points to the Talmud in Nida and the strict halachic requirements enforcing separation between husband and wife during a wife’s nidah period. But what is the point of such a separation? It is so that when the wife returns from the mikvah she should be, “as dear to her husband as a bride who enters the marriage canopy.” (Nida 31b)
Challenges don’t destroy marriages. Boredom does. The loss of that spark, that flame. There must be pieces built into the marriage that “…make her dearer to her husband.” This is true for newlyweds and perhaps even more so for long-wedded couples like Avram Avinu and Sarai Imeinu.
In this parasha, our nation’s first couple set the example for a satisfying, meaningful and lasting marriage. It is not a “perfect life” with no heartache or challenge. It is a life in which neither is taken for granted.
I would note that just as this is true of marriage, it is true of childrearing as well. For children growing up praise and endearment is as elemental as water and sunlight to a newly growing plant. In fact, there is not a relationship in any realm that will not benefit from praise and recognition.
Emuna Braverman refers to Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton’s How Full is Your Bucket? In it, they established a simple metaphor – each of us has an invisible bucket. “It is constantly being emptied or filled, depending on what others say or do to us. When our bucket is full, we feel great. When it’s empty, we feel awful.” Long before Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton, the angels reminded no less than Avram Avinu the simple truth to always be sure the bucket is filled.
We have no greater task in life than to ensure that our mate is acknowledged and appreciated.
“Where is Sarah your wife”?