Do Not Detest Us: A Lesson of Relationships

When our love was strong, we could have slept on the blade of a sword, but now that our love is not strong there is no bed in the world that is big enough to hold us both - Sanhedrin 7a

Bechukotai is the first of the two Tochachos (admonitions) in the Torah, sobering accounts of punishments, frustrations, and curses that await us should we cast aside our absolute commitment to God and His covenant. While it is true that God, in His great mercy, will never allow for these curses to befall His children in any one, single unbearable instance we need only cursory glance at Jewish history – and the last century in particular – to know what has been recorded in the Tochacha has most certainly been visited upon us. Which is to say, Tochacha is not mere rhetoric, it is not a poetic rendering of God’s rebuke; it is real. It is powerfully experienced.

However, no matter how painful and difficult, it is leavened by God’s final words of the Admonition, His promise that He will remember His covenant with the Avot and will redeem His children. We will be redeemed. Indeed, we live in the process of redemption. We feel it. We know it.

Our redemption is as real as the Tochacha.

Before the Tochacha begins, we are soothed by reassuring verses, reminding us that if we walk in God’s ways and observe His commandments we will be showered with endless blessings. We will experience timely rains, abundant produce, fruit, and bread; our lands will be secure, and we will know peace. Our numbers will increase. God will dwell among us. Ve’lo tiga’al nafshi etchem, and He will not be disgusted by us.

Wait, what?

God showers us with the promise of His love, protection, and goodness only to conclude, And I will not be disgusted by you?  This is jarring and unsettling. We bristle, hearing an Israeli parent scold his child’s obnoxious playground behavior, zeh goal nefesh, that is, “that’s disgusting!” To our ears, it is hardly a loving benediction! Certainly not the language or tone we expect from a caring parent. And yet, here we have God telling us the same thing, at the culmination of His many blessings. Ve’lo tiga’al nafshi etchem. I will not be disgusted by you.

What does it mean to have this statement conclude God’s many promised blessings?

To understand this dissonance, we might look to an insight found in the Shemen HaTov, cited by Rabbi Yissocher Frand as we consider another moment when the potential for blessing and disappointment balances on the edge of a razor; let us consider the chupah.

We know well the emotions of the wedding day. The beauty of the bride. The nervousness of the groom. The pride and nachas of parents. The love, the hope, the dreams… they are palpable. But those who have lived a life know equally well that joy of the chupah can be more than matched in hurt and sadness should the marriage fail.

Marriage and divorce are not two sides of the same coin but opposite ends of the same emotional span. Still, they have one thing in common. In both, there must be respect and dignity.  We must embrace the same dignity and care at the end of a marriage just as we do at the beginning. We must. And yet, too often we do not. Too often, where there was once love – or at least the sincere hope for love – we see expressions of hatred and spite, men withholding a Get as an emotional – and practical – cudgel, effectively enslaving a woman, damning her to a life that is neither here nor there, neither married nor able to move on with her life.

Our sages were wise, but they were not blind. They knew that not every marriage entered is “meant to be”.  Marriages do not always work. And it does not matter what the reason is that a marriage fails. What matters is only that, despite an honest attempt by at least one of the partners to make a successful marriage and life, the marriage is untenable.

It was not bashert.

That realization is a hard blow. Sometimes the truth that a marriage is unsuccessful takes years to become clear. Other times, it takes nearly no time for either the husband or wife to discover that the marriage will not work. “Only three days into the marriage, I knew I had made a terrible mistake.” He is “controlling and belittling.”

We can all weep for the sadness of a marriage that simply does not work. But our sadness necessarily turns to astonishment and then anger when we learn that the husband, far from acknowledging and accepting this reality, lashes out in anger and vindictiveness.

Divorcing couples become as opposing armies in a state of war. They behave as if in the gutter (where it is, literally, goal nefesh – disgusting). There are few things in life more horrible to behold than two human being who once loved one another come to hate each other.

Our relationship with God is, in many ways, like the intimate and passionate bond of marriage. God’s promises are sure. They are clear. They are unwavering. As the first verses of our parasha make clear, if we follow His ways, if we remain true to the covenant of Sinai (our communal ketuba with God), the rewards will be endless.

He will be our God and we will be His people.  We will be in a binding relationship with God, just as the bride and groom enter a binding relationship with one another. But, not every marriage is meant to be, not between man and woman, and not between God and His bride.

So, it is that God, anticipating His bride possibly reneging on her commitment says, “I will place My Sanctuary among you.” He sets up His home in our midst and welcomes us, His bride. God commits His love and sensitivity to His nation. His blessings are there for them. But when we, God’s bride, turns away from Him, He will have to send us away, exiled. In doing so, God teaches us a divine and a very human lesson.

The split will be tragic. It will be hurtful. But it will never be hateful. God tells us, I will never detest you. I will never be disgusted by you. I will continue to love you. After all, I chose you from among all nations of the world. Ve’lo tiga’al nafshi etchem.

The lesson is clear for every divorcing husband. You invited this one and only bride to join you in your life’s journey. How dare you now behave as a goal nefesh! God would never do that. Even in divorcing His bride, God remains God. So too, in divorce you must remain a mensch. The one who cannot divorce as a mensch casts much doubt as to the type of person he was when he stood under the chupah.

The Get is like God’s blessed fingers, untying the ribbon tied at marriage. To use it to bludgeon the person for whom you once declared love and devotion is wrong.

When God must separate from His people, He does so with love. He will never detest us. He will never ever forget the blessings that forged our relationship. Indeed, that is the reason why God’s promise that He will “not detest us” rightfully appears with the blessings not the curses. It is God’s “divorce seminar 101”.

Indeed, every day of this Covid-19 pandemic makes clear that the lesson here is not only for divorce but for every relationship. In the cauldron and pressure of isolation, the challenges to a relationship are amplified. It is easier to see flaws than gifts.

As a rabbi, I receive emails and communications from our rabbinic organization concerning so many interpersonal issues, challenges and sha’ailos never contemplated before. Over and over, I see the reminders about the 24/7 numbers for abused and battered wives! Oh, these are trying times indeed! Our fundamental menschlichkeit and civility are being tested day by day, minute by minute. Our space, our time, our privacy, our most basic “midos” are threatened.

People for whom home had always been a sanctuary may find themselves “disgusted” being home. Imagine how much worse it is for those at home with a spouse who had already declared his disgust before Corona!

The threat is real. In just the past few days the Jerusalem Post has reported that four people have been murdered and another four have committed suicide – all due to domestic violence!

The threat is very real. And so, rabbis are reminded of the 24/7 numbers for those abused wives. Even the best marriage can be challenged by the isolation brought on by Coronavirus.

Slovie Jungreis-Wolff’s “Keeping Your Marriage Strong during Quarantine” on reminds us of the things we need to remain conscious of to honor our wives during this difficult time. She tells us to focus on needs and goals, to allow for personal space, to practice kindness and to find new ways of connecting.

In short, her advice reminds us that the chupah, rather than being a single moment in the past that we acknowledge once a year with a card on our wedding anniversary is an experience that continues through the years. We carry our chupah with us throughout our marriage. Our vows need to grow with us; our love needs to mature just as we do.

God offers us blessings and, for those who turn from those blessings, He continues to offer love and respect. He will never detest us.

Let us all embrace what that message is teaching us, whether in divorce, in a challenging or challenged relationship or in a loving one.