When spouses can be your sibling
For most people, the relationship with siblings will be the longest lasting of their entire lives. The attachment with siblings is immovable, no matter what happens there will always be an innate sibling bond. The bond with a spouse, however, can change in any direction at any time. Today might be a wonderful exciting marriage but tomorrow might bring the opposite feelings and bring it all crashing down. Spousal affections can flourish and become extremely passionate, but they can also fizzle out quickly.
In Parsha Toldot, we find a peculiar incident. A severe famine affects his home town, so Yitzchak moves away and settles in Gerar. When the townspeople ask about his companion, fearing death, he informs them that she is his sister, ”Lest the local people kill me on account of Rivka, because she is of beautiful appearance”.
This story raises a serious question. Yitzchak was known as one of the most spiritual men of the time and all time. The midrashim are filled with stories of his remarkable heroism. Risking his life on the alter of his father and then subsequently devoting his life to God. Yet here, the fear of death is so intense that he is willing to throw his wife under the bus. Why would he choose now of all time to forgo his morals?
Chassidut changes the story around and explains the entire event as a powerful lesson in marital harmony. Yitzchak was not lying to save his life, he was telling the absolute truth. In one sense our spouses are also our siblings.
It is easy to be a great spouse when there is an abundance of food on the table. In times of plenty, when money isn’t a problem, people tend to be kinder and relationships bloom with ease. When people are in a calm and collected frame of mind they show more attention, care and respect. Those are times when passions flare up and everything is livelier, happier and brighter.
But then a famine can happen, suddenly all the food is gone, the relationship has turned sour. The situation is no longer rosy and fun but looking bleak and starved. The passions have waned and diminished. The marriage is now a big challenge and isn’t so easy any more. In the time of famine, we can’t appreciate the spouse in our life. While we might not feel we have a spouse, we must remember we have a sibling.
Siblings, though, are always connected, even if there is no outward connection, even if there is no feelings. There is always an innate connection. They might be a pain in the neck but they will never stop being your sibling no matter how hard either can try. The spousal relationship therefore must go beyond feelings as well. At times when the feelings have gone, the intrinsic connection must tap in.
For the relationship to survive a famine, the focus must turn from spousal to a sibling one.
Yitzchak thereby taught us an incredible lesson in keeping our marriages from going stale and ensuring that the loyalty and trust will not die down. When a spouse becomes too difficult and the relationship too dull, Yitzchak would tell you to switch mindsets. Stop being a husband or a wife and become a sister or a brother. Recede to the deep-seated, essential connection which binds you in an immortal bond.
Rabbi Ari Rubin
Chabad Centre for Jewish Life in North Queensland- a division of Chabad of RARA