Achrey Mos, VaYikra
Based on http://www.lehavin.co.il/Index.asp?ArticleID=598&CategoryID=249&Page=1
By Braha Bender
How do you know if somebody really loves you? Because you don’t have to say a thing and he just knows what you need? “It’s like magic, it’s amazing, it’s like we have some sort of a spiritual bond…”
Not so much.
Look at it this way. Governments enlist laws to make people do things that they otherwise would not do. I’m talking basics here: Respecting public property. Throwing garbage in garbage cans instead of littering up the park. Avoiding things like theft, violence, and murder. Waiting until pedestrians are done crossing the street.
Just visit Manhattan at rush hour to find out why laws like these were enacted. People have to be legally forced to be nice. What we usually count for virtue, though, is when people do nice things like that on their own accord. You helped the old lady cross the street without being exhorted or paid to do it? Ka-ching! One up for the moral compass. You win. Socially, that is.
It works for cities and most of us think it works for relationships. We judge the virtuous in our spouses the same way we judge the virtuous in society at large. Really good guys take out the trash without having to be nagged, oops, I mean asked, to do it, right?
The old yarn about women expecting men to read their minds is getting a little bit old – it’s practically biblical – but we can roll our eyes and groan from now until the cows come home. It won’t change the fact that this perspective seems to be hardwired into a majority of women’s (and, shh, probably also men’s) brains. Most of us believe that real love is the stuff that gets done without being asked for.
Which is precisely why the Torah’s stance on this seems a little off-kilter: “Greater is the one who is commanded and does than one who is not commanded and does.” (Talmud Baba Kama 87a)
Picture this strange statement in romantic comedy terms: In scene one, Harry brings Sally roses without being asked and Sally squeezes out a grateful, yet fairly nonplussed level of grin. Sure it’s nice, but no big deal. In scene two, Sally asks Harry to bring her roses, Harry goes ahead and does it, and Sally is thrilled! Cue the violins! Crescendo!
Not for Hollywood. But maybe for real life.
Welcome to the Real World, Enjoy Your Stay
It comes as a hard-hitting surprise to most of us when, by hook or by crook, somewhere along the line life introduces us to the fact that other people really are different than we are. Making bad jokes about gender differences is easy. It doesn’t penetrate at all. Only once we get married and let our respective hair down does it usually begin to hit: She/he is not like me!
Try to explain this to the newly engaged and they just grin at you with those characteristically glazed eyes murmuring assenting burbles, all the while blissfully picturing the fun they’ll have with Significant Other “working out” and “talking about” all the exciting, adorable little “differences” they have been told that they will discover. Yes. Let them dream. And give them about two weeks after the wedding to come back to you looking bewildered.
Every gender is unique, but it gets even worse than that (or better, depending on your perspective), because every human being is unique even more so. You cannot put your spouse in your pocket any more than you can stand up right this second and dictate to me the anatomy of a skunk.
I mean, if you think you might have to spend a little while learning a thing or two before you could drop and give me twenty about how to dissect a cartoonish black and white rodent, you just can’t begin to imagine how much more learning you would need to do to attain a mastery of what your spouse is really like.
Every human being is gloriously complex and layered and mysterious and frankly incredible. Much more than a skunk! Even the fairly straightforward-seeming ones would take more than a lifetime to fully understand. There’s just so much going on there. We aren’t called “created in the image of G-d” for nothing. You think G-d is that simple?
You Are Not the Prototype of the Human Race
Nonetheless, most of us go around projecting and assuming that other people think or at least feel the same way we do near constantly. We’re particularly confident that we have our spouses in our pockets. Because we assume that they think the way we do, we expect our needs and wants to be obvious.
“But don’t you know…”
“Of course you knew.”
“Oh yeah right you didn’t know…”
Because we assume that he/she thinks exactly the way we do, we assume that we understand him/her perfectly, too. No need for all that messy communication business. Romantic, right?
Again, not so much.
Thinking that your spouse can read your mind – or thinking that you can read his – is basically assuming that you are the prototype for the human race. Actually, you’re not. (Sorry.)
But don’t feel bad – it’s really quite difficult to remember all this on a moment to moment basis. As mentioned before, it takes a good few years of life to begin to grasp quite how different people are from one another in how they think, how they process emotion, in their use of language, and in so many other ways. It’s quite shocking. Getting to know another person is like walking to the end of the known universe, finding a little red door, turning the knob and walking through into an alternate reality. You just don’t know what is behind that door.
In fact, if this article even makes sense to you so far at all, you’re way ahead of the game. Just realizing there is a door is a massive first step. A lot of people don’t make it that far and end up living very lonely, confused, frustrated lives. They feel like other people are disappointing them, but what they are really being betrayed by are their misplaced expectations and closed minds.
Opening The Door
But back to our romantic comedy. Consider Sally’s experience in scene two. When Sally asks Harry to bring her roses, Sally opens herself up to rejection. She opens herself up to being refused, or even worse, overlooked. By sharing her needs with Harry, Sally makes herself vulnerable. That means that when Harry comes through for her, it isn’t just another momentary trinket of affection passing in the laugh-track-speckled wind. It lands. It hits home, smack in the spot in Sally’s heart where she had risked trusting him.
It’s when you put yourself on the line that the other person’s caring for you really sinks in.
We’re all closed-circuit systems. It takes effort to break out of our own loop. But when we communicate to another person what we want, think, need, feel, we are inviting them in. When we listen to what another person wants, thinks, needs, feels, we are connecting with them.
Sally reaches out of her world and makes herself vulnerable enough to give Harry a way in. Harry reaches out of his world to take in the way Sally thinks, the way Sally sees things, the way Sally wants it, and makes that a reality. Two very different people connect, not by chance, but because each went to the effort of opening up and making contact with the other person’s world. That’s love. That’s romance.
Our sages throw in another legitimate explanation of this issue: People don’t like being told what to do. Just think about it. There’s a reason why it feels so good to get behind the iconoclastically American value of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Because they’re your bootstraps, and no one is going to be able to tell you what to do, so help you. As human beings, and maybe especially as Jews, we don’t really like to submit to authority. We don’t really like to submit to anything, actually. A stiff necked people...
Even when I do something nice for another person, if I am doing it because I think it is a good idea, I still retain authority. However, when I do it because the other person asked me to, I have given the reins over to them. To put it plainly, are you getting her flowers because you want flowers or are you getting her flowers because she wants flowers?
G-d’s commandments in the Torah give us the opportunity to give Him flowers because He wants flowers. How do we know? Because He told us so. He opened up and put Himself on the line. And that’s pretty powerful.
Letting Us In
Now we see the Talmud’s statement in an entirely new light. Through the commandments in His Torah, G-d is letting us in. They are our opportunity to connect with His world, the way He wants it. As in all relationships, breaking out of our closed-circuit shells and connecting with the Other means listening to Him and trying things His way. It’s not hard. It’s a thrill.
This week, Parashas Achrey Mos lists dozens of commandments ending in the words “I am Hashem”. He is saying, “Hey, guys. This is really Me. I am being real with you here.”
The word mitzvah, commandment, is related to the word tzavta, connection. The commandments are His way of saying, “I love you. I want you. I trust you.”
And when we fulfill them we are responding back in kind. How’s that for true romance?
It takes communication. It takes being aware that the other person (or G-d) is, in fact, other. It takes not only passively respecting but actively loving and honoring those differences. It goes way, way beyond cute accidental encounters, violins, and laugh tracks. And, if we decide to live up to it, it can be the story of our lives. Our lives, plural. I think you know Who I mean.