Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov. And in the merit of Yetta Alta Shula,"Aliya," Schottenstein

The Secret Relationship
Understanding Marriage on a Subconscious Level

How Is Your Marriage?

“How is your marriage?” Someone once asked a woman.

Her response: “Before I got married, I was incomplete. Now, that I married, I am finished.”

Sarah’s passing

This week’s Torah portion commences with the sad story of the sunset of the first Jewish matriarch, Sarah, and her husband Abraham’s efforts to purchase a family burial-plot for Sarah and himself, as well as for future couples of the founding Jewish family (Genesis ch. 23). Abraham negotiates a deal with a man named Efron and ends up paying an enormous amount of money (400 large and pure silver[1]) for a field in Hebron, at whose edge was the “machpalah cave,” or the “double cave,” a cave suited for the burial of couples’ side-by-side of each other.

Indeed, as the Bible relates, all of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel (besides Rachel) – Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Leah and Jacob – were buried in that cave. The edifice constructed upon it remains till today one of the holiest sites in Judaism and is also held in high esteem by Muslims. Immediately following this story, the Bible continues to relate the long dramatic story of how Isaac meets and marries his soul-mate Rebecca. This is the section in Torah known as “the portion of relationships,” and is read in many Jewish Sephardic communities on the Sabbath before a wedding in the community.

Awful Comparisons

Sequence in the Bible is critical. It is always there to demonstrate a point, to challenge a convention, to inspire an ideal. How, then, are we to appreciate the juxtaposition between such paradoxical themes – the death and burial of Sarah in the “machpalah cave,” and the dawn of Isaac and Rebecca's life as a married couple?

There is something even more astonishing in the Talmud.

Biblical law is often ambiguous and riddle-like. Thus, when Moses presented the Torah to the Jewish people, he gave them an oral interpretation, clarifying and elucidating the meaning of the Bible. This oral tradition has been documented in the Mishnah and in the Talmud [2].

Marriage is one of those issues where the Biblical law is unclear and it requires interpretation.

The Torah speaks of “a man marrying a woman[3],” but does not specify the legal means to affect a marriage. The Talmud[4] presents an oral tradition to fill the gap. A similar expression used when discussing marriage is found once more in the Bible when addressing Abraham’s purchase of the machpalah cave. In a classical method of Torah interpretation known as “gzeirah shavev” (comparing two distinct cases when a similar word is used in both), we legally compare the two cases. Just as Abraham purchased the field and the cave by means of money, so too must a groom give a monetary gift to his bride if he wishes to obtain her hand in marriage.

Till today this law is the basis of every Jewish marriage. When the groom places the ring on the finger of his bride and declares “you are hereby betrothed to me…” man and woman enter into the covenant of marriage. Why? Because we derive it from the legal formula employed by Abraham to purchase the machpalah cave.

This is classical Talmudic methodology well-known to any student of the Talmud. Yet it does seem tasteless, if not awful. Why are we deriving the laws of marriage from a story of death and burial? The death of Sarah terminated her marriage with Abraham; yet it is from a story which terminated a marriage that we deduce the laws of creating a marriage!

And why are we comparing the obtaining of a spouse to the purchase of a burial plot? (The cynic would recall Woody Allen's quip: “Marriage is the death of hope.”) The comparison is so strange and bizarre that it compels us to look deeper, to gaze into the secret “caves” of our own relationships.

Two Dimensions

The Torah and the Kabbalah talk about two dimensions to every relationship: the disclosed element, situated “above the ground,” and the hidden component, buried “beneath the ground,” disguised and veiled. In our modern lexicon we may define them as the conscious relationships vs. the subconscious relationship.

The first layer of the relationship is created by conscious thoughts, emotions and feelings. “I love you because I feel for you; I cherish you because I perceive you as my life’s partner.” What happens when these powerful feelings wane?

The relationship, naturally, suffers as well. When the cause is no more, its effects follow suit. We observe this phenomenon in many a marriage. When the passion rages high and the love towers the heavens, the union is splendid and vibrant. But when those passionate emotions and exhilarating inclinations dissipate, the bond falters, and the loyalty disappears. The couple may still be married on paper as far as the IRS is concerned; internally, though, they are divorced. And if you are already divorced internally, you may wonder, why not complete the process and sever your bonds officially as well? Who are you fooling?

The Subterranean Bond

Yet the Torah and the Kabbalah address another facet to relationships -- the one buried beneath the earth, in the inner caves of the souls relating to each other. This is the connection you have with a person not because you consciously experience a bond with them, but rather because you are inherently and intrinsically connected, regardless of your conscious feelings.

The common example for this is the relationship between parents and children. Your relationship with your Mom is not created by your positive conscious feelings toward her; on the contrary, your feelings toward your mother are the result of your subconscious bond with her. You may harbor negative emotions toward your mother. At times, you may even need to protect yourself from your mother (though this should be determined by an objective voice, not by your own emotional roller coaster). Yet nothing will change the fact that she is your mother; a piece of your essence.

Albeit on a different plane, the Torah ascribes this dimension of relationships to marriages as well. In addition to the conscious marriage, created by the rational and emotional choice of two adults, there is another layer to the marital union. This connection is buried “beneath the ground,” existing in the subconscious cellars of the man and woman's psyches. A husband and a wife are, in the words of the Zohar[5], “two halves of one soul.” Their bond is inherent, intrinsic and eternal, one that originated before birth and cannot be obliterated with death.

This layer of the relationship is not created through our conscious volition; on the contrary, our conscious feelings are born from this hidden and essential aspect of the relationship, binding us together in the subterranean chambers of our souls. And when the marriage does encounter strife and struggle, the soul-mates remember that they are essentially united and that the conflicts between them, though in need of attention and repair, ought not and cannot erode the essential connection between them.

Abraham’s Message

This, perhaps, was the significance of Abraham working hard to purchase a burial plot for his wife and himself, as well as for the couples of the second and third generation of Jews. This was not a mere expression of sentimentalism (Genesis, in general, focuses far more on justice and truth than on sentimentalism). It was a statement of profound spiritual implications -- that his relationship with Sarah did not cease after her death, because it did not begin during her life.

And it was a cave that he purchased, alluding to the "subterranean relationship," which does not cease after death.

This does not mean that a widower or widow ought never to remarry. Abraham himself remarries after Sarah’s death, and the Torah teaches that the soul of a deceased spouse longs that their partner below continue to live a productive and accomplished life. Often that requires remarrying. In no way does a second marriage demonstrate a lack of sensitivity or betrayal towards the person who passed on. On the contrary, it may be their profoundest delight to see that their spouse below mustered the strength to move on and to continue to live and love sharing with another person the gifts of their heart and soul[6].

Entering the Cave

This might also be the symbolism behind the Jewish law comparing the betrothal of every bride and groom with Abraham’s purchase of the “cave.” Superficially, this comes across as very weird. Yet there is a profoundly moving message being communicated here. When a groom places the ring on the finger of his bride, the Torah is informing him, that he is not only marrying his spouse on a conscious level; he is also entering into an eternal relationship with her. In marriage, they are accessing together the “cave” buried in the deep chambers of their souls, where their relationship is timeless and permanent. The chupah (the wedding canopy) is not only a union of two people; it is also a reunion of two halves that were once one.

This also explains the juxtaposition of Sarah’s burial and the story of Isaac and Rebecca’s marriage. At first glance, the sequence seems to be of poor taste. Upon deeper reflection, though, the implicit message is clear. Before you get married you must know that you are marrying your eternal partner. Divorce is not an option. You must be resolute that no argument, fight or crisis will ever tear you two apart. Your relationship is essential. Your core self and your spouses core self are one. Abraham’s treatment of Sarah after her demise, served as a defining lesson to Isaac and Rebecca for how to treat their own marriage.

These two, as the Bible relates, had plenty of arguments; some of these arguments had dramatic historical implications. But never did these differences of opinion manage to tear them apart. Never did Isaac and Rebecca lose their loyalty and trust to each other. Why? Because they never forgot the connection that defined their relationship “beneath the ground,” in the subconscious layers of their souls.

The Metaphor

The human marriage has always been a metaphor for the marriage between man and G-d. This marriage, too, operates on two levels[7]. At times your relationship with G-d is “above the ground,” exposed and revealed. It is conscious, exciting and enriching. But what do you do at a moment of a moral or spiritual “downer?” How do you react to a condition of shallowness, alienation and despair? What do you do when you feel that your marriage with G-d is soul-less and lifeless? When you are not even sure He exists?

At such a moment you have to remember the “cave-like relationship,” the fact that you and G-d possesses a hidden relationship that may be invisible, but is always present. This is the hidden spark of G-dliness and inspiration etched within the deep caves of your soul that could never be extinguished. It is not as exciting and captivating as the relationship above ground, but it is eternal[8].

[1] According to the Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) he paid a total of one million ordinary shekels for the cave!

[2] See introduction of Rambam to the Mishnah and to his Yad Hachnazakah.

[3] Deuteronomy 24:2.

[4] Tractate Kiddushin 2a.

[5] Zohar vol. 3 7a. 

[6] See the moving letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Mrs. Sifrah Morozov, who lost her husband in the 1967 six-day-war. The letter is published in Toras Menachem-Menachem Tzeyon vol. 2.

[7] The first section of Tanya and much of the Chassidic literature revolves around these two layers of our relationship with G-d.

[8] This essay is based on the Chassidic discourses by the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek (see Sefer Halikkutim-Dach Tzemach Tzedek, under the entry of Chevron and Mearas Hamachpalah). Cf. a lovely rendition of this idea in Emunas Etecah, by Rabbi Moshe Wolfson shlita, Parshas Chayei Sarah.

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The Secret Relationship - Understanding Marriage on a Subconscious Level