This week’s Parsha introduces us to the first Jew, Abraham. During one of his early travels, a seemingly insignificant detail is given:
And from there he relocated to the mountain, east of Bethel and pitched his tent there… (12:8)
The Torah is not a history book; it records significant details with the purpose of giving instruction for good living. After being informed of his new location, why do we need to know that he “pitched his tent there?” (If he relocated, he obviously pitched his tent in his new location.) To appreciate the answer, we must understand a basic point of Hebrew grammar. In Hebrew, “his tent” is written oho-LO but in the verse above it is written oho-LAH (“her tent”). Due to a unique vowel pattern, the pronunciation changes to the masculine form (“his tent).” In short, this word is written in the feminine (her tent) but pronounced in the masculine. Why is the Torah so confusing regarding this word; why not simply write “his tent” in the masculine form? The Midrash answers that the masculine/feminine confusion was written to teach a lesson; Abraham pitched Sara’s tent first and only afterward pitched his own. He was fulfilling a tenet of Judaism that eventually, centuries later, became codified as law. Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) writes, “A husband must honor his wife more than he honors himself.” Practically speaking, that means that if he has to do something for himself and his wife, he should take care of his wife’s needs first. This idea was explicitly mentioned 700 years before Rambam.
A husband should love his wife as himself and honor her even more than he honors himself.
This quote from the Talmud (Yevomos 62a) is the source of a husband’s obligations to his wife but when it was codified by Rambam, he makes a subtle but significant change.
A husband should honor his wife even more than himself and love her as himself.
Why does Rambam change the sequence and place honor before love? The reality of married life is that when two people get married, they don’t know much about each other. Granted, they might have been dating for a long time but it takes years after the chuppah to have a mature loving relationship; one that supersedes infatuation and enchantment. In emotionally healthy marriages, it takes couples years of dealing with challenges and learning to communicate with one another in a way that both feel safe, that brings meaningful love. When Rambam places honoring one’s wife before loving her as himself, he is not disagreeing with the Talmud, he is giving a methodology of how to achieve the goal. The emotion of love cannot be legislated but concrete actions can lead one in that direction. From day one of marriage, a husband is instructed to treat her with more respect and consideration; even more than he would give himself. If he is happy to go out shopping in torn shorts and a t-shirt but she insists on dressing in a more dignified manner, he can’t say “If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you.” That is the wrong attitude. He must honor her more than himself. If sarcasm is a main part of his sense of humor and that is how he and his friends joke when then are together, that does not mean that it is appropriate for her. She might feel belittled or even demeaned; he must respect her preference and learn to communicate differently even though he does not think there is anything wrong with it.
Love will come naturally if a husband honors and respects his wife more than himself. It might be a daily (even hourly) struggle for years but if he sticks to Rambam’s plan, he will eventually come out of his own world and be sensitive to hers. I can tell you first hand that it works.
How about a wife’s obligations to her husband? Perhaps that will be the topic of another Dvar Torah but as far as men are concerned, it does not matter.
Abraham chose to place Sara’s honor before his own their marriage ultimately became the paradigm for Jewish couples for thousands of years.
What relationship are you willing to put someone else’s honor and respect before yours?
(Sources: Rashi 12:8; Gur Aryeh ibid.;Rambam Hilchos Ishos 15:19; Yevomos 62b)