|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)
There seems to be gratuitous, insignificant details. 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.) The answer is found in a linguistic nuance. In Hebrew, “his tent” should be spelled oho-LO but in the verse above it is written oho-LAH (“her tent”). Simply put, this word is written in the feminine (her tent) but pronounced in the masculine. Why is the Torah so muddled regarding this word? Why not simply write “his tent” the way it’s supposed to be written? Rashi (1040-1105) answers that this peculiarity was written intentionally to teach a lesson. Abraham pitched Sara’s tent first and only afterward pitched his own. When put in context, the verse would be translated, he pitched her tent first, and then he pitched his own tent. Why did he specifically do it this way? He was fulfilling a tenet of Judaism, one that was eventually codified by Maimonides (1135-1204) over three thousand years later: “A husband must honor his wife more than he honors himself.” Practically speaking, this means that if he has to do something for himself and his wife, he should take care of his wife’s needs first. Where is the basis of Maimonides’ ruling?
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 obligation to his wife but when Maimonides codified it, he made a subtle but significant change.
A husband should honor his wife even more than himself and love her as himself. Why does he change the sequence and place honor before love? (The Talmud mentions love before honor; Maimonides reverses the order). The reality is, 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; these are some of the prerequisites that will bring about profound 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 that 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 his wife 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 too.” No, 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 with one another, that does not mean that it is appropriate when speaking with 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 Maimonides’ plan, he will eventually come out of his own world and be sensitive to hers. Decades of personal experience and working with couples have demonstrated to me first hand that it works.
Abraham chose to place Sara’s honor before his own, and their marriage ultimately became the paradigm for all future Jewish couples.
What relationship are you willing to put someone else’s honor and respect before your own? How hard are you willing to work to love—and give yourself the gift of being loved? Good Shabbos
(Sources: Rashi 12:8; Gur Aryeh ibid.; Rambam Hilchos Ishos 15:19)