The Talmud (Masechet Taanit 30b) states that the Fifteenth of Av (today) is one of the most joyous days of the year, one of two days on which young maidens would frolic in the vineyards in hopes of attracting a spouse. It is especially romantic day in Israel, notwithstanding that the frolicking in the vineyards is passe, and thus an appropriate time to look at the current state and foundation of marriage.
Marriage is a fundamental institution in humanity, despite the zeitgeist, and especially cherished in Judaism. It is perhaps the most important determinant of a person’s happiness in life, if appreciated and approached properly. There is no joy like the joy of a good marriage, and no misery like the misery of a bad marriage. It is therefore also a very personal institution; what works for one couple or person might not work for another. That is what makes it so unique and precious, and why its inner dynamics are off limits to others (except when they seek out assistance). Miriam was punished because she misconstrued her brother Moshe’s essence and the nature of his prophecy, but perhaps also because she intruded on one of the holy of holies of Jewish life, the privacy of marriage.
The Midrash (Eicha Rabba 3:9) cites the verse “it is good for a man to bear the burden (yoke) in his youth” (Eicha 3:27), and applies it to the three yokes in particular. “A person should carry the yoke of Torah, a wife, and a job when young.” We would not necessarily have put all three together. Certainly there are those who demarcate learning Torah from working and even learning from marrying. Others struggle with the balance between career and family, and exaggerate the time and effort needed to earn a living and shortchange their families in the process. Still others – it is quite common in the world at large – delay embarking on any of the two secular quests (career or spouse) until they have left their youth behind. But Chazal were quite clear: it is good for man, when still young, to bear these burdens. But how is that possible, and especially how are the three considered “burdens?”
The Torah Temima maintains that all three naturally converge. An ol, in the context of the Midrash, is not a yoke such as weighs down an animal, but rather a responsibility. To feel no ol in life is to have no responsibilities in life, a plight that is attractive to the slacker but inevitably leads to boredom and sin. To have olot means that a person has everything in life – Torah because that is our foundation, a wife so that we can live in purity and overcome our innate narcissism, and a job because without work and self-sufficiency even the Torah will be lost, as in “all Torah not accompanied by work will eventually be nullified” (Avot 2:2). And to do it all “when young” is to maximize the best of the world for the greatest amount of time. It is good to start young. But what exactly is the ol? Is there nonetheless an element of difficulty or of hardship involved?
The ol of Torah is understandable. Torah study takes time, effort, and diligence. So too the burden of work, which also takes time studying, or planning a career, and then one has to show up every day at a job. But what is the ol of a wife??? Indeed, Rav Shlomo Wolbe, one of the great Musarists of our generation, would urge bridegrooms to recite under the chupa (to themselves!) “behold I accept upon myself the yoke of this woman.” What yoke?
Rav Wolbe explained that it means that a man accepts upon himself at that sublime moment to always relate to his wife with patience, to never become angry or abrupt, to never take her for granted, to assume responsibility for her happiness, to embrace what the Talmud (Masechet Yevamot 62b) imposes on a man – to love his wife as much as he loves himself and to respect her more than he respects himself. He undertakes never to make her cry or unhappy.
That is quite a commitment, but nothing less is expected of the Jewish husband. It is a serious obligation – and with it all people get married, and still for the best of reasons: because they have shared values and shared goals, and wish to build a life and a family together. That notion is uniform for all, but the details vary from couple to couple.
And that is why each couple is provided with a zone of privacy that enables them to thrive, to build their special home and make their unique contribution to the Jewish people.