Leah and Shimon do not have a good relationship even though they have been married for fifteen years. They have been blessed with two children but are constantly feeling at odds with each other about the different decisions which need to be made in the house. This is especially true when it comes to the children, who are still relatively young and the different problems which need to be resolved in the house concerning their care. Both parents feel strongly that they are right in their views and that their spouse is causing problems with how they think the children should be handled.
Two of the reasons which are commonly found in couples who have problems in their marriage are personality clashes and a lack of communication[i]. Marriage therapy will try and deal with these problems using a variety of techniques to help deal with the cause of many of the issues in the relationship.
A lot of marriage counsellors will focus and work on communication between couples who are having difficulties in their marriage. The problem is that the issue is not always about communication but comes from a more cognitive and emotional issue. A marriage counsellor who works on just the communication can miss the whole problem with the couple and so it will be harder to find a solution for their problems.
One of the lessons of this week’s Torah portion of Pinchos helps to overcome some of the problems which people encounter when having marital issues. Part of the Torah portion describes the reward which Pinchos receives for risking his life to stop a public desecration of G-D’S name and save the Jewish people from a plague triggered by this public sin.
Zimri was one of the leaders of the tribe of Shimon who publically challenged Moses[ii] and then went on to sin in an overt way with a non Jewish princess. After this public challenge and defiance of G-D’S will, Pinchos becomes inflamed and asks Moses if it is applicable the law of “Kenayim pogim bo”- in certain situations someone who feels overcome with fervent fiery feelings to stop a desecration of G-D’S name can carry out the judgement against the one who is desecrating G-D’S name? Moses told him that in this case such a law would apply and Pinchos then risks his life to stop Zimri. The result of stopping Zimri caused the plague ravaging the Jewish people to cease.[iii]
The novelty of this story is that we are taught that when a Jew feels so strongly about certain situations, then they are allowed to take things into their own hands and do as they see fit (although if they asked we would not instruct them to do so). Simply put that would mean in certain cases when an individual would come to a court of Jewish Law and ask what to do, the court would instruct them not do anything because that is what is stated in the code of Jewish Law. Nevertheless, in the same code of Jewish Law it states that in the same certain cases above, if a Jew feels in their “pnimius hanefesh” (inner fiery soul) that they should take things into their own hands, and they go ahead with their intention, then they have acted according to G-D’S will.
Taking a superficial look at this situation and the criterion necessary for a person to act in such a way, it would seem quite strange to permit such an act. The truth is that this law is similar to the law of saving a life, where it is stated[iv] that if a person asked if they should save a life, the question itself is considered as if they have caused a death. What is the reason why it is looked in such a negative light if someone asks such a question? It is because in a case of danger to life the matter should have touched the questioner so much that he should have done the act of saving the life without asking whether it was correct or not.
The same is true concerning the certain situations which are applicable to the law of someone who is a “kanay” (fervent for G-D). The situations where this law is applicable have to touch the person to such a degree that it touches their inner soul and at that point they don’t ask what is to be done but just go ahead and do it. To this person every minute that the situation continues is a tragedy and they must do something about it. When such a person takes the situation into their own hands then they have acted according to G-D’s will as explained in the code of Jewish law.
Why can such a person act in such a passionate way?
The explanation is based on a statement in the Talmud[v] that “a person does not do a sin unless a spirit of folly enters them.” How can this be? A Jew is made up of two opposing forces, one which is G-Dly and one which is animalistic in nature. Even though the Jew has a negative side their essence is their G-Dly side and that will always remain strong (at least on a subconscious level). Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that a Jew by themself does not want and cannot become separate from G-Dliness. It is only on account of the spirit of folly which translates spiritually as their animal soul, prompts them to do an animalistic act (i.e. an act which would be based on a superficial, short term thinking process which although rationalised, was based more on feelings than intellectual understanding).
A Jew can be aroused with a fervent passionate feeling to do what G-D wants, not because of the honour for themselves or their family which they would receive but instead because of their passionate feelings for G-D. In such a state the Jew does not think about whether they are about to do something wrong or not because they are consumed with a concern for G-D. This will cause them to be completely taken over with feelings of being enraged about someone who does something against G-D and the Jewish people.
The Jew at this point will put all concerns about themselves i.e. their personal ego aside. They will not at this point be involved at their conscious or subconscious level with their animal, egotistical desires. What is left when a Jew has no focus on their animalistic interests? Their G-Dly soul remains which always has a perfect faith and trust in G-D[vi] and this is where the passionate feelings towards G-D come from. When the person is not confused by their self centred ego then the G-Dly soul within the Jew directs him or her to do what G-D wants.
It makes sense that after Pinchos took the life of Zimri then the plague stopped and Pinchos saved thousands of Jews who were following Zimri’s example from doing the severe sin (which included idol worship). Therefore Pinchos merited to be given a special gift by G-D for his efforts.
It needs to be pointed out that Pinchos although he was overcome with strong feelings to carry out G-D’S agenda, he did not proceed based completely on his own understanding. He asked Moses, who was someone who acted totally in accordance with G-D’S will, before taking action. Pinchos asked if this was a case where it would be applicable the rule in the code of Jewish law concerning someone who should act on their feelings. He was not asking whether he should act in that way or not but he wanted to make sure that this type of situation was applicable.
This itself is a lesson for us, that sometimes a situation can arise and we think we need to act like Pinchos. It could happen that even in situations which seem obviously clear that someone is doing something wrong, our own ego can cause that we interpret the situation in a wrong way. An individual thus needs guidance from a knowledgeable, competent, orthodox Rabbi even when it is a clear as day to them what to do. This is a major difference between the story of Pinchos and those few unstable people who claim there are zealots for G-D.
When looking at such a person as Pinchos, he is not, as was mentioned above, looking for honour or had a grudge to bear. He was someone who was truly interested and passionate about G-D and concerned about G-D’S agenda. What Pinchos needed to do was for his specific time and situation but what would such a person look like in our time?
We find ourselves in a time of a spiritual plague, which is obvious to all around, that the Jews outside and inside Israel (it should be rebuilt soon) are being lost to Judaism. These Jews are going off in their own way and can end up actually opposing Judaism. In a time when a Jewish boy or girl can be lost from the Jewish fold, we cannot start asking questions about the possibility of taking time off learning to help these Jews. Every moment lost is a danger, we must do.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains[vii] that we need to presently light the G-Dly passion in our souls through learning the inner dimension of Torah and go out of our comfort zone. We need to speak to Jews in a pleasant way but with words of feeling about Judaism. It is not a time for debates but for speaking words from the heart which will touch the other Jew.
Through this we will merit the coming of Elijah whose soul is mystically connected to the soul of Pinchos and Elijah will announce the coming of our righteous redeemer.
Back to Leah and Shimon
Both Leah and Shimon think of themselves as a type of “Pinchos” who is fighting to do the right thing. When each side is so emotional about their view, just working on their communication skills will not really help, as the problem is not just the way they are speaking but the emotions behind that speech.
The arguments might be concerning serious matters which affect their family and so the emotional intense feelings are very strong. Each parent is arguing without really thinking how to solve the whole problem, which would include how to find a solution which their spouse would approve.
Unfortunately, the attitude becomes one of being right as it is so obvious to both sides that the other side is wrong and there is really nothing to talk about.
A person needs to ask themself “are they interested in just being right or are they open to any other opinion?” If they are not interested in any other opinion, then how are they not going to hurt their spouse? The tension between spouses also has a bad effect on the children (with each spouse blaming the other for the bad feelings) and so instead of solving the situation both sides seem to be making it worse.
There are boundaries within Judaism which cannot be crossed. A compromise is not always available when an individual wishes to pass a certain limit. On the other hand, who is making the decision which outcome is more important and what would be the better conclusion?
A doctor who has to amputate a limb of a patient does it willingly and is paid for his effort. The doctor has done a good thing but if he is a good caring doctor, he will feel compassion for his patient and feel sad at the hardship, as well as the pain the patient will need to go through. Although Pinchos was happy that he had done what G-D wants, he felt bad that the end had to be achieved through causing another Jew pain.
If being right is about doing what G-D wants then when we argue and find that the other side begrudgingly concedes to our argument, do we feel the pain of our spouse? Or are we just happy that we have won the argument? If we feel bad about our spouse being in pain then what have we done to try and take away that bad feeling? Seeing if we can relate to our spouses feelings and empathise with them is a good test to see if when we were arguing, were our motives about achieving the right thing (G-D’S agenda) or maybe they had some selfish intentions as well?
When an individual feels so strongly regarding a certain subject and the consequences of those emotions can cause ill feeling in the family, the individual needs to check that their feelings are coming from the right place. The spouse needs to go and speak with an objective source if there might be an alternate way of looking at the situation. Friends are not always helpful in this case as they have a self interest in keeping your friendship, as opposed to an orthodox Rabbi or orthodox marriage therapist who might be more objective and so more helpful.
When both sides feel that they are right and there is no room to move for either view, an appropriate way forward would be to both choose a mutually acceptable third party to help find a solution. This could be in the form as stated above of an orthodox Rabbi or orthodox Jewish marriage counsellor. Pinchos teaches us that sometimes we do need to take up the challenge and have self sacrifice to do the right thing. When we do that it does not mean that we have to discount anyone in our way but our self sacrifice at the present time must include speaking in a pleasant way to those we are trying to influence.
We went into exile because of a lack of peace between each other and through our efforts to make peace, we should merit the ultimate redemption even sooner than we were supposed to receive it.
[i] Amato, P., & Previti, D. (2003). People's Reasons for Divorcing. Journal of Family issues, 602-626.
[ii] See Rambam, Sefer Mada, the laws of prophecy, what is required to be a prophet and the consequences of challenging an established prophet
[iii] Sanhedrin 82,a
[iv] Yerushalmi Yoma ch. 8 halacha 5
[v] Sotah 3,a
[vi] Tanya chapter 24
[vii] Likutei Sichos 2 p. 342-345
These articles are only general scenarios and for specific advice a professional should be consulted