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Parshas Ki Teitzei (5770)

How to Make Your Spouse Happy

Towards the end of this week’s portion, Parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah states (regarding the draft deferment of the Jewish solider for the first year after his marriage): “He shall be free to go home for one year, and he shall gladden his wife whom he has married” (Deuteronomy 24:5).

The Sefer HaChinuch ("The Book of Education", a classic Jewish text published anonymously in 13th century Spain, which systematically discusses the 613 commandments of the Torah and offers a rationale for each mitzvah) in Mitzvah # 582 explains that this verse is a Biblical commandment that the newly married couple should not be apart from each other for too long - even for a business trip - during their first year of marriage.

I don’t know about you folks, but I find this commandment troubling for two reasons. First of all, the Torah never says exactly how to make your spouse happy. I mean, every other mitzvah in the Torah comes with myriad details and laws and conditions for its proper fulfillment – you know, the lulav (palm frond we hold and shake on the holiday of Sukkos) has to be longer than four handbreadths, the mezuzah must be placed on the right side of the entrance to the room and in a leaning position, etc. etc. – yet when stating the Biblical commandment to make one’s wife happy, no detailed instructions are given. (Do you give flowers? Jewelry? Hugs? All of the above?)

Secondly, the Torah seems to be commanding us to make our spouses happy for just one year! Is that it? Are we finished making them happy after the first anniversary? What about the second, third, twentieth, fiftieth years of the marriage? Is there no obligation as part of the relationship to make one’s spouse happy then?

To answer these questions, we need to gain a better understanding of the Torah’s definition of simchah (happiness).

We find, for example, that the Torah commands us to be happy on the Three Festivals – Passover, Shavuos, and Sukkos – as it says “You shall be happy on your festival” (Deuteronomy 16:14). In fact, we refer to the Festival of Sukkos in our holiday prayers as “Z’man Simchaseinu – The Time of our Happiness”.

Which is kind of strange, when you think about it. After all, doesn’t the Torah also command us on this same holiday to leave our cozy homes and dwell in a flimsy thatched hut for seven days with very little protection from the elements? Sure doesn’t sound like a very happy time to me …. Even stranger is the teaching of the Mishnah at the end of Tractate Taanis which states that one of the happiest days on the Jewish calendar is the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur? Praying in the synagogue all day long? No Starbucks? … Happy??!!! I must be missing something here …

Maybe we can understand the Torah’s idea of true simchah and happiness based on a famous Jewish saying (quoted by Teshuvos HaRam”a in Responsa #5 and by Metzudas Dovid in his commentary to Proverbs 15:30, among others): “Ein Simchah K’Hataras HaSefeikos – There is no greater joy than the resolution of doubt”.

In other words, the source of most our unhappiness is the lack of clarity about what is happening in our lives. If we had a total understanding of who we are and why we’re here on this earth, we would experience incredible joy and happiness no matter what the circumstances. But because we’re confused and we lack that clarity, it is hard for us to feel happy at all times. [It is interesting to note that the two Hebrew words for ‘crying’ and ‘tears’ are bechi and dima, both of which also mean ‘confused’ and ‘mixed up’.]

[I recall driving my daughter to camp last summer in rural Michigan and getting lost on the way (we had no GPS). We pulled into a 7-Eleven and I walked up to the counter and said to the clerk, “I think I’m lost”. The guy told me, “No, you’re not … you’re right here!” The truth is that the 7-Eleven clerk is right. If you have clarity in life and you understand your ultimate purpose for being here and that everything happens for a reason, then you’re never lost – you’re right there where you’re supposed to be! But if you lack that clarity, then you can be lost while sitting in your own living room!] After a whole Yom Kippur of introspection and reflection on who I am and what I’m here for and what is really important in life and what is just petty and not worth getting angry about – the clarity and resolution of doubt that we gain brings us incredible joy – making Yom Kippur a truly happy day.

And when we sit in that little makeshift Sukkah just a few days later – with nothing else but our loved ones around us and G-d’s protection overhead – and we realize that all that’s important in life is right there with us in the Sukkah and nothing else matters, we experience Z’man Simchaseinu, the Time of our Happiness.

We can now understand the mitzvah in this week’s Torah portion to make your spouse happy for the first year of the marriage. The Sefer HaChinuch writes that the rationale of this commandment is that G-d wanted each Jewish couple to enjoy an amazing relationship and a beautiful family life. He therefore commanded in the Torah that the newlyweds focus entirely on each other for the first year of their marriage, so as to solidify their relationship and to help them gain clarity that they were totally meant for each other and for nobody else – even with their faults. By following the Torah’s instructions, the couple will have fulfilled the commandment to make your spouse happy – because there is no greater joy than the resolution of doubt.

This also explains why the mitzvah is only for the first year of the marriage. By focusing on each other and making each other happy for that critical first year, the couple will have gained the clarity they need and will have established a solid foundation upon which to build the rest of their married life together.

In the fifth of the seven Sheva Berachos (special wedding blessings) recited under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at a traditional Jewish wedding, we pray to G-d: “Make the beloved companions happy as You made Your creature happy in the Garden of Eden …”

The commentators explain this blessing to mean that just as G-d gave Adam – His “creature” – tremendous happiness with his new wife Eve because they both had total clarity that they were meant for each other since there was nobody else alive on the planet, so, too, should G-d bless the “beloved companions”, this newlywed couple standing together under the chuppah, that they should experience the joy that comes from knowing that they were meant for each other and that there is nobody else.

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