Beautiful Enemies – A Love Story

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“A strong marriage requires loving your spouse even when in those moments when they are not lovable; it means believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves.”                  Dave Willis

With one question, my powerful, competent and responsible husband can turn into an evasive first-grader. Often, when I just ask my husband if he knows where some missing item might be, his instant knee-jerk response is always, “I didn’t touch it.” “I didn’t ask if you touched it,” I would respond with icy sarcasm, “I just asked if you knew where it was.” And I would think to myself, and if you would stop automatically assuming I’m accusing you of something, you could do something useful – like try to think where it could be or help me find it. It’s biblical – man’s proclivity to avoid blame.   The defense mechanism goes back to Adam, of course; husbands are practically hard-wired for it.

And Then This Happened…

I had bungled something as an attorney. A combination of procrastination and overwhelm caused me not to pay attention to something I thought was a minor issue – which turned out to be not so minor, creating a financial loss to a client – which we reimbursed. My husband, a well-known family lawyer, however, shielded me and took the blame, and was publically censured for a careless act that would cause any first-year associate to get fired.

And the most shameful part of it was that my husband wasn’t mad at me at all. He didn’t yell. He didn’t make me feel incompetent. And while I was sobbing with guilt that I had “ruined his life,” my husband laughed and said, “Don’t you know – you made my life?” But that profession of loving tenderness and unconditional grace somehow made me feel more ashamed than if he had yelled.

And Then This Happened Next…..

I noticed a book on top of a pile entitled, “Sacred Marriage” and I was reminded of the ultimate mindset one should have towards marriage and relationships in general. What my husband was saying, in effect, was that our marriage is sacred and he wouldn’t tarnish it, trample on it or hurt the relationship on account of something as secular, mundane and profane as a work-related legal matter. And I cringed thinking of how dismissive I can get over ridiculous minutia.  When one regards marriage as sacred, however, a journey of soul mates pledged to each other’s betterment and potential, then shame and blame, harsh criticism and other behaviors that infuse relationships with negativity are intolerable.

The Next-Step Marriage

In his book, The All Or Nothing Marriage, Eli Finkel describes the progression of marriage as being driven by utility, function, and necessity, to being love-driven, to a new “modern” concept of marriage as a means to self-actualization. According to Finkel, this is almost impossible bar to achieve. How can a spouse make the other feel loved, comfortable and secure while at the same time, be the driver of their improvement? How can we finesse being lover and coach, the safe harbor and the push for success? Is it fair, much less realistic, to expect our spouses to be all things?  

Um, Read Your Bible

This model of marriage isn’t so modern. In fact, it originates with the first couple in recorded history, when God created Eve to be an “ezer kenegdo” for Adam. When the Old Testament was translated into English, this term, “ezer kenegdo” was mistranslated as a “helpmate,” evoking an eternally submissive Betty Crocker. Granted, the Hebrew term has no direct and easy English equivalent, but in fact, an “ezer kenegdo” is a “helper in opposition,” a wife who assists by “being against.” When I first learned that this was my true role as a Jewish wife, I completely misunderstood it, thinking I was commanded from on High, to discover and fix my husband’s every imperfection. Self-righteously, I justified nagging as a holy mitzvah. An ezer kenegdo, however, is neither a Stepford wife nor a shrew, but a “beautiful enemy.” Allow me to explain.

In writing about leadership, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that while it is pleasant to be surrounded by those who always say yes to us and confirm and validate our actions, what is truly valuable is to have that rare and special someone who can say “no” – albeit with kindness, intellect and empathy. When critique is presented as an offering and not a demand, and when it comes from the person’s best and highest self, then even criticism can become beautiful.[i]

What Adam Didn’t Understand

Defensiveness, however, is the ego’s method of self-protection and it blocks us from hearing what the other person is saying. When God asked Adam the famous question, “Where are you?” for example, Adam’s defensiveness caused him to deflect the existential inquiry and by blaming Eve, he missed the opportunity to restore his relationship with God.

Accordingly, as Ben-Shahar notes, an indispensable component of this process is that we must also bring our kindness, intellect, and empathy to the table in understanding criticism – otherwise, our egos will perceive the person (even a loved one or the Almighty) as an enemy. Thus, the process is reciprocal and, ultimately must become mutual. “As we want all our friends, spouses and families to grow in all the possible ways we need to become beautiful enemies toward them.”[ii]

A beautiful enemy will both challenge and push you to grow, while at the same time love and accept you as you are. And so yes, we must continuously rise to the occasion and finesse these dual roles; to help our spouses and others actualize themselves, we must also work on ourselves.   I call that a win-win.   It’s a challenge but so very worth it. It’s what makes marriage sacred, so unbelievably great, and right from the start of Creation, the way it was meant to be.

[i] There is a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a), where Rabbi Yochanan mourned the death of Resh Lakish, his brother-in-law/study partner who had consistently argued against his every opinion. When he was paired with a brilliant scholar who supported his every decision, however, Rabbi Yochanan was inconsolable, crying bitterly that he didn’t need Rabbi Elazar to tell him he was right; he needed Resh Lakish to tell him he was wrong. “Bar Lakisha – when I would believe a thing would challenge me with 24 objections, and I would answer him with 24 answers, which led to a fuller understanding of the law.”

[ii] http://interesting-leadership-techniques.blogspot.com/2009/11/beautiful-enemy.html

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Korach – The Power of the Question

“…And for the child who does not know how to ask,

you must teach him how…”

– Passover Haggadah

Power Struggles

The Torah portion, “Korach,” is the name of one of the most famous attempted power-grabbers in Jewish history. In the story line, the priestly honors and appointments were doled out long ago to Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, their cousin, was left out of this honor society and was resentful. However, Moses was untouchable as a leader, and so Korach kept his bitterness to himself.  

Times had changed, however. After the incident with the spies in the previous Torah portion of “Shelach,” when the people knew they were not going into the land of Israel but were condemned to die in the desert, it was a time of crisis and unrest. Moses’ ratings were down, thus giving Korach the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the situation and to try to usurp Moses as the leader.

 And Korach did so by posing a simple question to Moses and Aaron: “The entire community is holy, and God is within them; why do you raise yourselves over the congregation of God?” That doesn’t sound too bad – does it? Korach is saying, “If we’re all holy, then what makes you guys so special?  I’m every bit as special as you.” Korach even got a few hundred guys to agree with him because his platform was essentially that he was the champion for the masses, he stood for the little guy, and that everyone is equal – perhaps the first Jewish communist.

 But Korach wasn’t looking to make everyone the same. He wasn’t looking to make this an equal opportunity procedure. This wasn’t the Biblical version of: “I’m holy. You’re holy. And that’s OK.” Korach wanted to be the High Priest, and assuming he was to overthrow Moshe and appoint himself, by the time his groupies figured out that nothing changed for them, well you know what happens in takeovers.

Selective Questioning

As fascinating as the story line is (and to find out what happened to Korach, read The Book), what interests me is the use of the question. When Korach asked, “What makes you holier than me?” it wasn’t an honest inquiry at all. He was looking to find fault with Moses, and he was trying to get others to join in, to see reality his way, and he did it through the use of questions, because – and this is important to understand – the reality that we see depends on the questions that we ask.

 Why is that? Our brains take in billions of bits of information per second, but it can only process about 60 bits per second, less than an infinitesimal sliver. You know how people can experience the same thing so differently? That is because they are focusing on their selective 60 bits per second. And I use the word “selective” deliberately. We can actually select which sliver to focus on, and the way we do that is by the questions we ask.

Isidore Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, was once asked why he became a scientist. He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without even knowing it. Every other child would come home from school and be asked, ‘What did you learn today?’ But my mother wanted to know something else. ‘Izzy,’ she always used to say, ‘did you ask a good question today?’ That made the difference.”

Let’s look at relationships. In the infatuation or romantic phase of a relationship, the part of the brain associated with critical thinking is dysfunctional. When that part of our brain comes back on-line, and critical thinking resumes, we start asking ourselves – “What’s wrong with my spouse? What’s wrong here? What happened to the person I married, etc.?”

And when we turn these questions inward we create inner shame. The brain doesn’t like unanswered questions and so when you ask a negative question (What’s wrong with me?), your brain will only supply a negative answer (I’m such a loser, mess, etc.).

 And while we mustn’t turn a blind eye to problems, the tendency to focus only on the problems–to allot our 60-bit sliver of reality to the negative–shuts out all of the good and wonderful aspects of a relationship. It’s as if we are wearing blinders, and if we can’t see it, then these things don’t exist, even if they are right in front of us. Incidentally, I think this is one of the main reasons relationships fail or suffer, because we become very good at being fault-finders, and we lose the ability to see the good.

Changing What We See

Therefore, if the questions we ask create the reality we see, it stands to reason that we can change our reality by asking better questions. When you change your question, you change what you are looking for. By understanding this dynamic, you can engineer a more positive life and relationships.

 Chassidic thought teaches that there is a seed of greatness in every moment and a spark of holiness in everything – even more so in people. Try looking for it with positive questions. “What is working? What is going well? What is there to be grateful for? When are things good and what factors make it happen? What’s my role in that? What do I do well and how can I do more of that? What are the blessings in this situation? How is this situation calling for me to serve, to act, to change, to grow?”

Here’s the secret, and it’s a phrase well worn into me by Tal Ben Shahar: “When we see the good, the good appreciates.” And we see the good by asking good questions. When Korach looked at Moses, all he could ask was why was he not getting what he wanted, why others were being elevated over him, and why was he being denied what he thought was coming to him. In a situation flowing with lemonade, all Korach could do was make lemons. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us look for the good, see the good, and enjoy the many blessings in our lives.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all have someone in our lives that makes us jealous. Think about that person and then write down the questions that pop into your mind (ie. “why her and not me?). Now…take those very same questions and ask change them around to focus on positive growth and development for yourself.
  1. Think about a question you have asked yourself (or another) that had a transformative effect on who you are today. What about the question or answer was made such an impact?
  1. Being able to question another or our situation takes a lot of strength. What questions do you have for yourself that perhaps you have been avoiding asking? Write down three questions that you may not yet have the answers for but can begin to work on.