I have heard many different concerns from young women about to be married. “I am afraid I’ll be bored.” “What if I throw up from cleaning a chicken?” “What if I can’t stand going to my in-laws for Yom Tov?”
While each apprehension has its place, I often encounter an underlying anxiousness: “What if one day he doesn’t like me anymore?” It’s a fear that can be clothed in many different expressions, and can persist deep into married life. Is there any way to combat this concern?
King Solomon gives us the key: “L’anavim yiten chein” (Mishlei 3:34) — to the humble one will be given charm, grace, that indefinable something we call chein. Anavah? Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m looking for a real anav,” or, “I am working on my humility to prepare myself for marriage”? It isn’t usually what comes to mind when we think about the qualities needed to create enduring relationship.
But maybe it should be.
Every Person my Teacher
Anavah starts as the perception that a person is incomplete on his or her own, and therefore seeks to attach to that which will give a connection to shleimus, to wholeness and further development. The anav realizes the value of learning from others, out of the understanding that all people have some area of development in which they excel beyond his own. By recognizing that advantage in others and seeking to make a connection to the people he encounters, he becomes more shaleim.
Pirkei Avos tells us that the wise person is someone who can learn from every individual. To get there, one first has to realize that every person has something to teach. The genius in yeshivah can still grow from a relationship with his less-gifted classmate, who may be more developed in his integrity or kibud av v’eim. The ambitious businesswoman can benefit from a relationship with the stay-at-home mom who has no goals outside of her home, perhaps achieving a greater appreciation for the value of patience.
If we approach life this way, we’ll recognize the Divine Providence that puts us in the pathway of different people and events, and they’ll becomes a catalyst for our growth, helping us achieve the unique purpose for which we were put on to this earth.
The Vilna Gaon explains that the opposite of the anav is the leitz, the scoffer, who deflects all input with a joke or a put-down. The leitz’s Teflon coating doesn’t allow anything to stick; even serious conversations and encounters are boomeranged back with a barb or a witticism. Not only does the leitz lose the benefit of what he stands to learn from others, he also lacks the wherewithal to make real connections, whether to another person or to his Creator. The scorn is a barrier. He doesn’t let anything in to that deep inner place that has to be affected in order for us to grow. A relationship is only as meaningful and satisfying as it is internal. In marriage, touching or neglecting this place is the difference between having a roommate or a soul mate.
United We Stand
Among all of Hashem’s creations, man alone has the distinction of having been created as an individual being. Adam had male and female components before he was put into a deep sleep, and the feminine characteristics were separated out and built into Chavah, the first woman.
Creating the first human as one being was necessary to indicate that while all creations reflect their Creator, only humans represent Him. The unity and oneness of Hashem is one of the only things we can recognize of His essence. Yet the danger of leaving Adam in his original form was that he might come to think there were two domains of power in the universe. According to the sages, he was liable to say, “He is alone in His domain (without a mate) and I am alone in mine” (Rashi on Bereishis 2:18). This moves a person in the direction of arrogance, as if he is perfect, just like his Creator.
In separating man and woman, and creating the need for them to come back together in marriage, Hashem created a place where anavah could reign. When husband and wife realize that they are imperfect and that there’s huge potential to develop through the connection to their spouse, they are on a pathway to a meaningful connection. The arrogance that creeps in when anavah is absent is the root of divisiveness. When the “I” feels independent of and separate from any other, no relationship is possible. Coming to see one’s home and the relationships therein as the central platform for growth is essential.
Anavah is a life view, a choice as to how we filter the input from the world around us. Just like the proverbial glass that can be seen as half-empty or half-full, we can choose to focus in our interactions with others on what went right or what went wrong, on what strengths appeared or what weaknesses were evident. Choosing to focus on the other’s shortcomings is a way of disconnecting, as if to say, “I don’t need to learn from this person — look at all that is wrong with him.”
A widow in her mid-70s recently married a widower in his mid-80s. They are both Holocaust survivors, and brought into the marriage of lifetime of doing things their own way. Add to that the reality that as we age, we tend to become more of whatever we were when we were young, and you have a possible recipe for disharmony. How amazed was her young grandson, who spent time in their home while dating a young woman in their town, when his new grandfather had a talk with him.
“Young man,” he began, “there’s something you are going to have to learn. I know you like this young woman that you are dating, and maybe you are even going to marry her. I hope it will work out and that you will be happy. But you need to know that no matter what, I am sorry to say, you will not find another woman in this world like your grandmother.” What a great message about marriage, and about anavah.
Imperfect, but Still Great
The sages teach us an amazing lesson from the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon who were consumed by a heavenly fire during the dedication of the Mishkan. Rav Dessler explains that the death of a truly righteous person brings atonement to his generation. We read the portion of the death of Nadav and Avihu on Yom Kippur, because their merits were so great that their death atones for our wrongdoings throughout the generations.
Yet the Talmud and Midrashic sources list at least 12 different mistakes that these two great people, who had the potential to take over for Moshe and Aharon, made at that time. We learn that in the final accounting, even though they were swiftly punished for their mistakes, the perspective of Torah was that they were great people, whose merits stand us in good stead more than 3,000 years later.
Perhaps this lesson can help us see past the shortcomings of others so that we can focus on their strengths and deepen our relationship with them. When we view other people, we want to see beyond the failings, which are the result of their bodies, and see the soul, which is always about strength, wholeness, and goodness. When we want to connect we look deeply into a person’s eyes, which are the window to their souls. When we don’t want that connection, we avert our eyes, and all that is left in our peripheral vision is their physical countenance, the source of their shortcomings.
Anavah is a way of looking at yourself as not yet having arrived, and at the world as a wonderful place from which you can learn, no matter how much you have already accomplished.
Beauty fades, connection endures. When we relate to others, especially our spouses, with anavah, we are continually building the type of relationship that will make the question “Will he still love me tomorrow?” unnecessary.