Parshat Va’etchanan: The Ten Commandments as a model for a healthy relationship

The Ten Commandments infuse our relationships with meaning, and provide the infrastructure for building a better home. Some food for thought on the internal code of the nation that gives meaning to marital relationships as well.

Rabbanit Renana Birnbaum is the Director of the Claudia Cohen Women Educators Institute and OTS’s Conversion Institute for Spanish Speakers

The Ten Commandments are the Jewish people’s binding “internal code”. They can be seen as a social model for the relationship between G-d and man, in the general sense, but I’d like to suggest a different perspective: let’s try to ascertain the meaning of each commandment in how it relates to maintaining a proper relationship, the relationship we ought to strive for, between husband and wife.

1 – “I am the Lord your G-d”

Why is it so crucial, right at the climax of a dramatic event like the chuppah and kiddushin (betrothal), to declare the husband’s presence and acknowledge him? If there were any one moment in a couple’s relationship without an inkling of a doubt, wouldn’t this be that moment?

Even so, both the husband and the wife must etch the existence of their spouse into their consciousness, without leaving any room for doubt. The declaration of “I am your husband” and “I am your wife” at the moment of marriage forges a proper consciousness of the marital relationship. It reminds us that the marital connection is based on something lofty and absolute, and that it isn’t merely the product of a relationship and the spouses’ interactions in the practical domain. There is an element of profound love between the husband and wife which should never be conditioned on anything. It must be part of the couple’s life experience, just like the marriage between Hashem and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. This absolute Divine “element” must be present in the couple’s hearts, starting from the moment they enter the chuppah.

2 – “You shall not have any other gods before Me”

When we begin comparing one of the spouses to “others”, we leave room for doubt. In his controversial book, Les Particules Elémentaires, French author Michel Houellebecq claimed that the principles of capitalism and the free market had made their way into the Westerners’ emotional domain and had poisoned and destroyed their emotional domain. He claims that the reason that the consistent tendency of modern people to compare their current relationships to other “products” on the “shelf of the free market” has deprived them of the ability to commit and to truly love.  I believe that we must be very cautious of bringing “others” into the emotional space between ourselves and our spouses.

3 – “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your G-d, in vain”

Just as we are prohibited from swearing in the name of Hashem in vain, so, too, are we prohibited from jesting at the expense of our spouse and trampling our spouse’s good name in vain. This type of behavior might seem legitimate and unrelated in a humoristic conversation. It might seem like it doesn’t have any effect on the relationship, but the truth is that joking around leaves a permanent mark on our souls and can lead to serious side-effects. Rather than uplifting the relationship, it causes it to sink.

4 – “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy”

Shabbat is when we have our encounter with the Creator of the Universe. It is also a time where we could take our spouse on a “date”. Engulfed in our hectic routines and the demanding tasks awaiting us in the week ahead, we remember to take some time off, to bask in peace and tranquility, to listen, to preserve and nurture our marital relationship, and to remember! Just as we begin our Shabbat preparations early, we ought to begin preparing for our “weekly date” with our spouse well in advance, in anticipation, and devote some emotional and practical attention to this encounter.

5 – “Honor your father and mother”

Everyone knows that when we marry someone, we are also marrying that person’s parents. This is a very complex challenge requiring a great deal of thought, sensitivity and effort. It is no coincidence that so many jokes have been spun about our complicated relationships with our parents-in-law, and it’s no accident that the laws about honoring our mothers and fathers include a fair number of directives that educate and guide us on how to operate in this family “minefield” – namely, how to honor our spouse’s family and parents, while preserving our marriage. We mustn’t forget that this complicated, and, at times, challenging pursuit of a good relationship with our spouse’s parents has a divine element to it as well.

6 – “You shall not murder”

In any relationship, the greater the mutual proximity, the more each side in the relationship becomes exposed to the other side, along with the good and the bad sides of his or her personality. The masks come off, and the walls come down. Along with close proximity comes the potential for great joy and profound love, but it also comes at the risk of this knowledge being improperly exploited at times of crisis. When nothing stands between us, we can harm, trample, or even assassinate our spouse’s character. In a good relationship, when one partner recognizes the other partner’s weaknesses, he or she accepts and tolerates them, and even wishes and strives to support the spouse by helping him or her overcome those weaknesses when the going gets rough.

7 – “You shall not commit adultery”

It is hard to talk about adultery, which centers on our sex drive, and it’s hard to talk about marital relations. Likewise, adultery spreads to all spheres of life, affecting our words, our thoughts and our imaginations. It can become a central part of a person’s life, something that’s hard to deal with in today’s world.

Before discussing the prohibition of adultery, we must understand the meaning of marriage. Adultery is the antithesis to marriage. It represents licentiousness and a loss of control, in contrast to the restraint and meaningfulness associated with marriage. Adultery undermines the family unit, and it often destroys it. The Torah tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone”, and marriage is the solution to a person’s solitude. The purpose of marriage isn’t virtual love; marriage produces a love that combines body and spirit. The marital relationship is one where exclusivity is granted solely to the husband and wife who had committed to each other through the covenant of marriage. It is a love that one gives the other, when husband and wife coalesce into one entity.

The sexual urge is necessary for created a family and producing life. There are many expressions of love, and it isn’t just spiritual. One of the most important spheres in a loving and spiritual relationship is the sexual relationship between spouses. This “love” produces physical intimacy, and that physical connection becomes one of the most meaningful manifestations of the language of love. This fusion between the body’s basic emotional needs and our value system creates a profound human and spiritual meaning that it infuses into the physical connection. The purpose of marriage is to take a person out of solitude. Adultery could cause a person to revert to the solitary state that had existed before the marriage. Adulterous relationships lack the deeper levels and meaning of a marital relationship, and remove Hashem from the tripartite relationship between man, woman and G-d.

8 – “You shall not steal”

Many of us have a tendency to dominate our spouse, to a greater or lesser degree, depriving our spouse of his or her independence and character. Yes – love can be suffocating! When one spouse becomes overinvolved in the other spouse’s life, this can demoralize the other spouse and rob them of their selfhood. We must respect our spouses and their inner autonomy. We mustn’t unwittingly rob our spouse of his or her soul. True love lets our spouse grow and maintain his or her spiritual liberty.

9 – “You shall not bear false witness against your fellow man”

How do we define false testimony? It doesn’t mean that someone is telling a lie. It means that the testimony itself is false. When are we likely to bear false testimony against our spouse, whom we love? This might happen when we talk about our spouse with someone else, and unwittingly tarnish our spouse’s reputation, either inadvertently or in an attempt to glorify ourselves. Sometimes, at times of crisis and rage, we are in danger of undermining the faith our spouse put in us and injuring our spouse’s dignity. In these situations, the harmony between the spouses begins to shatter, and we develop the tendency to “recruit” supporters in our family and social circles, unwittingly causing harm to our spouse in the process. This is a mutual breach of trust, and our discretion has been compromised. A husband or wife must be careful not to speak ill of his or her spouse and avoid maligning their soulmate.

10 – “You shall not covet”

This commandment is all about creating the appropriate atmosphere and spiritual space where the wrong feelings aren’t evoked, or where they can be corrected. This is the path that Rabbi Avraham Ben Meir ibn Ezra took in his commentary on the commandment of “You shall not covet”. He explained that it is a person’s duty to engender this type of general worldview that doesn’t allow envy to creep in, because envious thoughts are so far removed from it.

At any rate, one thing is certain: a person can maintain the boundaries of his or her emotional space, set red lines and use moral brakes that will help him or her reign in his lust, by directing his or her thoughts and actions, and designing his or her environment correctly. The commandment of “you shall not covet” is overlooked wherever people do not reign in their lust, and wherever people lose their moral brakes.

The Ten Commandments are about people, not about the Creator of the Universe. They infuse our relationships with meaning and provide the infrastructure for building a better home. People need to take responsibility for their own lives, lives in which the divine ideal embodied in the Ten Commandments remain ever-present, looking down at them from Heaven.


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