A Culture of Kindness| July 1, 2020
Strengthen your marriage through what you're already doing
Shani Leiman with Zivia Reischer
I may have married him for better or worse, but no one mentioned anything about a pandemic.
The extended period we’ve all had in our homes has caused us to put ourselves and our homes under a microscope. What’s good is very evident. But the cracks that used to annoy us occasionally (whether it’s the window shade that doesn’t really fit or a husband who spends more time playing video games than learning,) now look like gaping fissures.
What may also come into focus is the atmosphere in our homes. If I was the kid stuck in quarantine in my home, would I be happy? Would I be dreaming about going back to school, not out of any great love of academia, but just to get out of the house, away from my family? You and your spouse may feel stuck as well.
Several years ago, a family I know married off their oldest son. They were crazy about the kallah and couldn’t believe their good fortune. One day the son came to visit his parents, directly from one of his first Shabbosim with his in-laws. He mentioned in passing to his mom, “Wow, I can’t believe how nice they are to each other in that home!”
The mother was startled, but said nothing. She was left with food for thought: How nice are we to each other in our home?
We’ve probably all come across the elderly couple in the supermarket, snapping at each other the same way they’ve been doing for the last 50 years. They may be happy that way. That’s just how they speak to each other.
It may be their way, but it isn’t the Jewish way.
The Bond Between Us
Rav Eliyahu Kitov, in Ish u’Beiso, talks about the ideal tone in a Jewish home. It should be soft, with no one yelling (at least not the adults), the quiet tenor a reflection of the respect we have for the values the home represents.
For a marriage to thrive, it has to continue to grow in closeness and continue to grow in kindness.
The beautiful pasuk from Hoshea a man says as he wraps the strap of his tefillin reflects that the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People is akin to the marriage of a Jewish man and woman. The wrapping of the strap around the finger represents the groom placing the ring on the finger of the kallah during the wedding ceremony.
Hoshea says, “And I will betroth you to Me forever (l’olam), and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness (tzedek) and with justice (mishpat) and with loving-kindness (chesed) and with mercy (rachamim). And I will betroth you to Me with faith (emunah), and you shall know Hashem.”
This pasuk lists the seven characteristics of the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People, the same that apply to a husband and wife. Interestingly, the first six conditions obligate the husband, and the last, the wife, with the assumption being that the first six come more naturally to women.
Without going into a lengthy explanation of each characteristic, we can see that a marriage is based on fidelity, exclusivity, kindness, and compassion.
Can those qualities be felt in the atmosphere of our homes?
Know that every home has a culture, and that no matter what that culture is now, cultures can be cultivated. Which adjectives apply to your home? Nurturing, supportive, warm? Or is it cynical, critical, cold? Did anyone say or do anything kind for someone in my home today?
We need to ask ourselves: What changes can I implement in my home to raise the kindness quotient? There are as many paths as there are marriages, but two ways that come to mind are words of affirmation or affection and acts of service.
I believe that in the home we would really want to live in, those two come together. It would be unkind to expect overstressed and overworked women to take on any more jobs. What we can acquire with a small shift in our behavior is a more positive atmosphere. Sound too easy? Read on! (Have I been reading too many online advertisements?)
Build on What Is
The best way to start is to build on the work you’re already doing — make sure you not only get brownie points for your effort, but at the same time you effectively shift the culture in your home. Supper is hamburgers and mashed potatoes. Not your favorite, but definitely his. “Hi, sweetheart. I made burgers and potatoes for dinner because I know you like it.” Or, “I made sure to drop off your shirts at the cleaners because I saw you were almost out of clean ones.”
In other words, we’re doing acts of kindness all day, for our spouses and for our children, but they aren’t necessarily being perceived as such. It’s expected, sometimes taken for granted. We’ve extended the effort, and because of it, our homes are functioning, which is huge.
But it’s just as important to curate the culture. Grow positivity and kindness by expressing the sentiment that underlies the practical effort. I like to prepare the things you like. I love spending time with you. I want you to have everything that you need.
Sometimes women say to me, “I don’t have it in me to express those feelings because I don’t feel nurtured or taken care of. Especially now, when I’m missing time to myself and all the things outside my home that nurture me. I’m just trying to survive.”
While I understand why a wife feels that way, consider the following. If your spouse knew how to care for and nurture you, he probably would. Someone has to change the dynamic. If you’re the one reading this article, then it could be you.
It won’t help, you’re thinking. But when you change the action, you change the reaction. Not instantaneously, but over time. You’re also modeling how you’d like to be cared for, without doing any kind of nagging or triggering any defensiveness.
Rav Kitov mentions that the impact of words and actions inside the home on the people in the home far surpasses any impact of words or actions outside the home. Those make an impression in the moment, and then mostly evaporate, but we can all think of words that were said to us in our homes when we were young that stayed with us.
Kind words don’t have to be said constantly. Just sprinkling them in several times daily will work fine. Once you start to create a culture of kindness, you’ll see that it affects the way the people in your home speak and think. It will affect the way disputes are adjudicated; it will creep into the very pores of the home.
Like anything that works, it has to come from an authentic place, and we may have to dig deep into ourselves to find the real compassion to do this honestly. Mentioning how hard you worked, even if you attach the appropriate sentiment, when you really mean that you’re doing more and he’s doing less, or that he’s in some way inadequate, will create the opposite of what we’re aiming for here.
Doing acts of loving kindness leads to a feeling of caring. If hurt people hurt people, the what’s the corollary for cared-for people? It’s logical to assume that they will then be able to care for their loved ones. Sounds like a win-win situation!
Debbie Greenblatt is a senior lecturer for the Gateways organization and a teacher of both observant and not-yet-observant Jewish women for over 30 years. Debbie’s lecture topics include Jewish texts, Jewish thought, and relationships.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 699)
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