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Women Who Marry Below Themselves

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

If I want someone I love to change, what would be the most effective way to accomplish it?

In the midst of labor and hoping for effective distraction (an oxymoron), I turned on the hospital television. It was daytime and the only alternative to soap operas was Oprah. Her topic: Women who Marry Below Themselves. The details of the show escape me, but I remember asking myself what relevance could this possibly have to my life? (Okay, that wasn't the first question I asked about such an inane subject!)

And it hit me. The issue isn't whether you marry below yourself, equal to yourself, or above yourself, but rather what you do with it.

The life of Deborah, the sole female judge of Jewish tradition, suggests a possible and productive response. Deborah was a prophetess and leader of her people -- the greatest Jew of her generation. The entire nation came to her to be judged; there was no one else qualified to assume that role. When the Jewish nation was threatened, she led them in a successful campaign against the Canaanite army led by Sisera. She is glorified in song (in the Book of Judges) and lauded as the Mother of Israel. She was also perhaps the first woman "who married below herself," and how she handled it is a lesson for all of us.

Deborah was an exceedingly bright, knowledgeable and accomplished woman. She was in holding the position of the judge for the entire Jewish people. She married a very unlearned man and our sages speculate that initially it was not a "happy" union.

If such a match were to take place today, the solution would be obvious. Barring renewed opportunities to appear on Oprah, most women would say, "It's not working; we're not suited for each other; I'm outta here."

Not Deborah. She looked at the situation from a much broader, less selfish perspective. She asked herself an important question that is so simple and yet so powerful, it could transform our marriages, whatever their present state.

"How can I help my husband become a better person -- for his sake not for mine?"

"How can I help my husband become a better person -- for his sake not for mine?"

Not because he'll give to me more, I'll enjoy him more, I'll feel vindicated and validated. But for him. What would be best for him and how can I facilitate that?

Take a minute and ask yourself this question: How would my marriage change if I focused on helping my partner grow, only for his/her sake?

Deborah knew that being ignorant was not the ideal. She also recognized that nagging is a completely ineffective tool for change. Tempting as it is to nag, none of us respond well to it. Not only do we usually not change our behavior as a result, but we tend to resent the nagger as well.

Deborah had to be creative. She had to think of a way to help her husband that would be productive and uplifting, not discouraging and demeaning.
So Deborah made wicks for the menorah in the Tabernacle and she encouraged Barak, her husband, to go to Jerusalem and sell them. The wicks were specially made (thick or thin according to the season) to enhance the flames. Was there something magical about those wicks? Some supernatural. kabbalistic amulet hidden among them to effect change?

No. Change doesn't work like that.

Deborah reasoned that the sale of wicks would force her husband into constant proximity with Torah scholars and that their attitudes, philosophies, and knowledge would begin to rub off on Barak.

She was right (although she never said "I told you so!"). But she had to be patient. It wasn't instantaneous. She had to be consistently smiling and positive and hopeful.

And Barak was able to be receptive because he wasn't forced into something against his will. He wasn't browbeaten and tormented. He wasn't degraded and criticized. He was assisted in the most thoughtful way possible.

Take a minute and ask yourself another question: If I want someone I love to change -- a spouse, child, friend -- what would be the most effective way to accomplish it?

If someone is selfish, you can yell at him or her repeatedly in accusatory tones about their bad character, or you could take them with you to deliver food to the needy.

If someone doesn't enjoy reading, you could berate them about their ignorance and their wasting of time, or you could leave many different types of books and other publications lying around.

These are small examples, but the potential for effective change is enormous. Think of it as a creative challenge. Think of yourself as Deborah the Judge. Not only will you help your spouse (or child or friend) grow, but through the process of thoughtful and selfless giving, you will become a greater, kinder human being.

Maybe Oprah's show was misnamed. Perhaps it should have been: "Women who Married Just who They Needed."


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