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Destroying My Home

July 26, 2009 | by Michael Shulman

When my parents divorced, I didn't realize how they set my world ablaze.

I was shocked to discover that I was afraid of getting married. My list of reasons to avoid marriage was long, but fear had never been one of them. I'd always assumed that the trauma of my parents' divorce was a tidal wave that passed over my head, hitting only my older brother and sister. Even when they reminisced about "when Mommy and Daddy were married," it felt to me that they were speaking about some vanished fairyland. As far as I was concerned my level of regret at not having experienced my parents' marriage paralleled my regret at not having been able to visit Atlantis or Camelot. It would have been neat to visit. The only feeling I could pinpoint was annoyance at my sister for constantly badgering: "When is Mommy going to live with Daddy again?" I missed her too, but it was clear to me that world was long extinct.

I was so clueless about my fear of marriage that it took 28 years to figure out. The beginning of the discovery started with a question from a rabbi. "Are you dating yet?"

"Is there something in your past holding you back from getting married?"

I was learning in a yeshiva in Jerusalem and knew the question meant: "I have someone who may be your soul mate. Are you ready to get married?"

"Nope, not dating," I fired back like a bullet. I shot down so many dating suggestions over the years until someone took me aside and gently asked, "Is there something in your past holding you back from getting married?"

I'd never thought about the question before. I tried to answer on the spot, but the answer I gave sounded false as it came out of my mouth. Around that time I was taking a course in therapy, and working with the instructor, I reconnected to forgotten memories from my childhood. It was my fifth year birthday party. I saw the blue pool and heard the splashing of the water as figures descended from the high dive. And I saw my mother on the other side of the pool from my father. No one said a word, but the sadness was crushing. After I turned five, Mommy was, as John Denver put it, "leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again."

I broke down sobbing. I had never cried about my mother leaving me. I didn't even remember I was sad. Over the next few years I slowly began to discover moments that had covered up the pain. When I was 11 I remember my brother saying, "I'm proud of mommy. I'm proud she got a divorce and went to Chicago University to get her Ph.D. degree. Now she's a doctor and runs her own practice." For me it just hurt that my mother had moved away. I was too caught up in the fact that getting on with her life meant "getting on with life" without me.

Later in life when my brother became a spin doctor for clients like Bill Gates, I understood that my brother had been spinning stories since childhood. I suppose it is more idealistic to view our mother's choice as heroic. I was too young to know the pain he'd glossed over, and just assumed something was wrong with me. I also digested the unspoken lesson that career and independence was more important than raising your child.

I began to see why I did not want to get married or have children. Why would I want to bring someone in the world who felt being born was a mistake? My parents were both nicer people than me and their marriage failed. Even if I did want to get married, how was I supposed to do better than my parents did? It was easier to avoid the proposition of a marriage's inevitable destruction.

I had never mourned for my own house that had been destroyed.

Over the next two years I went to therapy and uncovered the wreckage my mother's leaving made in my life. I eventually understood the complexity and pain of her decision. I accepted her regret, and fully forgave her. Even though she and I both probably still carry the pain, we carry it together.

I wasn't surprised when I found out that the Jewish date of my birthday was the ninth of Av – Tisha B'Av, the date the Jewish Temples were destroyed. When I discovered Tisha B'Av, I also discovered that I had never mourned for my own house that had been destroyed. Without first mourning, I would never be able to rebuild. My parents planted in me the subconscious belief that my life was meant to fall apart. It was the part in me that sabotaged any chance of getting married. It manufactured excuses to save me from a relationship of closeness I'd yearned for since my mother left us. Without mourning I was letting the subterranean fears of a child drive me towards a life with no connection to anyone outside myself. I was one up on my parents; I'd avoid marriage all together.

Once I let myself mourn, I was finally able to feel the horrible pain of being alone. Only then was it possible to turn the bitterness into the determination not to leave my life in destruction, cut off from any true meaningful relationship. I was determined to overcome my fear to build a lasting house and started investigating Jewish wisdom on marriage.

I discovered that when a man and a woman marry they create a miniature home for God's presence to dwell in the world. This is alluded to in the Hebrew words for man, "ish" and woman, "isha". The words are the same except that man has a letter 'yud' and woman has a letter 'hey'. When a man and woman marry, the 'yud' and 'hey' unite, spelling one of God's names. God becomes their third partner in the home. When a man and woman know there is a greater unifying force in their marriage, it allows them to overcome obstacles of personality and circumstance.

Remove God's name from the marriage, taking out the 'yud' and the 'hey', the remaining letters of 'man' and 'woman' spells 'aish' – 'fire'. Fire is something that destroys and breaks apart a structure. Marriage is meant to be a miraculous on-going peace process. The peace begins with two opposite people and continues with children. Without bringing God into the home, creating a foundation based on Jewish values, the home is in danger of falling apart.

When the Holy Temple was destroyed we lost the sense of connection to one another that allowed us to dwell together in one land. Each one of us was exiled from our home. Part of the rebuilding of the Temple, we are told, is to be done on the individual level. Our houses are meant to be miniature temples, holy spaces where a stranger coming in immediately senses the peace and warmth of a family, where God's blessing and presence dwells. When each of us in our homes learns to care and want good for one another, despite our differences, it knits together a society that includes God in every stitch. With God being a part of our private lives, He can then become a part of our national life.

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