While previous years have been somewhat similar, though nuanced in their own ways, this year in particular is very different. This is the first time I've approached Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as a married man. No longer am I the single guy in yeshiva/college struggling on my own to maintain and improve my spirituality. I am no longer alone, and am not the only person that my actions affect. I can no longer do what what I want without thinking of repercussions that extend beyond my own personal space. Almost akin to being pregnant, everything I did and do has some effect on my wife, ASoG, whether I want it to or not, regardless of what my intentions were.
I was trying find some way to express this eloquently, and it turns out I was lucky enough to discover something Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl wrote in his "Thoughts for the Month of Elul" that very concisely captures the sentiments I wanted to convey in writing:
I once heard from my illustrious teacher and Rav, Hagaon Chaim Shmuelevitz, zt"l, that the subject of interpersonal relationships may be compared to fire. One who hurts his friend is like a person who thrusts his hand into fire. His intentions are irrelevant; he is burnt whether he wanted to extinguish the fire or intensify it. (180)
With all due respect to Rav Nebenzahl, I understood what Rav Shmuelevitz wrote in a fashion differently than he goes on to elaborate.
When we are single, though we are obligated in mitzvos, both interpersonal and between ourselves and G-d, ultimately the nexus of our world is limited to who we are and how things affect us. True, we have friends and parents, teachers and rabbeim, but when we are going through the al chait's on Yom Kippur, we are ultimately thinking about all the sinful things we did for and to ourselves. My choice to transgress a particular aveira drags me down in my development and avodas HaShem. I made a mistake, I stumbled, and now I must pick myself up, brush off my dirtied clothing, and do my best to continue onward in a way that will make me a better, more observant and spiritually in-tuned person.
However, once you stand under the chupah, your actions and their consequences are no longer intrinsically limited to what they do to you and how they alter your mind and soul. Everything you do, by yourself, or especially in interactions with your spouse, have a profound affect on him/her and your relationship.
If I, as a single guy, decide to sleep late and miss davening Shacharis with a minyan, my guilt is limited to my poor choice and the improper start to my morning. If I skip Shacharis as a married man, I have not only taken away merit from my spouse, disappointed her expectations of a religiously observant husband, and by lowering myself because of my selfish decision to indulge my physical being with a few more minutes of shut-eye - I've downgraded our overall spirituality as well.
Further, as Rav Shmuelevitz said via Rav Nebenzahl - my intentions for my actions don't really matter as much as they used to. I can be the judge of my own actions when I am not directly affecting anyone else, I know I did my best, I wanted to do good, and I can feel content that I may have tried my best or given a decent effort, or excused my performance in a particular area of life. But when I am interacting with the one other person who now shares my entire existence, these sort of lame self-excuses don't cut it.
I may have said or done something in the usual way that I always did in the past, which never seemed offensive or harmful to me, or that my friends never took offense from - but my spouse may very well have perceived things quite differently. That one comment that you think is jokey might actually be a great insult in her eyes. The way I conducted myself in a particular area may have seemed quite normal and appropriate to me, but she saw it as rude and insensitive. I can offend and hurt without any intention to do so whatsoever, and it does me no good to try and explain things afterwards, rationalizing that what I did was not meant to hurt, because that does very little to remove the pain I've caused by my lack of understanding.
What needs to be done in a marriage, and more broadly in every relationship, is to do our very best to be aware at all times of how things we do and say are perceived. Perception truly is everything, and as justified as a particular action might be in my own eyes, if my wife thinks it was a horrible thing to do, and that it seemed like I was expressing something negative and harmful to her - I am at fault for my lack of vision and consideration. Even little things, which we can consider generally unimportant, can have impact beyond our understanding.
I do not mean to say that we all have to be absolutely perfect at every single moment, since such a thing is impossible. Certainly, one's spouse should also do his/her best to have patience and consider what might have been the intent behind an action or statement that seemed offensive and damaging. We all make mistakes, and we all must be dan lekaf zechus in the best way that we can - especially with our wives and husbands. Nevertheless, because of the sensitive nature of this relationship, which is closer and more intense than any other, both from a spiritual and physical standpoint, we must be on our toes and on our best behavior at every moment that we can be.
Yes, we are sometimes exhausted by our day, or can legitimately be upset with our spouse, and in those moments we require some reciprocal consideration from him/her, but we should also be cognizant of what we are doing and how we are being perceived. Being able to recognize what is happening and how our tone, demeanor or actions are seen, and putting forth the conscious effort to be able to say, "Hi honey. I know it looks like I'm upset and frustrated - it's because I am. I just want you to know that while I am dealing with these emotions that I say or do something that seems intentional out to get you, please recognize that it's merely me working through my feelings and I never want to hurt you in any way."
Again, this doesn't excuse every thing we might do intentionally or unintentionally that hurts our spouse, but it certainly sets the stage for him/her to give us some space and to be considerate that what we do and say was not really meant as an attack.
Marriage is a huge undertaking and a tremendous life-changing process. No one is truly ready to be married from the chupah and everyone makes mistakes. ASoG and I have had our share of disagreements and conflicts, but we have exerted a great amount of effort to understand one another, discuss where each of us may have gone wrong, and how we can learn from these moments to make ourselves better and more dedicated to serving the other as our #1 priority in life.
I don't think I've ever approached a Yom Kippur with as much trepidation as I will this year. Any transgressions I've committed against ASoG are not only bein adam l'chaveiro, but also (as reflected in the Kesuba and numerous quotes from Chazal) bein adam l'Makom. I may have many things to answer for from my own shortcomings and short-sightedness, but I have also grown and benefited from this ongoing and developing relationship.
My love for ASoG has transcended anything I ever considered to be love before we got married. Things are now far more real, meaningful and significant than the naive, giddiness of dating and being engaged. Life can be hard sometimes, but the essential thing is to focus on supporting and being supported by your spouse. We've had some rough spots here and there, which every married couple does, but we've persevered, grown stronger and more connected because of our struggles.
May we all focus on achieving a greater sensitivity toward our spouses and everyone else in our lives this year. May everyone who is already married be able to achieve true Shalom Bayis through hard and successful work together. May everyone who is not yet zoche to experience these rewarding challenges soon find their zivug and start their own journeys through life together. And may we all achieve levels of personal Shalom Bayis that will bring the ultimate Shalom Bayis for all of klal Yisrael, with the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, bimheira biyameinu.