A story is recorded in the inspiring biography about the late Jerusalem rabbi Aryeh Levin, “A Tzaddik in Our Times.”
One of the rabbi’s students was about to be married when he came to Reb Aryeh and asked: “How should I behave toward my wife? How should I treat her?” Reb Aryeh looked at him in wonder and said: “How can you ask a question like that? A wife is like your own self. You treat her as you treat yourself.” And, indeed, when his own wife, Hannah, felt pains, he went with her to Dr. Nahum Kook and told him, “My wife’s foot is hurting us.”
This same idea is found in the Torah, where it permeates the life of the first patriarchal couple, Abraham and Sarah. It is not surprising, therefore, that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote in his work, “Biblical Images,” “Abraham and Sarah were not just a ‘married couple’ but a team, two people working in harmony.”
We might wonder, however, how Abraham and Sarah transformed their marriage from “married couple” into a harmonious “team.” Perhaps the answer can be found in a puzzling incident. The Torah relates that soon after arriving in Canaan, Abraham and Sarah had to leave for Egypt because of a sudden bitter famine. As they approached the border of Egypt, Abraham commented to Sarah, “Behold, I now realize that you are a woman of beautiful appearance” (Genesis 12:11).
The commentaries question how Abraham could have made such a statement, as if he were seeing Sarah for the first time, when, in fact, the two had already been married for many years. Rashi, the classical commentator, likewise was perplexed, offering us not one but three answers to the problem. His last answer, labeled “the simple explanation,” seems most intriguing. Rashi suggests that Abraham always had appreciated Sarah’s beauty. He was not an ascetic, oblivious to physical reality, but, instead, recognized the true extent of her attractiveness. His unexpected remark was made, therefore, because he also realized that she would be attractive to the Egyptians, and he had to protect her. In worrying about her welfare, he demonstrated that her problem wasn’t simply her own; rather, it was their problem.
With this in mind, we can comprehend the next words in the text, which state that Abraham said to Sarah, “Please say, therefore, that you are my sister so that it will go well with me for your sake, and my life will be spared because of you” (Genesis 12:13). How, we must wonder, could Abraham ever have jeopardized Sarah’s life in order to save his own? Abraham, however, is really saying that he and Sarah are one. By saving himself, he likewise would save Sarah, and, therefore, he is totally justified in offering this plan of action.
A number of years ago, when the late sage Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach of Israel lost his wife after 50 years of marriage, he eulogized her and declared: “It is customary to request forgiveness from the deceased. However, I have nothing to ask forgiveness for. During the course of our relationship, never did anything occur that would require either of us to ask the other’s forgiveness. Each of us led our life in accordance with the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law.”
When I heard this story, I wondered how anyone could make such a statement! But then I realized that Rabbi and Mrs. Auerbach had models whom they followed. They had an image of how to treat each other, and they followed that image in every aspect of their relationship.
The image of biblical figures such as Abraham and Sarah, and of contemporaries such as Rabbi and Mrs. Levin and Rabbi and Mrs. Auerbach, can inspire all of us if we consider what our spouses really mean to us. Our mission in life is to emulate these models to the best of our ability, because when we do, we achieve real marital bliss.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.