In a relationship both parties should have the freedom to leave at any time. But a relationship is also about commitment. How do you reconcile these two things?
A few years back, I heard a rabbi give a lecture. And he said something that stuck with me. “People think,” he told us, “that keeping the law is a burden. But actually, it’s a joy.”
I suppose those words caught my attention for two reasons. First, in the culture in which we live, that rabbi’s advice is countercultural and very nearly subversive: we value individual autonomy almost above almost anything else. The notion that we might find joy – that we might find deep freedom – in voluntarily surrendering part of our autonomy to a law or a practice or a promise or a vocation runs thoroughly against the current.
Second, I connected with the rabbi’s words because I recognized that they named a deep truth in my own life. While I don’t keep the Jewish law, with God’s help I do keep the limiting and joyous promises of my baptism, the limiting and joyous promises of being a parent, and the limiting and joyous promises of marriage. At a superficial level I am less free for all of these promises. And a deeper level, my freedom is profoundly magnified by them.
In a relationship – and in particular, in a marriage – both partners do indeed have the freedom to leave (much as that rabbi has the freedom to disregard the law, a parent has the freedom to skip his daughter’s band recital, and I have the freedom to sleep in on Sunday mornings). And both partners make vows via which they choose to surrender that freedom: when a couple stands at the altar before God and friends and family, part of what they are declaring to one another is: I can leave. But I won’t.
Now, let me emphasize, Anna, that the couple’s mutual promise not to leave one another comes within the context of several other big promises. Here, for instance, are the marriage vows from the Book of Common Prayer:
In the Name of God, I take you to be my spouse, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.
Notice that the vows don’t say, “I won’t leave you no matter how abusive you become,” nor do they say, “I won’t leave you no matter how little effort you make to overcome your addictions.” What they do say is that the partners will love and cherish one another, that they will create and nurture a mutually generative relationship, and that because of that mutual generativity, the partners will remain together through the end of this life, even when doing so is a whole lot of work.
Here’s the amazing thing, the everyday miracle that happens when these vows become deeply integrated into a marriage. That marriage will encounter hardship, the partners will sometimes feel like they are a mystery to one another, the partners will exasperate one another. And yet, in a way that we can’t entirely measure or name, the partners will become more together than they could ever be alone.
Like a musician playing a piece of glorious piece music that holds room for improvisation, the very structure, the very limitation of the song that the couple sings together is also the very thing that affords each of them their freedom. As the couple keeps the shared promises of marriage – as they keep these promises before God and with God, before friends and with friends – they will discover what parents and Rabbis and everyone else who makes and keeps holy promises has learned: the limitations that they have freely chosen are not a burden but, rather, they are a joy.
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