In this third article in our series titled “Understanding the Shidduch Crisis,” I will focus on what these individuals and countless others have learned that helped them experience that deep sense of security, which finally enabled them to get engaged and married. Everything we are about to focus on points us in a single direction. Learning and internalizing specific concepts related to menuchas hanefesh consistently makes a significant and demonstrable difference in the ability for dating couples to develop mature and enduring engagements and marriages based on stability and closeness. To turn the tide on the shidduch crisis, we have the responsibility to provide every dating individual and couple with the tools they require to achieve what Chazal view as life’s most satisfying and stabilizing experience – menuchas hanefesh. First, let’s review some salient points from my initial two articles.
An additional sign of the impact of this phenomenon on frum life is evident by the number of engagements that are broken before the couple ever gets to the chupah and by the number of young couples who reach the chupah only to experience conflict and even the tragedy of divorce in the early stages of their marriage.
We see the source of these influences in the twin patterns of decreasing marriages and increasing divorce rates in every Western technological country throughout the world. However, we, as Torah Yidden, don’t view this crisis merely as shifting sociological trends or changing values. Our lives and souls are very different from the cultures we live in. In America and throughout the Western world, singles are not marrying because their values lead them to other lifestyles, careers, the freedom to do what they wish, when they wish, etc. They may want to marry, but they also want to be free to “be themselves.” The Western world has made a choice and the results are that as fewer feel compelled to marry, the trend evolves and intensifies.
In Japan, for example, the native Japanese population is no longer marrying or reproducing at a rate that will maintain a majority of native Japanese in the next quarter century. Japan will no longer be Japanese.
THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN TRENDS
On the surface, the patterns seem similar. Any competent graduate student in sociology can write a dissertation on how “Orthodox Jewish Trends in Marriage Parallel Those of Western Culture.” However, bnei and bnos Torah are not making the same choices as others. Their desire to marry and build a bayis ne’eman b’Yisroel is at the core of their deepest hopes and aspirations.
The trends seem similar because so many are simply helpless in overcoming the numerous ways that their perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behavior have been influenced and destabilized through the spiritually toxic values of the culture we presently live in. These patterns are the result of destructive influences of spiritual emptiness and moral depravity that surround us. Through these influences, each individual is torn away from experiencing our tzelem Elokim, where ahavah and kedushah have always lived side by side. The results of the impact of these influences are expressed through the alarmingly high levels of anxiety, fear, confusion, agitation and unrealistic expectations that prevent and paralyze many singles from being able to make a strong and clear commitment that will bring them to the chupah.
For these reasons, we should not be so eager to accept simple solutions, such as adjusting age preferences, or coaching young people to act and communicate better, lose weight, or take better care of their appearance to look more appealing. These approaches only address the very tip of the external aspects of the phenomenon without touching the root cause within each individual struggling to find their basherte.
DEFINING OUR ANSWER
Our focus, therefore, is on how each individual can learn to overcome the effects of this inner agitation and confusion which are leaving so many precious individuals helplessly stranded without a life partner. The goal of this approach is to guide each ben and bas Yisroel to be able to quiet the inner turmoil that is wreaking havoc with many of their lives and provide them with experiences and real tools that ground them in their authentic Torah selves, free of the influences that surround them. Discovering this inner strength is what can serve as the most important step they will ever take toward discovering their basherte. For as many of you will discover, once these individuals experience a quieter state of mind – as Chazal have enumerated in the Shabbos Minchah, including shalom, shalvah, hashkeit, vetach,etc. – along with these aspects of menuchah comes the ability to feel calmer, more in control and more capable of cultivating a serious and mature relationship required for a close and enduring marriage.
With these thoughts in place, we can now return to the couples I mentioned at the beginning of this article and what they all needed to learn.
Over the past fifteen years, since I have begun focusing a greater share of my efforts on helping singles get engaged and married, it has been clear to me and almost everyone else who deals with this population that the primary difference between dating in this generation and previous doros is that previous generations were able to approach marriage in a manner that enabled dating couples to feel calmer, more secure, and in control of their runaway thoughts and emotions. Today, we live in a different world. Hardly a day passes when I am not dealing with a new crisis in the lives of two people who are attempting to become engaged, or stay married, and are meeting one emotional roadblock after another. Here is a sampling of what I encounter:
Malkie has been dating for seven years and has yet to be “really interested” in anyone she has met. “The boys I meet just don’t interest me.”
Shloimy is engaged and he is “turned off” by his kallah. Since their engagement, he finds her boring and unappealing.
Chaim is about to become engaged but can’t stop thinking about the girls he went out with last year. He insists, “If they’re on my mind, it must be that we’re not compatible.”
Shaindy just became a kallah and experiences nausea whenever she and her chosson are together.
Suri thought her chosson was the sweetest person she ever met. Now she wonders whether he really is a “nerd.”
Mendy looks at other couples. He tells me, “They seem ecstatic about being engaged, and if I’m not, there must be something wrong. I’m thinking of breaking the engagement.”
Shmuel is looking for a girl with that right “look,” who can also support him. He tells me, “This is what I feel I deserve.” So far he hasn’t found anyone worthy of him.
From my perspective, all these individuals are expressing a similar challenge. It is that none is basing their concerns or fears on the middos and deeper qualities that will ultimately lead to stable and loving marriages and homes. I tell young men that the most important quality you will ever see in your future wife is that she will enable you to become everything Hashem desires of you. I tell young women that the most important quality you can find in your future husband is that he will enable you to feel that you can place your very life safely in his hands. None of these individuals have any concept of what any of this means.
YESHAYAH HANOVI’S UNDERSTANDING
Each of these individuals is expressing a pervasive influence that is seeping in from the surrounding world.
In the haftorah of Yom Kippur, we read what Yeshayah Hanovi describes as the signature trait of the umos ha’olom, which he describes as “veresha’im kayom nigrash,” the resha’im are always being tossed in the stormy sea of their tayvos and desires.
While we have always found security in the daled amos of frum life, the rest of the world was in a constant state of chaos, much of which it pursues with great pleasure. Until this dor, the world of kayom nigrash was very far from the doorstep of the Torah world, which was enveloped in a blanket of inner security unknown by anyone on this planet outside of the Torah world, undetectable from the outside, warm and secure on the inside. It has always given us the ability to lead lives steeped in kedushah and taharah.
Today, life is different. The invasion of kayom nigrash into our world is undeniable and, at times, reaches absurd proportions. Just a few days ago, I passed by a parked BMW, costing perhaps close to $100,000.The windows were rolled down and vulgar driving noise of rap, which is classified today as music, was blasting from the car’s very powerful sound system for all to hear. The driver was sitting by the wheel, playing with his iPhone and smoking a cigarette. No, it was not Harlem. It was in a frum neighborhood and he was wearing a yarmulka. He was the personification kayom nigrash and had no idea.
The singles I described before do not resemble this young man in any manner. However, there is a more subtle similarity. He has internalized the chaos of the culture and ignorantly displays it for all to see, not understanding that his spiritual development has been squashed and suffocated by all the toys he has come to identify with his “true self.” Our singles or engaged individuals have internalized a different form of internal chaos, leaving an increasing number agitated, confused, anxious and insecure in the dating process. This is the powerful force that really fuels the shidduch crisis. I see it with almost every individual or couple I meet. It’s like looking through a microscope and identifying a virus that is causing great discomfort.
For many of the singles who are stuck in this crisis, what should have been a natural step in the pathways of all their ancestors has become an impossibly complex challenge, because kayom nigrash has found its way into all our lives. Perhaps it’s similar to a centipede with a hundred legs that forgets how to walk. Everything should seem so natural, yet it keeps tripping on its other ninety-nine legs.
WHAT WE HAVE LOST
Our challenge is that we are losing our ability to maintain a quiet and secure state of mind. With every new technological development that invades our lives, our levels of stress, worries, insignificant pursuits and unrealistic expectations skyrocket. All this has affected our ability to experience ourselves and each other in a calmer, gentler and more secure way. This is the reason we need more excitement, attraction, geshmak, knock and everything else that feeds the kayom nigrash and destroys our ability to understand the meaning of deeper and more meaningful relationships. Our clear goal is to help singles cultivate menuchas hanefesh through learning to experience life at the heart of our deeper ruchani selves, which is the only place where individuals can truly recognize their zivugim and where relationships can flourish.
This is what I was able to convey to the individuals and couples I mentioned at the beginning of this article and have attempted to teach every individual or couple who walks into my daled amos seeking guidance in this area. We need to teach how to elevate our young people to be above the kayom nigrash and stormy seas of the environment that has crept into our Torah world, and learn to cultivate and experience a quiet strength at the heart of self/neshamah, which subdues fears and teaches us how to protect and be in control over Hashem’s greatest gift – our minds and those we care for.
TEN AREAS FOR PERSONAL GROWTH
With these thoughts in mind, I have identified ten areas I believe we need to focus on that will help our young people learn to build relationships that lead to strong relationships in dating and engagements and healthy marriages:
Teach young men and women to quiet their fears and develop successful approaches to lower their anxieties.
Learn to subdue the urge to look like the “best,” the “most successful,” and the “prettiest.” In the scheme of life’s real challenges, none of it is real. We learn that it’s all superficial, meaningless and empty.
Teach young men, while they are still young and certainly when they are older, to overcome any and all addictive tendencies to smoke, drink, drive too fast and all the other forms of negative behavior that fill the emptiness of our contemporary lives.
Educate young men and women to free themselves of the illusion that pursuing a specific “look,” age or personality type never brings the happiness they thought it would. It’s always about who the person is on the inside and what we do to help them be the best they can be.
Teach young men and women to overcome tendencies toward perfectionism and obsessive and runaway thoughts.
Enable them to observe differences without being overly critical or becoming emotionally overwhelmed and agitated.
Learn to understand that perceptions of the person you are dating changes from date to date and even during the same date many times over.
Learn that we are never trapped in our past, whether we feel we have been deprived, mistreated and handicapped. Hashem gives each of us the ability to use our free will (bechirah), which is at the heart of our tzelem Elokim.
Teach that the meaning of a healthy marriage is when two lives are continuously keeping each other in a menuchas hanefesh state of mind. Relationships are similar to two artists on high-wire. Each needs to develop their own sense of internal balance and then each needs to learn how to keep their partner balanced.
Teach young men that the most important quality he should be looking for in a wife is that she will enable him to become everything Hashem desires of him. And teach young women that the most important quality she can find in her future husband is his ability to engender a sense of deep trust and respect.
SETTINGS FOR THE EDUCATIONAL PROCESS
These ten areas and much more are dependent on training a qualified group of capable, committed and caring mentors who are adequately trained and have learned to internalize the power of menuchas hanefesh in their own personal and professional lives, whether in the classroom setting, in therapeutic roles, as rabbi and rebbetzins, as guidance professionals, as chosson and kallah teachers, etc. They should be taught in the following settings:
The formal classroom setting beginning in middle grades
In small vaadim
Shabbatonim and retreats
Chosson and kallah classes
Individual counseling sessions
Parent education programs
Kehillah-based education programs
The applications of these principles are numerous. One mother who participated in a training program I gave told me that at the time of the last wedding she made, she was able to use the principles she learned in a manner that made a very significant and positive difference. On another occasion, I was told that the CEO of a corporation was teaching these skills to his staff and encouraging them to integrate them into their work environment and personal lives.
DEFINING THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE
At the heart of the training program, mentors need to learn how to distinguish between the many expressions of menuchas hanefesh and pizur hanefesh (inner distraction and a troubled state of mind) in their own lives and in the lives of those they are living with and working with. Once this is recognized, they can experience for themselves the wonderfully transforming powers that enable them to develop relationships and thrive in a menuchas hanefesh state of mind. A brief outline of the learning experience for mentors includes the following areas:
1. Understanding the difference between menuchas hanefesh and pizur hanefesh and how each is expressed in the dating (or marital) experience.
Learning the five dimensions of our experience of life:
e. The merging of two selves in a relationship
2. Understand the power of transformations, where we have the power to transform pizur hanefesh to menuchas hanefesh.
3. Learning and experiencing the five gates of transformation:
a. The three principles of focusing our thoughts.
b. The role of walking meditations.
c. The power of centering.
d. The pulse of life,
e. Cultivating your inner circle.
4. Learning the EMBERS approach to relationship development. EMBERS is an acronym for :
These four areas serve as the general outline mentors will learn to influence the lives of the individuals they are working with. It’s a method that is Chazal based, highly effective, and can be used in many settings. As an increasing number of qualified and committed people learn to master and use this approach, they will experience through their own efforts what I have been zocheh to see almost every day since Hashem opened my eyes to understand the power of menuchas hanefesh to influence our lives in a very meaningful manner.
The influences of kayom nigrash have infiltrated every area of our lives, and often under the guise of a hechsher. It has invaded our homes, workplace, shuls, weddings, dress, language and entertainment, and every possible place where it can safely nest, unchallenged and undisturbed. It has done so because Hashem has placed us in this culture. Our responsibility is to understand and respond appropriately to the challenge in all its facets.
The time has arrived to view the shidduch crisis as a result of this nisayon that Hashem has led us into. Our response to it can be learning to use the wisdom of Chazal to guide us through this challenge and enable us all to grow in the process. This, I deeply believe, will make a significant and demonstrable contribution to, be’ezras Hashem, turn the tide on the shidduch crisis and give an opportunity for every individual to find the basherte who Hashem selected for them before they ever came into this world.
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Shaya Ostrov, L.C.S.W., is the author of The Menuchah Principle in Marriage and The Menuchah Principle in Shidduchim, Dating and Engagement (Judaica Press). His forthcoming book, Living at the Center of Self, is being prepared for publication in February 2014. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.