A Dynamic Understanding of Human Relations
By Rabbi David Algaze
© Copyright 2003 by the author. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
“Basherte”—the very word conveys mystery. What is basherte, and do we believe in it? The Yiddish word means “the apportioned one,” the person destined to be your spouse. Unmarried people are usually hopeful of finding their “basherte,” and many are encouraged that there is someone for them. The expression “it’s bashert” similarly connotes that the event or occurrence was predestined. What is the origin of this concept?
The idea that there is someone for every person originates in the Gemara (Sanhedrin 22a): “Forty days before the gestation of the fetus, a Heavenly voice proclaims, ‘The daughter of so-and-so will marry so-and-so.’” The Gemara discusses that the making of matches for a second marriage is as hard as “the parting of the Red Sea.” First marriages, however, are determined before we are born. Similarly (in Moed Katan 18b), the Rabbis discuss the possibility of getting married during Hol Hamoed, and they conclude that it is permissible lest one lose the intended spouse. The Gemara asks how it is possible to lose the intended match, and the Rabbis answer that it is possible to modify one’s lot by praying. In this case, someone may, through prayer, take away the person who had been designated for someone else.
There are some interesting conclusions from these Talmudic passages. First, the fact that someone is destined, or “basherte,” does not mean that the ensuing marriage will necessarily be a happy one. The rabbi who made the statement in Sanhedrin was Rav Yehudah. This is the same Rav Yehudah who told his son, “The verse in Kohelet, ‘I find a woman more bitter than death,’ applies to your mother” (Yebamot 63b). However difficult she was to Rav Yehudah, his wife possessed the redeeming quality of having a forgiving nature. Nonetheless, this text points to the idea that “basherte” is not always synonymous with bliss. Otherwise, divorces would never occur.
Secondly, the passage in Moed Katan implies that the “assignment” may be modified through different means, one of which could be prayer. Therefore, that something is “basherte” does not mean that it will come to pass. This concept of a “flexible destiny” is basic to Torah. However things may be ordained in Heaven, there is always room for man to intervene and change destiny. Judaism does not hold a fatalistic view of existence. On the contrary, everything is possible, and everything can change depending on our actions.
The Brisker Rav makes an interesting point regarding the application of this Heavenly decree to marriage. He comments that when Eliezer went in search of a wife for Yitzhak, he had a series of experiences with Rivka that seemed to portend that a Heavenly hand was guiding his steps. After narrating the details of his encounter with Rivka, her family exclaims, “This (match) has come from G-d.” When Yitzhak sees Rivka, however, the Torah tells us that he saw that her actions resembled those of Sarah, and then he married her. Since Yitzhak knew of Eliezer’s story and of all the “signs from Heaven,” why did he not accept the choice as “heavenly made”? To accept something strictly on the basis of supernatural signs is not a Jewish trait. Yitzhak was not so concerned with the signs that portended that Rivka was the right choice; he was interested in Rivka’s actions and in her ethical traits. Only when he was satisfied that she met these requirements was he prepared to marry her.
The notion of “basherte” needs to be analyzed carefully. Although the idea that there is someone for everyone gives comfort to people looking for matches, it also renders people passive. The idea of “basherte” may lead to a wrong attitude towards dating. Dating is not simply the opportunity to “find” the person destined for you; it should be an opportunity to know another human being and appreciate the special qualities that he or she possesses. “Heavenly” products need no work, they are ready made. People are never “ready made” or completed. We are all works in progress; our energies are in flux. Human beings are dynamic entities, and our task is to recognize this fluidity.
A corollary to this concept of our energies being in flux is that people act differently with different people. Just as chemical elements behave differently and produce different results according to the other elements in the mixture, so, too, people are different in the presence of different people. This is true in all cases of human relations and even more so in our most special and intimate relationships. Thus, when we meet a stranger, we are not just meeting someone else. We are also--in some mysterious ways--seeing a part of ourselves.
With this in mind, we see how wrong we are when we are disappointed on a date and put the blame entirely on the other person. The fault may not be in the other person. The fault may be in us. Far from being a spectator sport, dating and meeting people should be a dynamic event that takes into account not only how the other person is, but how he or she relates to us. The other person may not just be what we think he or she is; she or he may be reflecting our energy and our élan. Thus, the great person in your life may be closer than you think: You could bring this person closer by working on yourself!
The insistence on the traditional, passive doctrine of “basherte” represents a descent on our spiritual ladder. Certainly it is a basic tenet of Jewish philosophy that everything is arranged by G-d and that nothing exists or occurs without His direct intervention. The world which G-d created, however, is a world in which man is to perform. The Midrash comments on the verse in Braisheet (2:3), “G-d blessed the seventh day… because he ceased all His work which He created laasot.” The Hebrew word “laasot” may be translated as “in order to create,” meaning that the world was designed for man to use his G-d-given talents to continue and to further the process of G-d’s Creation.
This concept of human action, or hishtadlut, stands in direct contradistinction to the passive philosophy espoused by those who are obsessed with “basherte.” No other than Rav Hayim of Volozhin spoke against this “folded hands” attitude. He explains the Mishna Sotah 49b in a very novel way. The mishna lists various phenomena that will attend the time of Mashiach: “Insolence will rise, honor will be distorted, …those who fear sin will be despised, and the young will embarrass the elders, …the face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not be ashamed in front of his father, and we do not have on whom to rely except our Heavenly Father.”
The usual interpretation of this passage is that in view of the disasters that will befall mankind at history’s end, the sense that nothing and no one can be relied upon except G-d will develop, and people will realize that “we do not have anything to rely upon except our Heavenly Father.” Rav Hayim, however, reads the sentence “we have nobody on whom to rely except our Heavenly Father” as part of the list of disastrous phenomena that will attend that period! The sense that man will have lost his ability to effect any change in the world or in himself, a deep sense of impotence and frustration, will lead to a philosophy of passivity that will be expressed by this sentence, “There is nobody on whom to rely”; that is, “I am incapable, I am impotent, and only G-d can do.”
The truth is that a healthy attitude includes a heightened sense of the importance of human action. A proper spiritual approach should include a high level of self-esteem and a sane appreciation of the powers imbedded in our humanity. We must believe that there is much we can do to affect the world and that we can change reality both around us and within us.
Sadly, in the dating game we have forgotten these important facts, and we have come now to resort to relying on mere “signs” and “bells, lights and whistles” to tell us who is the “basherte.” We have become merely passive spectators of a “video game-like”-experience that will reveal to us, “You’ve got the basherte here.” Until that “revelation” happens, there is nothing for us to do, nothing to change in ourselves, nothing positive to affect the reality. We and everyone around us have become mere marionettes in a play we do not write and we do not control.
This is erroneous! As the prayer “Un’sane tokef” puts it: When the Book of Life is opened, we discover that “everyone’s hand seal is on it.” The meaning of this prayer is that in the final analysis we have to realize that the story of our lives is largely written by our own hands. In human relations this is translated to mean that we have to believe that our life will change not when someone else comes to change it, but only when we change it ourselves. Moreover, until we become the person that Hashem had in mind for that “basherte,” he or she will miss us. Attracting the right person, the partner that will be good for us, is much more than a waiting game or the initiative to meet yet another person or go on yet another date. The process of meeting the right person actually begins in us. Just as an unhealthy element attracts more unhealthy organisms, so a person who is not prepared will attract and be attracted to the wrong person. In order to attract the person who is good, you have to be good.
The process of self-discovery and self-improvement is arduous and long. Without the effort, however, we cannot succeed. Our Rabbis tell us, “He who toiled on the eve of Shabbat, will eat on Shabbat.” If one does not prepare oneself, then the “other” will not come soon. In fact, even when that “right person” arrives, our unpreparedness may drive him or her away. How many relationships have been broken between wonderful individuals simply because one or both partners were unprepared?
This dynamic understanding of “basherte” may be of great help to mastering the dating process, and it can be a great tool for understanding all human encounters. Every human endeavor, whether the search for a match or a successful partnership in business, begins with a look at us. We need to look at who we are and how we behave. We need time to look at ourselves and pray for self-improvement all the time. Instead of focusing on what may be wrong with all the dates we have gone out with, we should concentrate on what we can learn from the failed experiences. No date is wasted and no time is lost when we use them to learn about ourselves. We need to appreciate failures because they may teach us more about ourselves than our successes. We need to develop the art of learning and growing.
Blessed are the hours when we suffer if they bring us introspection.
Blessed are the friends who tell us the truth about ourselves.
Blessed are the counselors with the courage to tell us about our defects.
Blessed are the days when we weep about our incomplete selves, because they are the dawn of better days.
In the end, “basherte” weakens us and depresses us. An active philosophy helps us more and gives us more hope. The “someone for you” may be closer than you thought. He or she is not in Heaven nor beyond the sea, but within your grasp, and in your mind, and in your faith in your own ability to change reality and change yourself.
Rabbi Algaze is organizing an International Conference for Jewish Singles on the July 4th weekend, with workshops on the art of dating and success in human relations. For information, call Havurat Yisrael , 718-261-5500 or write us at firstname.lastname@example.org