Granddaughter of the groom

The announcement that my wife's grandfather was to be married on the day of his fiancée’s 80th birthday drew mixed reactions.

Elderly couple strolling (illustrative) 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)
Elderly couple strolling (illustrative) 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)
Mazal Tov! Such is the traditional greeting to a new bride or groom upon hearing of their engagement. Though this time it was not your typical engagement. My wife’s grandfather had become engaged to a wonderful lady, to be married on the day of his fiancée’s 80th birthday. Perhaps a bit of background would be appropriate here. My grandfather-in-law is one of those people who tends to make you smile upon even crossing his path; his frank, genuine, positive attitude and selfless demeanor is admirably infectious; he was the President of his local Synagogue in England and later when he moved to Netanya (Israel). Grandpa Julian is 83 years young, he regularly volunteers for the Israeli army (packing parachutes and spending a week out in the field), he plays tennis (he beat my brother-in-law, around sixty years younger than him), he walks a couple of kilometers several times a week to volunteer in the local hospital, and is still the only over-80 I know to go down slides with his great grandson in the park. Just under twenty years ago Grandpa Julian’s wife, (Grandma) Valery passed away in her late fifties after battling with cancer; one of her last requests was that her husband should one day remarry. “It was the only request I had not fulfilled,” Grandpa Julian told us with a smile on his face.
I told the good news to my friends and received somewhat mixed reactions. Some were extremely happy to hear, others felt awkward at someone getting married so late in his life. Another asked me ‘why can’t they just be companions – why do they have to get married?’ This was the catalyst for some thinking.
One of the travesties of today’s quick-fix generation is the lack of appreciation for what marriage is. Committing long-term to someone is increasingly difficult in today’s day and age – divorce rates are shooting up and pre-nuptial agreements are becoming a norm. In America alone the divorce rate hovers at 50%. This figure only relates to marriages that end in divorce; the figures of unhappy marriages are much higher. 
Jewish sources are replete with references to the centrality of marriage. Aside from it being a mitzva to marry (and being a prerequisite to having children), the Talmud tells us that "a man without a wife is a man without joy." The first man, Adam, was deemed unable to function fully without a wife – and according to one view in the Talmud, Adam and Eve were initially created joined at the back.
The beauty of a good functioning marriage is the transcendent beauty of two people forming a unit that is greater than its individual parts. When a man and wife declare their commitment to each other via the spiritual bond of marriage, they are expanding their selves from being individuals to being part of a selfless unit. This is not a loss of individual identity, this is a refining and greater expression of it. Based on this, Jewish sources tell us that marriage is a rebirth of sorts – our past sins are forgiven on the wedding day. The commitment to empathetically give to another and be responsible for their happiness is a spiritual achievement that is precious and dear. Thus, a groom is compared to a king and the bride to a queen inasmuch as their central function is to care for others.
One of the greatest marvels of the Jewish people occurred just over sixty years ago. The Jewish people were transformed from a nation battered by the Holocaust to a modicum of increasing renaissance and rebirth in a country of their own a mere three years later. Jewish life once again became teeming with vibrancy and people managed to rebuild their lives, a miraculous feat not lost upon various psychologists. What was the secret of this rebirth and tenacity? One major cause was the call by leading Rabbis immediately after to Holocaust for survivors to remarry and build families as soon as possible. In calling for this, they followed a Biblical precedent from the story of the Exodus. The Jewish nation somehow went from two centuries of crushing all-encompassing demeaning slavery to a nation who had the spiritual strength to break out of Egypt and receive the Torah. The secret of this mammoth recovery? The Jews kept their identity and internal strength by building families. Indeed, the irony is not lost that children in Israel learn the Hebrew Alphabet to the inimitable tune of a Yiddish folk song which formed the background soundtrack for the movie Schindler’s List. I highly doubt this was an intentional policy, but when my children came home from school with this tune on their lips, the connection between rebuilding from the ashes and building families could not have been clearer.
Spiritual achievements and achievements in self-development are such that even minimal changes can make the world of difference; even if they seem temporary or short-lived – for they are transcendentally eternal. A decision to give charity is eternally enshrined as an achievement in making oneself a more selfless and caring person. Indeed, the Talmud records a case of two people stuck in the desert with only one cup of water – insufficient for the both of them to survive. According to one opinion cited the two must share the water and both die – for the years of survival of one of the parties cannot be definitively said to be more important that the extra few minutes afforded to the other party upon drinking half of the cup. Even though the two are in the desert and there are no physical achievements to be afforded, the self-development that can be achieved in those extra few minutes cannot be overlooked. Additionally, we have a tradition that initially king David was only to be allocated a few minutes to live – yet an eternally-great achievement and purpose would have been possible during this short time.
Marriage is a bond that is beyond simple companionship. A husband and wife commit to each other, enshrined in responsibilities far more than friends. A marriage bond carries with it far more sanctity and preparedness for empathy, altruism, and selfless self-sacrifice than the greatest of friends. It is a mature commitment to expand oneself to form a unit. Those who realize the depth and centrality of marriage accept this responsibility gladly and see this joy pervade their lives. Tradition has it that upon the death of a spouse, one asks forgiveness from the spouse at the funeral. At the funeral of his wife, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurebach (1910-1995) one of the leading Rabbinic authorities announced that ‘I am one hundred percent sure that I do not need to ask forgiveness from my wife; from the very day of our marriage I made sure I never did anything to hurt or offend her.’ Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak Ruderman (1901-1987) left the synagogue just before the commencement of the holiest part of the Yom Kippur services in order to walk home to give his wife the prayer book he had promised her; he had to catch up the prayers alone later. Indeed, I remember a rabbi of mine in high school nonchalantly mentioning that he had been married for seven years and had not experienced any difficulty or argument with his wife – he said it as if it this was standard marriage practice!
It is not our place to judge, and sometimes marriages are pushed so far to the brink that divorce is the sensible option. But let that not blind us to the glory and beauty of a functioning marriage – at any age. Mazal Tov!   The author is an English oleh who lives and teaches in Jerusalem, having authored two books and run various educational programs.