1. Listen to My Body
When I was 10 weeks pregnant, I was bent over with excruciating abdominal cramps. I frantically dialed my midwife. “Lie down, Rochel, and try to relax”, she told me. “Your body knows what to do. Trust your body.”
As counterintuitive as it may have seemed my body was aborting the fledgling fetus growing inside of me! I knew she was right. And I surrendered to the pulsating waves of contractions.
After years of keeping Taharat HaMishpachah (Family Purity, the laws that govern marital intimacy), I've learned to listen to my body's cues. According to these laws, when a woman begins her menstrual cycle, she and her husband don't touch each other for around two weeks (the time of her flow plus one additional week). After a woman immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath), they reunite, until her cycle begins again.
Other than humans, very few primates menstruate. Most mammals either reabsorb the blood that lines the uterus or maintain it until pregnancy occurs. Women lose a lot of blood and tissue every month during menstruation, and biologists can only guess as to why the body seems so inefficient.
Of course, if you look through a G-dly lens, you can see the absolute beauty and divine brilliance of the human menstrual cycle it hardwires marriage with a natural system of separation and reunion.1 We don't need to guess at when we need to pull back; we just need to listen to our body.
Like a human heartbeat, the universe has a natural pulse, an ebb and a flow. When the prophet Ezekiel describes G-d's supernal chariot, he says, “The angels were running and returning like the vision of a bolt of fire.”2 These angels are called chayot, which comes from the word chai, life. To run forward and retreat backward, explain the chassidic masters, is the pulse of life. In our relationship with G-d, the run is the warmth of spiritual fulfilment, while the return grounds us with a practical mitzvah. In a relationship with another, passion makes us run closer to the other person, while returning creates boundaries. Together, run and return create balance.
Inherent within a woman's body is the guided choreography of a G-d-centered marriage.
2. Think Big
It's hard to remember that there is more to life than getting my kids to brush their teeth. Or get dressed for school. Or do their homework. So much of my energy goes into just keeping them functional. But I hope that won't be my legacy.
Parenting is about more than getting the kids from point A to B. Parenting means cultivating people with emotional intelligence, a strong moral compass and a healthy attitude and most of all, soulful people concerned with their G-d-given mission.
But it's hard to think big when teeth need to be brushed.
The mitzvah of Taharat HaMishpachah revolves around a woman's immersion in the mikvah and subsequent purity.3 No one else immerses and becomes pure, not her husband or her children. So why is it called Family Purity and not Taharat HaIshah, Woman's Purity?
The name of the mitzvah is telling. The mikvah is not about her, it's about the family unit. Yes, she's the one who ensures that her flow has stopped for seven days,4 and she's the one who prepares for immersion; but the goal is bringing G-d into the home.5 If a child is conceived after she's gone to the mikvah (before her new flow begins), that child is positively affected. It takes her only a few minutes to immerse, but her child is impacted for life. Talk about forward thinking.
I think we often underestimate our long-term impact on others. In describing the woman of valor, King Solomon writes, “She watches the ways of her household.”6 The woman is concerned not just about where her children are going tomorrow, but where they are going in 20 years. “She doesn't eat the bread of laziness”, he continues. She's not passive when it comes to her long-term impact.
3. Pull Back
There's an art to pulling back. While fashion magazines may illustrate the art of seduction and exposition, they often neglect to showcase the art of modesty. Modesty breeds respect. A conservative outfit says, Hey, don't look at me like that; take me seriously!
When a girl is too available and exposed, she compromises some of her dignity. She is sending a message that she needs a guy to notice her. Chivalry thrives when girls need to be pursued and this holds true after marriage as well.
Taharat HaMishpachah means that G-d says that a woman is not always available. For almost two weeks out of the month, she's off-limits to her husband for physical affection and intimacy, which builds up excitement for their reunion. But even being apart can be good for the relationship.
Around a year or so after we got married, my husband said, Taharat HaMishpachah really forces a man to respect his wife. I was taken aback. Did he not respect me when he married me? Why would our time of separation earn me respect? It's not like I'd done anything admirable.
But then I got it. There's a visceral respect that grows from distance. It's not about what I can get from you, it's about you.
When you own something, you can enjoy it at any time. When something isn't yours, you enjoy it with permission, in this case permission from G-d. Our relationship isn't mine to milk for pleasure, it's G-d's, and it needs to be treated with respect.
In a marriage, pulling back creates more momentum for moving forward. Don't be scared to pull back.
4. Sensuality Can Be Sacred
Since my husband and I don't touch each other in public, you might assume that we don't have a romantic or passionate relationship. Perhaps romance and passion are not nearly as important to G-d as are fidelity and raising a family.
Au contraire! The cycle of Taharat HaMishpachah keeps a couple's intimate life on their radar at all times. When they're apart, they're preparing to be together, counting and checking. When they're together, they know that it won't last forever, so they savor that time. Since they can't have any physical contact during menstruation and the subsequent week, the laws themselves make the couple obsessed with touch. If they can't touch because touch is sensual, then touch becomes sensual. So much focus goes into the laws and restrictions of a couples' intimate life that you'd think it was the most important part of their lives. And it is.
Intimacy is the most private part of a couples' relationship, one of the only things that they share to the exclusion of everyone else. It's the inner circle upon which all other concentric circles are balanced. It's the heartbeat of the relationship, pulsing energy to other parts of their lives. The more private their passion, the more it can be sustained. If the Temple were the home, the Holy of Holies (used only on Yom Kippur by the high priest) would be the couples' bedroom.7
When couples fight, they're not interested in intimacy, which can turn into a vicious cycle: they feel distant, so they don't want to be close, but when they're not close, they feel more distant. The girl thinks, Maybe if he feels really alone, he'll change. The guy thinks, I'm too lonely to crawl out of my cave and communicate.
When a couples' intimate life is robust, it's easier for the couple to feel compassion for each other. And when a couple feels close, the kids feel it; everyone can feel it. If G-d values shalom bayit (peace in the home), it's obvious that He values the couples' intimate life as well.
5. There's Power in Being Vulnerable
Just when the moon was swallowed by the black night and disappeared, it was reborn, a small sliver of light that, given 15 days, will become a luminous ball. Some things have to die to allow for rebirth. A seed disintegrates into the soil, and then a new plant emerges. When I'm forced to concede that I'm wrong, I become open to a new perspective. When my ego feels crushed, something fresh will always emerge.
What keeps a relationship fresh? Humility. It takes lots of humility to keep the discipline of Taharat HaMishpachah. I want a hug, but G-d said, Not now. Taharat HaMishpachah is what G-d wants of my marriage, whether I understand it or not. The culminating act of humility is immersion in the mikvah.
The Hebrew word for immersion is tovel. Switch around the letters of toveland you get the word bittul, self-nullification. That's why, when we prepare for the mikvah, we are careful to remove any obstruction between our body and the water, so that we'll be thoroughly surrounded by the water, disappearing within it. When I'm under the water, holding my breath for an instant, I often meditate on my dependence on G-d for life and for my marriage.
Apparently, G-d feels that a marriage needs a monthly dose of fresh air and rejuvenation. It's not only the separation that can make a relationship fresh, but the immersion in the mikvah itself. If the mikvah symbolizes bittul, the post-mikvah relationship is refreshed by that bittul.
It's no coincidence that our menstrual cycle is usually 28-30 days long, coinciding with the cycle of the moon. Just like the moon waxes and wanes, the uterine lining sheds its blood and then replenishes again. And when life disappoints us most and we feel vulnerable, we shed our smug self and seek a more humble path. Sometimes being vulnerable is the first step to a new beginning, like the immersion in the mikvah that renews and replenishes the marriage.
The time of niddah separation is a minimum of 12 days, and a couple can usually be together for around 18 days.
The states of ritual purity and impurity are spiritual, and have nothing to do with physical cleanliness.
Reprinted from Chabad.org
After the flow of blood stops, a woman checks herself internally with a small white cloth for seven days.
The Talmud says, Man and woman, the Divine Presence is between them. Some understand this to mean the that the Divine Presence is attracted to the space they leave between themselves during the time that intimacy is forbidden.
Proverbs 31:27. The Hebrew word tzofiyah, she watches, implies a distant and birds-eye way of looking at something.
II Kings 11:2. See Rashi ad loc.