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 seemedmy 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), Ive learned to listen to my bodys cues. According to these laws, when a woman begins her menstrual cycle, she and her husband dont 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 cycleit hardwires marriage with a natural system of separation and reunion. We dont 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‑ds supernal chariot, he says, The angels were running and returning like the vision of a bolt of fire.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 womans body is the guided choreography of a G‑d-centered marriage.
2. Think Big
Its 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 wont 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 attitudeand most of all, soulful people concerned with their G‑d-given mission.
But its hard to think big when teeth need to be brushed.
The mitzvah of Taharat HaMishpachah revolves around a womans immersion in the mikvah and subsequent purity. No one else immerses and becomes pure, not her husband or her children. So why is it called Family Purity and not Taharat HaIshah, Womans Purity?
The name of the mitzvah is telling. The mikvah is not about her, its about the family unit. Yes, shes the one who ensures that her flow has stopped for seven days, and shes the one who prepares for immersion; but the goal is bringing G‑d into the home. If a child is conceived after shes 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. The woman is concerned not just about where her children are going tomorrow, but where they are going in 20 years. She doesnt eat the bread of laziness, he continues. Shes not passive when it comes to her long-term impact.
3. Pull Back
Theres 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, dont 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 pursuedand 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, shes 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? Its not like Id done anything admirable.
But then I got it. Theres a visceral respect that grows from distance. Its not about what I can get from you, its about you.
When you own something, you can enjoy it at any time. When something isnt yours, you enjoy it with permission, in this case permission from G‑d. Our relationship isnt mine to milk for pleasure, its G‑ds, and it needs to be treated with respect.
In a marriage, pulling back creates more momentum for moving forward. Dont be scared to pull back.
4. Sensuality Can Be Sacred
Since my husband and I dont touch each other in public, you might assume that we dont 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 couples intimate life on their radar at all times. When theyre apart, theyre preparing to be together, counting and checking. When theyre together, they know that it wont last forever, so they savor that time. Since they cant have any physical contact during menstruation and the subsequent week, the laws themselves make the couple obsessed with touch. If they cant touch because touch is sensual, then touch becomes sensual. So much focus goes into the laws and restrictions of a couples intimate life that youd 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. Its the inner circle upon which all other concentric circles are balanced. Its 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.
When couples fight, theyre not interested in intimacy, which can turn into a vicious cycle: they feel distant, so they dont want to be close, but when theyre not close, they feel more distant. The girl thinks, Maybe if he feels really alone, hell change. The guy thinks, Im too lonely to crawl out of my cave and communicate.
When a couples intimate life is robust, its easier for the couple to feel compassion for each other. And when a couple feels close, the kids feel iteveryone can feel it. If G‑d values shalom bayit (peace in the home), its obvious that He values the couples intimate life as well.
5. Theres 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 Im forced to concede that Im 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. Thats why, when we prepare for the mikvah, we are careful to remove any obstruction between our body and the water, so that well be thoroughly surrounded by the water, disappearing within it. When Im 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. Its 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.
Its no coincidence that our menstrual cycle is usually 2830 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.