There is a parable of a king who sent two of his servants to fetch him a drink of water. The first servant ran out to the royal grounds to the nearest well, drew a bucket of water, carried the bucket to the kitchen and poured off a glass of water. Panting and sweating, he then brought the glass of water as quickly as he could to the king, who smiled and thanked him before drinking it down. The second servant likewise ran off, but as he was going, he began to deliberate. “I am not the strongest servant the king has,” he reasoned, “surely he is not expecting me to haul a heavy bucket of water for him. I am much more talented as an artist than a transporter. I will draw the king of beautiful picture of a glass of water. This is a much better way for me to serve the king!” And so he did. When he brought his drawing to the king, the king was disconcerted. “It certainly is a nice drawing – but I asked for water to drink. I can’t drink this. It’s not what I asked for.” The king was not happy, and the servant did not end up feeling like he had properly served the king.
This parable reflects the traditional Orthodox outlook that G-d is to be served in the way He has requested and not in the way we feel suits us best. Drum circles and freedom seders are fine ideas, but they aren’t what G-d asked for. G-d has made clear what he asks of us in the Torah: He has provided us with numerous ways to connect to Him and thereby to build a relationship with our Creator. There is much room for individual expression, but not infinite room: if we want a relationship with G-d, there are avenues that will lead us there and there are avenues that will not.
This idea helps provide the answer to a question recently asked of me by one of the partners in a couple I was treating. In working on their relationship, we drew from the theory of the Five Love Languages, which posits that there are five basic “languages” in which people communicate love. (These are Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Gifts, and Physical Touch, although the details don’t concern us right now. You can read more about these in detail at my professional blog.) For the most part, every person responds best to one of these languages and feel most loved and cared for when their partner communicates their love in such fashion. If someone’s Love Language is Physical Touch, a nice present might be appreciated, but it won’t fill them with a feeling of being loved the way holding hands would. For someone whose language is Acts of Service, having their partner mow the lawn or do the laundry can be a far more romantic gesture than the most eloquent verbal expressions of love.
The question I was asked in session was, “why do I have to learn her Love Language? Why can’t I tell her I love her the way that works for me and she can get used to the way I do it?” One could answer this question in many ways, but I started by simply pointing to our relationship with G-d. If you want someone (or Someone) to accept your overtures for a relationship, it has to be done on that person’s terms and not yours. I told this client that I surmised he may like beer a whole lot, but he probably gave his wife flowers when he first met her and not a Heineken.
Learning to relate to someone else means learning their language, their interests, their preferences, their inner selves. It means engaging with them on their terms and not yours. “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother” – the customs and norms he grew up with – “and cleave to his wife.” Trying to impose upon your spouse your own ways of doing things and expecting them to respond as you would is obviously rather egotistical. You can’t make a person feel loved using the methods that make you feel loved any more than you can satisfy the king’s thirst with a drawing of a glass of water.
Having a relationship means “if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” Being willing to learn what is important to your spouse and what makes them feel loved is the necessary first step; you can’t assume that what moves you will impact your partner in the same way. Step two is to do it. Becoming adept at and comfortable with your spouse’s Love Language is in fact the work of many years, not just a flash of insight. But this is, after all, the work of every relationship, whether we call that relationship marriage or avodas Hashem: changing ourselves to comport with the needs of our beloved. It may be a laborious task, but is a labor of love, and it brings with it the profound satisfaction that only our deepest relationships can offer.