I counsel a lot of people through the dating process–sometimes from the first date until the chuppah. Recently,when glanicng at Pirkei Avos 1:14, I realized that Hillel’s famous statement provides a model that I believe people who are looking for a spouse or are actively dating can use to retain their clarity throughout the process.
If I am not for me, who will be for me?
And I am only for me, what am I?
And if not now, when?
If I am not for me, who will be for me? This is a question that people must ask themselves before and during a dating process. If successfully landing a date with another person is difficult, this can often be due to a person’s own exacerbated sense of their own imperfections and flaws. Remembering that seeking a marriage partner requires self-advocacy. Who else besides you is qualified to advocate on your behalf that you possess the good points that you have to bring to a relationship, to contribute to another person and to a life together? It is imperative that you search yourself and discover your good points; you have them!
Also, it is critical that you hold onto your sense of what is unique, special and positive about you during the dating process. A lot of people, worried that they might do something to cause the failure of the relationship, may attempt to retain their partners by trying to be what they think their partners want them to be instead of who they truly are. That kind of smokescreen can end in disaster when you and your partner, now married, discover that you are someone else entirely. Always be yourself! Whoever marries you should do so based on his or her appreciation of the real you.
This parallels what Rabbi Ovadiya MiBartenura says regarding this first point. If I do not create merit for myself, who will do that for me? Sometimes, creating merit is a process of discovering merit within oneself.
And if I am only for me, what am I? Here, too, the Rishonim, including Rabbi Ovadiya MiBartenura and Rabbenu Yona understand this to mean that a person must be cognizant not only of the merit he or she has based on his or her performance of mitzvos, or possession of positive traits; one must also sense the scope of their obligations to Hashem, the responsibility that comes with being in relationship with Him.
This can also be applied to relationships between people. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken to people looking to get married, and the conversation is dominated by talk about the qualities they want in a mate–physical, psychological, financial and hashkafic–as if it were possible to order a life partner from a menu. And conspicuously absent from their monologue is any mention of what it is they have to give to another person, how they will fulfill their responsibilities within that relationship on all levels–in short, what they are offering, not just what they are seeking.
I believe that if we stop obsessing about what the other person has to be like, eat like, spend like, look like, and refocus onto what we would like to give to another person who will be sharing life with us, we will reach that place that is truly within our arena of responsibility and free choice: what we can do within a relationship. This is essential for marriage precisely because marriage is a partnership, a joining together for a purpose that transcends either of us as individuals. Being able to pool resources, as it were, depends on our ability to discover our resources and contribute them.
It may seem daunting when we really stop to consider how much soul searching and personal work we will want to do in order to reach a sense of clarity in these areas. But if we’re serious about getting married, this is the task at hand, and the process of working through it and succeeding is the meaning of our moments before marriage. And, of course, let’s not forget Hillel’s last statement, lest we be lured into procrastination: if not now, when?