I recently heard a story about a city rav, who was at a simcha. During the meal, there were two brands of milk on the table. The rav reached for the one that was furthest away from him. Immediately the rumor mills began. The word went out that the rav no longer used the brand of milk that had been closer to him, and people began to question its kashrus. As a result, people stopped purchasing that brand of milk. When the rav heard about this, he immediately made a public statement assuring people that he indeed used both brands, and neither was more kosher then the other. He had reached for the further container of milk at the simcha, simply because the container was already open.
I felt that the story had a lot to say to me; not just as a community member but, as a well spouse. I began to think of how often I assumed I understood a person’s actions and motivation. On the other hand, I wondered what false messages my behavior could have given others, albeit unintentionally. I brought this up at a well-spouse support group and sure enough, we all seemed to be guilty on both sides of the issue. We disagreed, however, on whether we should assume the responsibility of explaining our actions and the reason behind them to others.
Rita had been caring for her husband for over 10 years. As he deteriorated, it became more and more difficult for both of them to have him cared for at home. They both knew that a care facility would be the only option for them, as his chronic illness advanced. However, being part of the middle class and not having nursing home care as part of their insurance coverage, they could not figure out how Rita could afford to continue financially to live at home, and at the same time, pay for the care of her husband in a facility.
After consulting with legal council, Rita and her husband reluctantly decided to divorce. In this way, since they were not a couple, Rita would not be responsible for paying the care facility bills once it became necessary – provided that enough time had elapsed since the divorce. Both Rita and her husband didn’t want to talk about their decision. They knew people would assume all sorts of things about why they divorced. They assumed people would attribute the divorce to Rita’s inability or reluctance to remain a well spouse. Or perhaps people would assume it was her husband’s insistence that Rita go on with her life.
But, whatever assumptions they allowed people to make, the couple just felt their choice of how to deal with this situation was private. Their finances were not a topic they would discuss with others. Their reason for divorcing would not be explained. They felt people could assume what they would, but there would be no details coming from them.
Batsheva felt slighted by a lack of invitations for Shabbos from a particular friend. Her chronically ill husband had been in the hospital for the last three months, and in all that time, her friend Rochel had never invited her for Shabbos. She knew that Rochel always had guests for Shabbos. What would one more person matter? Didn’t Rochel care about her? Batsheva took the lack of invitations very personally, and it quickly took its toll on their friendship.
Meanwhile, Rochel thought about Batsheva a lot. She was concerned about her being alone. She brought up the topic of having her for a Shabbos meal with her husband. He felt that because their usual Shabbos guests were three single older men, it would be inappropriate to have Batsheva there as well. Besides, these men had nowhere else to go for a Shabbos meal. They counted on Rochel and her family to provide one for them. Batsheva, on the other hand, did have a few invitations. She could make Shabbos for herself, if need be. And so, they chose not to invite her. It wasn’t personal, just practical. At least that’s how they saw it. Meanwhile, Batsheva assumed lack of caring on her friend’s part and felt hurt.
The Torah teaches us not to judge another. (“Al Tadin es chavercha…”). And when we see an act that can be interpreted negatively, we are directed to do just the opposite (we are to be “dan lechaf zechus“). It is something we should remember in all our relationships. But when it comes to a life we know nothing about, and of which we understand even less, like that of a well spouse, this dictum is paramount. On the other hand, is it incumbent on us not to set the stage for assumptions, by our actions. Should Rochel have explained her actions to Batsheva to keep her from assuming otherwise and taking it personally? Do we have the responsibility to constantly explain ourselves? Many well spouses feel they do. Others say, that if they did that, they would have to justify everything they do, as people have so little insight into their lives. Many refuse, like Rita, and allow people to assume what they will. Meanwhile, instead of asking for clarity most of us continue to just make assumptions about another’s actions and allow our own and others’ feelings to be hurt.