Lady Antonia Fraser, a critically acclaimed biographer and a married woman, was about to leave a dinner party in 1975 when she met the Nobel prize winning playwright, Harold Pinter, for the first time. Fraser writes that Pinter stared at her with “his sparkling black eyes and a feeling of adventure,” and said: “Must you go?” She recalls weighing her answer; she considered saying “I need to get home to my children.” But something made her stay to talk with Pinter, who was also married, and their ensuing conversation ignited an affair which scandalized English society and left two broken families in its wake.
Pinter writes: “Deep down, I felt this is the romantic love for which I have been waiting all my life… Perhaps we all are waiting… Some lucky people find it early, but perhaps I felt this is the little girl who was waiting for Prince Charming or whatever. You know, romantic love.” (Antonia Fraser, Must You Go?: My Life With Harold Pinter) Fraser and Pinter later divorced their spouses and married each other in 1980.
Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter’s affair is hardly unique. Countless people drift apart from their spouses over time, and find themselves in a painful quandary when they fall in love with another person. Should they act upon their feelings, and pursue their “true love,” at the expense of their spouses and children? Or should they remain in unsatisfying marriages, sacrificing their own happiness for the sake of their families? In a 2010 article that generated significant controversy, the New York Times described a man and a woman who fell in love, and eventually left their families in order to be with each other. The new couple argued “We’re soul mates, and it would be wrong to ignore our feelings” and that “Yes, we feel bad about the pain we brought to our families. But life is messy, and we’re only human.” (www.nytimes.com/2010/12/19/fashion/weddings/19vows.html?_r=0).
Interestingly, the Torah describes a very similar quandary: that of David and Avigayil. When David first met Avigayil, he was a fugitive, fleeing from King Saul, and she a married woman, stuck in an unhappy marriage to a man named Naval. The Talmud provides a fascinating back story to David and Avigayil’s first meeting; Rabba bar Shmuel explains that David was so overcome by desire for Avigayil that he chased her into the wilderness. But Avigayil refused David, saying “Let not this be a stumbling-block to you.” Avigayil, unhappy as she was in her current marriage, nevertheless understood that, sometimes, we cannot follow the dictates of our hearts. It simply wasn’t the right time! Only once her husband died did Avigayil join David as his wife.
The Talmud’s frank description of the story of David and Avigayil is, in a sense, comforting. Over the course of many years of marriage, there will be challenges, and there will also be temptations; but experiencing the temptation itself does not make you a bad person, or a failure. Even King David, the ultimate servant of God, struggled in this regard! But while temptation is natural, it is also not an excuse. Even in the heat of the moment, it is possible to find the strength to restrain one’s passions. David found that strength, and so can we.
As great as they were, Abraham and Sarah experienced significant challenges throughout the course of their marriage. Not once, but twice, was Sarah wrenched away from Abraham by other men; and years of childlessness could only have placed great strain upon their relationship. And yet, they remained together, ever loyal to one another. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “the key narrative of Genesis is the story of Abraham and Sarah, a married couple who embark on a journey together, suffer trials and disappointments and grow old together, but who stay faithful to one another and to God.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, 169).
Our relationship with God requires love, responsibility, steadfastness and commitment; and our relationships with our spouses is no different. The prophet Isaiah’s description of God’s love for the Jewish people, despite our failures and the challenges we have experienced in our relationship with God, offer us a model and an inspiration for our own marriages:
Though the mountains be shaken, And the hillsides will fade away, Yet my love for you will not end. (Isaiah 54:10)