Time and time again, we see one spouse or both, exhausted from the pain, ready to give up on a marriage that once was such a source of joy (or could have been). They lament that they have tried, that they were good and yet, nothing seems to work.
Our response often is that the spouse needs to work smarter, not harder. The place to start is prayer. As we have previously shown, spouses who pray for each other have happier marriages. What, though, if you think your marriage is dead? What then? First, pray.
Imagine the following case: a real live, 100% true prophet comes to someone and tells that person he is going to die. What should the person do? After all, his fate is sealed. A prophet said so. It really happened. The prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and told the King that God decreed the King would die and that the King would lose his place in the world to come.  King Hezekiah refused to accept this prophecy. Instead, he prayed and was granted many more years of life. Thus, the Talmud teaches that even if a sharp sword is poised over a person’s neck, he should not give up his belief in God’s mercy, which can be obtained through prayer.
Prayer is not just critical because you can get God’s help. It also focuses you on the importance of your marriage. Let’s face it. Being happily married often is hard work.
But prayer is just the starting point. After all, Hezekiah did not just pray, he changed his actions as well. You, then, must change your actions.One obstacle to working on marriage is the worry that there were so many bad moments, so much pain, so many things that each spouse did or said that he or she now regrets that the marriage cannot work again. Yet, it has been shown that with good counseling and real work by the spouses, marriages in deep trouble truly can be saved. We have seen this with our own eyes and have been privileged to be a part of this process.
This should not be surprising to us as Jews because a central belief in Judaism is that people can and do change. Moreover, the pain of the past can be part of a firm foundation for the future. To understand this from a Jewish perspective we need to understand Rav Tzadok’s approach to Sarah and Queen Esther. The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Akiva who, while teaching his students, realized that they were beginning to nod off. Brilliant teacher that he was, he tried to rouse them not with sports (no doubt because baseball was not yet invented) or politics but with a good Torah question. He asked them: “Why did Esther rule over 127 countries?” Rabbi Akiva answered his own question obliquely by explaining that Esther ruled over these countries because Esther was a descendent of Sarah, who lived 127 years.
Rav Tzadok offers an interpretation of Rabbi Akiva’s answer that speaks to our concerns not just about Rabbi Akiva’s answer but also to any difficult situations in life and, derivately, to a troubled marriage. Rabbi Tzadok explores where Esther got the strength to play her critical role in the Purim story. From Sarah, he contends. Sarah came from a background that was antithetical to a holy life. Sarah’s family and her community worshipped idols. It was years before Sarah was able to escape that world. Sarah slowly grew as a person. Her past served to as a foundation for her future accomplishments in life and helped her help others to grow. As Rashi famously explains, Abraham converted the men, while Sarah converted the women.
Like Sarah, Sarah’s descendent, Esther, could have given up. There she was, taken by a non-Jewish king to be part of his harem. Esther did not fall into despair. She knew, as Sarah knew, that God had put her in this situation and she could rise to the` challenge. She was ready for her acts of heroism. By virtue of her courage, she actually merited to have a book of the Hebrew Bible (Megilas Esther) named after her (which is read twice every year on Purim). Both Sarah and Esther realized that the challenges in their lives were the very things that enabled them to reach heights they otherwise could not have imagined.
We are taught that each Jew is obligated to ask him or herself: when will my actions reach the deeds of my ancestors? Each of us finds ourselves in difficult situations. For many, their most difficult situation will be their marriage. Don’t give up. You are in your marriage for a reason. The difficulties of your present can be your springboard to a great marriage. Pray. Tap into the strengths of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, get some help understanding the issues, work, work and work some more and you can and will make your marriage great.
Rabbi Mat and Dr. Brachie Hoffman provide free marriage and relationship coaching and counseling. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-481-7585. The Hoffmans are also available to speak before any group, large or small.
Talmud Bavli, Berachos, 10a
Id. at 10a-10b
.See, e.g., Gaspard, Terry, 10 Things to Try Before Giving Up On Your Marriage, available at https://www.gottman.com/blog/10-things-try-giving-marriage; Johnson, Sue, Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, 5-7 (Little, Brown 2008)
 Schwartz, Yitzchak, Rav Tzadok on the Parsha 60-63 (Mosaica Press 2014)
Midrash Rabbah, Bereshis 58:3. The Artscroll Midrash Rabbah (Artscroll 2010) in its Insight “A Call to Wakefulness” on Chayei Sarah, 58:3 offers a beautiful summary of Rav Tzadok’s view.
 Rashi on Bereshis 12:5
Tannah d’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 25 quoted at Rav Tzadok, supra at 63.