Rectifying Chaotic Marriages

By Yonason Johnson, Melbourne, Australia
Essays 2018

MyLife Essay Contest 2018

The Chassidus-model for achieving deeply-connected and lasting marriages

One of the major issues facing our society is the struggle to achieve peaceful and loving marital relationships (shalom bayis). Many married couples today face difficulty in building a strong relationship. In America, 45-50% of first marriages end in divorce. Whilst divorce rates in the Jewish community are lower, they are still high and on the rise. Even amongst those that remain married, many have drifted apart or struggle privately with conflict; essentially living in a ‘silent divorce’.

In a good marriage, over the course of time a husband and wife develop a strong bond and a deep knowledge of each other, which enables them to provide love and encouragement to the other in very meaningful ways. This creates a marriage that is a deep source of support.

In this essay I would like to present a chassidus-based model that includes a perspective on relationships and a set of skills that can both be applied by spouses to foster enduring and harmonious relationships. The model is based on an analysis of two world orders discussed in the teachings of Chassidus; the world of Tohu (chaos) and the world of Tikkun (rectification).

Shortly before the end of their second year of marriage, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Rebbe’s father, sent a letter to his son and daughter-in-law, the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin. In this letter, written in his classic style of analysing everything through the perspective of Kabbalah, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak writes(1;)

“The marriage of man and woman is the concept of Tikkun (which is) the opposite of Tohu where there is no mention of marriage between man and woman, for in the kings of Tohu there is no mention of the names of their wives. Tikkun is the concept of marriage as is says Not for Tohu did He create, (but rather) He formed it to settle(2)”.

One of the sources brought in Kabbalistic literature alluding to the worlds of Tohu and Tikkun, is the Torah’s recording of “the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king ruled over Bnei Yisroel(3)”. The Torah lists seven Edomite kings, each of whom ruled, subsequently died and was replaced by the next king to rule in their place.

The kings of Bnei Yisroel refers to the Sefiros of the world of Tikkun. The kings of Edom, who ruled before, refer to Sefiros of Tohu which preceded the world of Tikkun. The demise of the seven kings of Edom represents how the seven Sefiros of the world of Tohu suffered a spiritual collapse.

After the death of the seventh king, the Torah names the eighth king, Hadar. This king represents the beginnings of the world of Tikkun and therefore, unlike the previous kings, his death is not mentioned. In a further distinction, the eighth king is listed together with the name of his wife – Meheitavel.

This the meaning of the words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak: In Tohu marriage can’t exist, like the kings of Edom whose wives are not mentioned. Marriage exists only in Tikkun.

By analysing the differences between the realities of Tohu and Tikkun, we can discover what are the perspectives and behaviours of Tohu that make it unconducive to marriage. More importantly, we can learn the behaviours of Tikkun that allow marriage to thrive and endure. Bringing awareness of the elements of Tohu or Tikkun in our interactions with our spouses will help us strive to emulate the model of Tikkun and thus create harmonious, lasting marriages.


The worlds of Tohu and Tikkun are discussed at great length in Kabbalah and Chassidus. For the purposes of this essay we need only state that they are two phases within the Divine process of bringing the created worlds into being.

Both worlds are comprised of the same Sefiros, the Divine energies which serve as the spiritual building blocks through which Hashem channels His light into creation. They differ however, in the nature and strength of the Sefiros and their interrelationship with one another.

The nature of the Sefiros within the reality of Tohu led to its spiritual collapse, described as Shviras Hakeilim. From the fragmented Sefiros and spiritual rubble of Tohu, the reality of Tikun was brought into being. Tikkun, as its name suggests, corrects the ‘flaws’ of the world of Tohu, to create a world which is lasting.

So too, the behaviours of Tohu in marriage create conflict and shatter the marital bond. By correcting these behaviours and relating with a Tikkun perspective, the marriage, like Tikkun will endure.

Some of the properties of the world of Tohu described in Chassidus are;

  1. In Tohu, the Sefiros are described as Kings(4). Each Sefira existed in its full strength and purity(5), with a powerful sense of its own identity. This is analogous to a king, who with their power and ego, seek exclusive and absolute domination. If spouses act like kings there will be lots of conflict in the relationship.
  2. The Sefiros of Tohu sought only their own need to express themselves and did not leave space for the existence of any other Sefira. Therefore, like the kings of Edom, only with the demise (collapse) of the previous Sefira, could the new Sefira arise and have space to express its unique self(6). And so, the Kabbalists describe the Sefiros of Tohu as a series of isolated dots (Nekudos) one below the other in a single column(7).
  3. Another feature of Tohu is that it is characterised by Oros merubim and Keilim muatim – great lights and few vessels(8). Every Sefira comprises two elements; Or (the Divine light) and the Keili (vessel).
    In Tohu, the Sefiros possessed immense light and powerful emotions to express. The function of the Keilim (vessels) is to contain the light and restrain its intensity, so that it can be directed in a constructive manner. The Keilim allow for restraint and discipline.
    Similarly, a marriage is weakened when one or both spouses have difficulty with respect and self-control.
  4. The Sefiros of Tohu were not able to tolerate the existence of the other. Each Sefira perceived the existence of a different Sefira as detracting from their own self(9). If a person has a strong opinion and cannot tolerate another opinion which is different to their own they are acting in the Tohu model. This attitude creates numerous problems in marriage.
  5. There could be no relationship or linkage between the Sefiros(10) (hiskallelus). Relationships develop by sharing of oneself with the other and being receptive to the influence of the other. In Chassidus this is referred to as an order of mashpia and mekabel, give and take. The lack of relationship between the Sefiros in Tohu was in both respects:

a. The Sefiros of Tohu did not wish to receive influence from the other Sefiros. To do so, they would first need to recognise that they are lacking something that they do not have within themselves. They would also need to recognise that the other has the qualities and strengths that can complete them if they are open to receive(11).

b. The Sefiros of Tohu did not wish to be mashpia and share their influence with the other Sefiros. One would think that being able to influence others highlights one’s own greatness i.e. that they are able to give(12). In reality, to truly be mashpia to others involves a Yeridah, a humbling of one’s self to give of their time, attention and focus for the benefit of the other. The Sefiros of Tohu do not see the benefit of this “lowering” of self for the genuine benefit of others.

The lack of meaningful sharing in marriage prevents a true deep connection from forming.

These features all stem from the underlying sense of ego in Tohu. They give rise to a world that was chaotic, a world of conflict and separateness that could never be sustainable.

In Tikun, the complete opposite pervades. The Sefiros have the element of Bittul (humility). As such;

  1. They do not seek exclusive expression. They can accept the existence of other Sefiros without feeling threatened by a loss of dominance. They give space for the others.
  2. They can recognise that no one (themselves included) has perfection and is complete on their own(13). They are also able to appreciate the qualities and strengths of the other Sefiros. Rather than resisting influence, they appreciate that the only way to achieve wholeness is by receiving from the positive influence and learning from the other. To recognise one has deficiencies and weaknesses and to be open to the influence of one’s spouse takes vulnerability, which is only possible with an attitude of humility.
  3. In Tikkun, the focus is not on the self, but on the whole. Tikkun seeks to be mashpia, to share influence in a meaningful way; not because of the need to self-express or to feed one’s ego, but to be able to share meaningfully, with the genuine interest of the other at heart. Tikkun is not concerned of the perceived lowering of self. Rather the focus is on sharing meaningfully with the other for their benefit and for the benefit of the relationship and Divine purpose(14). In Tikkun, the Mashpia realises that by giving to the other, one grows and gains themselves(15).
  4. In contrast to Tohu, Tikkun is characterised by Oros muatim and Keilim Merubim – lesser lights and greater vessels.
    a. Their intensity and force of expression is toned down (lesser lights). There is no stubbornness or bull-dozing of others opinions. Their views are not forceful and their personality is not overbearing. This allows one to be flexible and yielding(16).
    b. The broader Keilim, the ability to have healthy restraint, respect for boundaries and a sense of reverence, allows them to give space to the other and communicate and interact with respect. Additionally, the broader Keilim means that one can appreciate multiple perspectives and not be limited to their own perspective and understanding(17).
  5. The Sefiros of Tikkun unite with one another in a deep bond. Receiving influence from the other and sharing of themselves with each of the other Sefiros gives rise to Hiskallelus, whereby in each Sefira there are elements of the other(18). Unlike the Sefiros of Tohu which are referred to as dots (isolated solitary dots), the Sefiros in Tikkun are described as Partzufim – full visages that contain a full spectrum of combined elements.

Unlike the lonely line of progression of the Sefiros of Tohu, the Sefiros of Tikkun are arrayed in three lines. Three is the number of synthesis and unity. By combining the elements of the otherwise opposite forces, the “middle column” brings a state of peace and unity.

On the line of Tohu, there is a scale of higher and lower, greater and lesser. But in Tikkun, because each Sefira can give to the other and because each Sefira must receive from the other, there is no higher or lower19. Rather there is a sense of equality and mutual respect.

The above shows us the beauty of a relationship modelled in Tikkun perspective. When we start to behave in the Tohu way, the chaos of conflict is likely to result. But from the sparks of chaos we can always redirect and rectify, using the Tikkun perspective to build a beautiful, lasting world.

Take action! Here is a summary of some practical qualities to incorporate features of Tikkun into your marriage to help make it deep, lasting and harmonious:

  • Humility
  • Vulnerability
  • Flexibility
  • Recognise our own lackings and not being afraid to share them
  • See the strengths of the other and appreciate them
  • Be open to and welcome their ideas and views and allow yourself to be influenced
  • Share of yourself, your views, feelings and ideas but in a meaningful way
  • Don’t be too intense with your views or stubborn in your opinions
  • Always maintain a healthy level of respect and restraint and give space
  • Equality
  • Dedication to the higher goal and Divine Will

To conclude, learning about the world of Tikkun and the model of relationships between the Sefiros there (as opposed to the chaos of Tohu) is a powerful tool to build healthy, strong and lasting marriages. The ability of the Sefiros in Tikkun to accept influence from each other, to be multifaceted and not one dimensional, to engage in give-and-take even with opposite ideas to what they believe in, creates a stable rectified world, and similarly a stable, peaceful marital relationship.

In Tikkun the sefiros have humility and are open to learning from each other. Whilst maintaining their own identity, they recognise that others have different views and each one is valuable. They don’t feel threatened or defensive by an opposing opinion. Awareness of the features of Tikkun help us develop an attitude that can foster true shalom bayis and will אי”ה help our community see the building of many happy and lasting marriages.

1 Likutei Levi Yitzchak Igros, Kislev 8, 5691
2 Yishaya 45:18. This verse is used by Chaza”l to describe one of the main objectives of marriage which is to procreate and populate and settle the world.
3 Breishis 36:31.
4 Hemshech תערב volume 1 p466
5 The Keser of each sefira
6 Hemshech תערב. Torah Or Besahlach 65d
7 Elsewhere, Chassidus explains that the Sefiros of Tohu exist in 2 columns. Tikkun introduces the element of the third column which is able to unite and synthesise the two opposites. In the absence of the ability to interrelate and integrate, the Sefiros of Tohu lack this third column capacity to unite and they remain polar i.e. 2 columns. See Torah Or Parshas Vayishlach
8 Eitz Chaim Shaar 10 Chapter 5
9 This can manifest itself in the need to belittle the other and denigrate them in order to preserve one’s own
ego and sense of self.
10 Referred to as Hiskallelus or integration
11 Hemshech תערב chapter 237
12 Hemshech תערב chapter 237
13 Hemshech תערב chapter 237
14 Hemshech תערב chapter 239. The Bittul of the Mashpia is not a Bittul to the Mekabel, but rather it is הנחת עצמותו, putting one’s self aside to fulfil the true Divine intent that there be an order of Mashpia and Mekabel.
15 Hemshech תערב chapter 238. As our sages note (Makkos 10a) “that from my students I have learned more than from anyone else”
16 Hemshech תערב Chapter 251. Our sages (Taanis 20b) teach that a person should always be flexible like a reed and not rigid like a cedar. The flexible reed refers to the world of Tohu. The weaker light allows for greater flexibility. The rigid cedar represents the strong light of Tohu which are unyielding and unaccommodating. See also Maamer Hechaltzu 5659
17 A broader-minded individual is able to acknowledge and appreciate the views of others so that they can exist alongside their own views as an alternate perspective. The mind of a small-minded individual cannot accommodate more than their own view.
18 Hemshech תערב Chapter 260
19 Hemshech תערב Chapter 263