Abrief Talmud lesson: In the sequence of Talmudic tractates, Yevamos precedes Kesuvos. Yevamos deals with levirate marriage, according to which a brother was obligated to marry the surviving widow of his deceased brother who left no children. (Today that practice, known as yibum, survives only in the chalitzah ceremony, which releases the brother from his Biblical obligation.)
Hard on the heels of Yevamos comes Kesuvos, which deals with the complexities of the marriage contract between bride and groom.
On the face of it, there is nothing strange about all this. But beneath the surface rests an obvious question: why does Yevamos precede Kesuvos? In the normal order of things, marriage comes first and then, if the couple is childless, there is Yevamos. Is not something here out of order? Why is the yevamos cart placed before the kesuvos horse?
Maimonides, in his introduction to his Peirush HaMishnayos, offers a keen insight: the reason Yevamos comes first is because neither levirate marriage nor chalitzah is an optional act. It is something that the surviving brother must perform. He has no choice; he may not refuse, and the rabbinic court had the power to coerce him. Marriage, on the other hand, while it is encouraged, is a voluntary act. It cannot be forced upon a person. If he cannot find a suitable mate, he can choose to remain unmarried. Continues Maimonides: Yevamos precedes Kesuvos because that which is obligatory and mandatory has priority over that which is merely an option. Hahas’chalah bidvarim hamuchrachim hu hanachon ha-ra’ui yoser min hadevarim she’einam muchrachim. “To give priority to mandatory matters is correct and proper rather than to [give priority to] matters that are not mandatory.”
Maimonides would not be very popular in today’s culture. All kinds of vile language is acceptable these days, but three words are dirty words and must never be uttered: “must,” “ought,” and “no.” As the old joke goes, if Moshe Rabbeinu were to descend the mountain today, he would be carrying not the Ten Commandments but the Ten Suggestions: I submit for your consideration that perhaps it might be best not to steal; I would suggest that murder is not a good idea; perhaps you might consider not working on Shabbos. In these Suggestions, thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots would be taboo.
Mandatory means the ability to say no when necessary — either to others or to one’s own self. That is, it means that one says no to what he would like to do, and instead does that which he must do. Must, ought, and no are identical triplets.
How does our culture raise its children today? The prevailing wisdom: Saying no to a child might scar him forever. Denying a child what he wants could affect his self-worth. Small wonder that when those children grow up they know only of entitlements and nothing of obligations; rights and not duties. What the “me” wants is paramount; what you want, and certainly what G-d wants, is meaningless. Our society’s emphasis on personal desires and preferences, from the transgender mania to same-gender liaisons to all the abominations of old, can be traced to the emphasis on the “me.” We live in an “anything goes” society. Deviant behavior is normal; normal behavior is deviant. There is no No; there is only a resounding Yes to everything.
The Sages (Kiddushin 31a) say Gadol hametzuveh v’oseh yoser mi-mi she’eino metzuveh v’oseh, “Greater is the one who acts because of a commandment than he who acts on his own, regardless of the commandment.” For example, the person who gives tzedakah because it is a mitzvah is preferable to the person who gives tzedakah because he feels like it. This is because giving is not an optional act that depends on whims or moods, but a response to a “thou shalt.” It is a must, it is mandatory, and the mandatory gesture has priority over the optional.
Be not fearful of saying no to others or to yourself. Do not cringe before “must “ or ought.” Obviously, tone of voice is crucial. Let it be a no and a must from a place of love, and it will be so recognized. And sometimes, the greatest act of long-term love — toward others and the self — is a gentle, loving but firm no, and a clear and benevolent must.
Thus, even in the order of its tractates, the Talmud teaches subtle but crucial lessons for life.