"How is married life?" David asks his old buddy Abe.
"It's quite simple," Abe responds. "When we got engaged, I did most of the talking and she did most of the listening. Later, when we married, she began doing all of the talking and I began doing all of the listening. Now, ten years later, we both do all of the talking and the neighbors do all of the listening."
The Woman's Role
This week we begin the Torah afresh. The opening portion of the Hebrew Bible, Bereishis, captures the first 1,600 years of human history. It is filled with enrapturing tales that encapsulate the most profound mysteries and challenges of the human condition, including the gender relationships.
It all begins with one 'innocent' verse, describing the purpose of having two distinct genders in the world. "And G-d said, 'It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him (1).'" Until this point, Adam and Eve were fused into one body. Here they were divided into two distinct creatures, each one possessing his or her unique structure and personality (2).
Yet, the choice of words the Torah employs to describe the role of the feminine spouse — "a helper against him" — seems contradictory. If a wife is supposed to serve as a helper to her husband, she is obviously not "against him."
Much has been written to explain the meaning of this verse (3). One Jewish thinker, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (4), interprets the sentence exactly the way it sounds (5): The woman becomes a "helper" for her husband by sometimes being against him. What this may mean is that for a husband to become the maximum he can be, he must profess the courage to welcome the ideas and feelings of his spouse which may be "against" his own.
The Hollering Spouse
Some men cannot tolerate their wives disagreeing with them (and conversely, some women cannot handle another opinion.) They grow angry and frustrated, at times even yelling at their wives for daring to challenge their views. What often transpires as a result is that the woman, in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the home, remains silent or even drifts away emotionally.
Who loses the most? It is the husband who loses most, according to this verse in the Torah. A man, at times, must be saved from his ego, insecurities, blind spots, rashness and temptations, just as a woman needs to open herself to the worldview and the inner emotional world of her husband. When a man learns to genuinely embrace his wife's contrasting personality and her otherness, he will travel to places he could never reach on his own.
This does not mean, of course, that it is a biblical injunction upon every woman to disagree with her husband 100 percent of the time. (A man once asked me: If he stated an opinion alone in a forest away from his wife, would he still be wrong? I told him: Your mistake is that you think you need to state your opinion for her to know what you think.) For a relationship to work, spouses must learn the art of compromise. She must learn to see things from his perspective, and conversely; and they must both be flexible, kind, and reasonable.
What it does mean, though, is that it is unproductive and unhealthy when a man creates a climate in the home in which his wife must always agree with his opinions, answering "amen" to all his views and wants.
Looking Out the Other Window
Irving David Yalom is an 87-tear-old Jewish American existential psychiatrist who is emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, and author of many books on psychology, including When Nietzsche Wept. In his book The Gift of Therapy (chapter 6) he shares this story: (5*)
Decades ago I saw a patient with breast cancer, who had, throughout adolescence, been locked in a long, bitter struggle with her naysaying father. Yearning for some form of reconciliation, for a new, fresh beginning to their relationship, she looked forward to her father’s driving her to college—a time when she would be alone with him for several hours. But the long-anticipated trip proved a disaster: her father behaved true to form by grousing at length about the ugly, garbage-littered creek by the side of the road. She, on the other hand, saw no litter whatsoever in the beautiful, rustic, unspoiled stream. She could ﬁnd no way to respond and eventually, lapsing into silence, they spent the remainder of the trip looking away from each other.
Many years later, she made the same trip alone and was astounded to note that there were two streams—one on each side of the road. “This time I was the driver,” she said sadly, “and the stream I saw through my window on the driver’s side was just as ugly and polluted as my father had described it.” But by the time she had learned to look out her father’s window, it was too late—her father was dead and buried.
“Look out the other’s window. Try to see the world as your patient sees it.” The woman who told me this story died a short time later of breast cancer, and I regret that I cannot tell her how useful her story has been over the years, to me, my students, and many patients.
A happy life is one in which I can accept that me and my spouse look at the world from two distinct windows, and thus see two different things. I cannot hope or expect that my spouse will start seeing the world through my window. What we must strive for is to respect the fact that other people see the world through other windows, and try to listen, and empathize with what they are seeing and experiencing, even if it is not what I am seeing and experiencing.
The blessings and depth of a relationship can only emerge when each side learns how to truly listen to and respect the point of view of the other. I may not see things the way you do, but I must be able to honor your truth. Marriages—and so many other close relationships—fall apart when one party feels he or she professes the exclusive “objective truth.” Truth in marriage is usually subjective.
Maintaining the Balance
But how do couples guarantee that the proper proportions are preserved? How do we ensure that the "against him" component of a spouse does not overwhelm and subdue the "helper" dimension of a spouse?
The Talmud (6) states that in the beginning G-d planned to create man and woman as two distinct people. In the end, however, He created them as one (only afterward did He proceed to divide them into two, as stated above). Why did G-d "change His mind," so to speak?
Perhaps He wished to teach us how a married couple ought to relate to one another. In marital relations, there ought to be both an "in the beginning" and an "in the end." In the beginning, husband and wife ought to be two; each party should express his or her opinion freely and uninhibitedly. Then, in the end, they ought to find a way to reconcile the different views into one unified pattern of behavior, making out of many—one, E Pluribus Unum.
This may be one of the symbols behind an interesting distinction between the tefillin (phylacteries) that Jewish men wrap on their heads vs. the tefilin wrapped on their arms. The tefillin we place upon our head is conspicuously divided into four sections, each chamber contains another fragment of parchment inscribed with one portion of the Torah. The tefillin we place on our arm, however, is conspicuously made of one chamber and all of the four portions are inscribed on a single piece of parchment placed in one container. Why?
On the "head" level — the analytical level — diversity between couples is desirable. Let each party argue his or her point. Let each one listen to another point of view; let every husband and wife learn what the world looks like through the other’s “window.” However, on the "arm" level — the level of implementation and action — there must be one path, one verdict, one pattern of behavior. If not, chaos might reign and the home will suffer (7).
G-d's Yearning Not to be Alone
G-d and His people are often compared in the Tanach to a husband and wife (8). Thus, this verse — "It is not good for man to be alone; I will make him a helper against him" — may also be understood symbolically as a statement concerning the relationship between G-d and humanity.
Prior to the creation of the world, G-d, the ultimate "Man" was "alone." Even after creating the world, G-d could have revealed His presence in our lives so that we would still experience cosmic oneness; we would perceive the universe as an extension of His light and energy.
Yet G-d chose otherwise. He chose to create a world that would eclipse His reality and even oppose Him. G-d chose to create a human being with the ability to deny Him, to ignore Him, to expel Him from his or her life. Why would G-d arrange such a situation?
The answer is, because "It is not good for Man to be alone; I will make Him a helper against Him." What this represents symbolically is that G-d's profoundest pleasure and help stems precisely from this opposition to Him. When a human being, who intuitively feels himself detached from G-d, cracks the shell of his or her physicality to discover the light of G-d within; when a person challenges the coarseness of his nature to find the tiny flame of idealism etched in the recesses of his heart — this allows for the blessing of a real relationship. This “grants” G-d the joy of engaging in a genuine relationship with the human person (10). We become co-partners in the work of repairing and healing the world.
So the next time your wife disagrees with you, or the next time you "disagree" with G-d, emotionally or psychologically — don't get frustrated. On the contrary, this is an opportunity for you to experience the ultimate raison d'etre of your marriage.(11)
1) Genesis 2:18.
2) This is clear from the biblical narrative. Cf. Talmud Berschos 61a; Eiruvin 18a; Midrash Rabah Bereishis 8:1; quoted in Rashi Genesis 1:27.
3) See Talmud Yevamos 63a; quoted in Rashi to this verse.
4) 1745-1812. Rabbi Schnuer Zalman, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, was the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism.
5) Torah Or Bereshis pp. 4-5. A similar interpretation can be found in the commentary Haamek Davar and Harchev Davar by the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1893. He was the dean of the Volozhin Yeshiva and one of the great rabbis of his day.)
5*) My thanks to Dr. Moshe Zeev Lamm (Monsey, NY) for sharing this with me.
6) Talmud Berachos and Eiruvun ibid.
7) This idea was suggested by Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel (1883-1946), a rabbi in Lithuania, then in Antwerp and finally, from 1937 until his death, chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, in his work Hegyonos El Ami, on Bereishis. (An English translation, entitled Jews, Judaism & Genesis was published in Jerusalem in the year 2000 by the Rabbi Amiel Library, under the auspices of the American Mizrachi movement).
8) The entire book of Song of Songs is based on this analogy. Cf. Rambam Laws of Teshuvah ch. 10
9) See Ezekiel 1:26; Torah Or ibid. p. 5a.
10) See Tanya chapter 26.
11) This essay is based on a discourse by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (Torah Or referenced in footnote #5), and on the commentary of Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) on this verse in Genesis, see Haamak Davar and Harchav Davar.