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It's Not Good for a Couple to Agree (Always)

The Majesty of Debate

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • October 4, 2018
  • |
  • 25 Tishrei 5779
  • Comment

Class Summary:

The Majesty of Debate

Dedicated by Mimi and Amnon Trebish in honor of the 70th birthday of their  parents Leah and Moshe Trebish. May they be blessed with long life and continued nachas from their children and grandchildren. 

Who's Listening?

"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 Role of the Spouse

Mazal Tov. This week we begin the Torah afresh. The opening portion of the Torah, 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 gender relations and the first marriage of history.

It all begins with one verse, describing the purpose of marriage. "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)).

The choice of words the Torah employs to describe the role of the spouse — "a helper against him" — seems contradictory. If a wife is supposed to serve as a helper to her husband, she is obviously not poised "against him?"

Much has been written to explain the meaning of this verse (3). Two of the commentators, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi and Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the Netziv (4), interpret the sentence exactly the way it sounds (5): The woman becomes a "helper" for her husband by sometimes being against him. 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 Netziv, writing in the mid-19th century, gives a vivid example. Sometimes a man loses his temper swiftly. He becomes outraged and his ire is consuming. All he wants is for his wife to agree with him and support him in his raging anger. In reality, he may be suffering from unresolved wounds or a misguided perception which he must work on. If his wife agrees with him and becomes a partner in his rage, she is not helping her husband but undermining him. She should validate his pain, and show him empathy, but she will help him most in his life and healing if she can stand up "against him," and offer him insight into his defensiveness.  

Some men cannot tolerate their wives disagreeing with them, and conversely, some women cannot handle another opinion. They grow angry and frustrated, exploding or imploding. What often transpires, as a result, is that the woman, or the man, in order to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in the home, remain silent. Or, to avoid confrontation, they just drift away from each other emotionally. Conversely, the arguments and fighting never cease.

The Torah is teaching us a different option. Each of us needs the help of our partner to be healed from our egos, insecurities, blind spots, and wounds. When a man and woman learn to genuinely embrace the otherness of his/her spouse, they can develop a true bond and reach their own deepest core.

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.) What it does mean, though, is that we must learn to respect and truly listen to the voice of our second half.

It goes one step deeper. It is through our disagreements that we can become truly connected. When a husband can create space for the experience of his wife, including her fears, primal desires, wounds, and struggles, and conversely when a woman can do this for her husband, this is how and when they liberate each other from their loneliness. You really help me by the fact that you are so different than me, you stand "against me," yet you can create genuine space for my insanity and trauma. 

Looking Out the Other Window

Irvin David Yalom is a 91-year-old Jewish-American existential psychiatrist who is an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, and the author of many books on psychology, including When Nietzsche Wept. In his book The Gift of Therapy (chapter 6) he shares this moving 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.

“Look out the other’s window. Try to see the world as your patient sees it,” Yalom says. "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 meaningful and fulfilling marriage is one in which a couple can truly accept that their journey through the voyage of life happens with two distinct windows. I cannot hope or expect that my spouse will start seeing the world exclusively through my window. Can I listen, appreciate, and empathize with the way life feels when looking out of a  window other than mine? 

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 and feelings 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 tefillin 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 four portions are inscribed on a single piece of parchment placed in one container. Why?

On the "head" level — the analytical level and also the emotional level — diversity between couples is vital. It allows each of them to be real, authentic, and present fully; 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, and one pattern of behavior. If not, chaos might reign and the home and family 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). 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 infinite light and energy.

Yet G-d chose otherwise. He chose to create a world that would eclipse His reality. 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?

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 profound pleasure and help stems precisely from this opposition to Him. When a human being, who intuitively feels detached from G-d, cracks the shell of his or her external layers, to discover the light of Divine oneness within; when a person challenges the apparent coarseness of his nature to find the innocence and idealism forever present in the exile of his heart — this allows for the blessing of a real relationship. When I need to confront my fears and wounds to discover my inner Divine purity and spirituality, I truly come to own it. 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, the author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch HaRav, was the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism. 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) Torah Or Bereshis pp. 4-5.
5*) My thanks to Mr. Moshe Zeev Lamm. LCSW (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, Haamak Davar and Harchav Davar.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Y

    Yoseph -5 years ago


    Thanks for this very inspiring piece.

    For those  interested in exploring the idea of your wife being a literal ezer k'negedo (who helps her husband by opposing him), would suggest that you read the book The Garden of Peace (for men only), by Rabbi Shalom Arush, where this concept is masterfully applied to achieving sholom bayis (marital peace)

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • S

      ShiraYael -1 year ago

      Indeed, Rabbi Shalom Arush has written some phenomenal books 📚 

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Bereishis

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • October 4, 2018
  • |
  • 25 Tishrei 5779
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by Mimi and Amnon Trebish in honor of the 70th birthday of their  parents Leah and Moshe Trebish. May they be blessed with long life and continued nachas from their children and grandchildren. 

Class Summary:

The Majesty of Debate

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