ONE would think that the most important relationship in life, the marital relationship, receives much attention in the Torah. One would be wrong.?Besides the technical requirements of a marriage ceremony, and putting aside the relationships between couples, such as Abraham and Sarah, there is no explanation of what marriage is supposed to be other than a single verse in this week’s Torah portion — the first in the Torah.
Of course, one may deduce many aspects of marriage from the extensive description of the marital relationships of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, but this is tricky. Deduction from actual relationships is subject to multiple interpretation.
Genesis, of course, describes the creation of human beings, who become the first couple, Adam and Eve. Only a single verse describes what their relationship is supposed to be, and it does not seem to make sense.
Genesis describes the creation of the human being in two versions. There are significant differences of emphasis in these versions and even different facts altogether. Philosophers plumb the meaning of these differences to discern the nature of the human being, and of the Divine purposes for the human being. The marital relationship, however, is described extremely sparingly. Genesis 2:18 states:
“And the L-rd G-d said: It is not good for man to be alone; I shall make for him a helpmate, against him.”
It is true that a few verses later, Genesis 2:24 states: “There- fore, let a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” This merely describes the maturation of the individual, needing to grow beyond his relationship to his parents, and the intimate aspect of marriage. But for the larger marriage relationship, the Torah only says that G-d made for man “a help- mate, against him.”
THE question here is obvious: How can a helper be an opponent? In fact, the question is so obvious that many commentators and translators (and every translation is a commentary) attempt to camouflage the issue.
The Artscroll translation (1993) reads: “I will make him a helper corresponding to him.”
The old Jewish Publication Society translation (1917), following the King James version and the 1599 Geneva Bible, reads: “I will make a help meet [mate] for him.”
The New American Standard Bible (1995) reads: “I will make him a helper suitable for him,” with a footnote saying, “suitable” literally means “corresponding to.” (Actually, the Hebrew literally means “against,” as I have indicated).
The leading Biblical commentator, Rashi, citing a Talmudic pas- sage, reads the verse as if an implied “or” existed between between the two descriptives, as if the verse read, “helpmate or against him.” Rashi writes:
“If a man is privileged, his wife will be a helper; if he is not privileged, she will be against him, at war with him.” In other words, the verse means, “I shall make for him a helper or an anti-helper; it depends.”
Clearly the verse cries out for an explanation. When a biblical phrase is obviously problematic, my preference is to take the words as they are, to listen with a different ear, to see whether the words convey an unexpected lesson, rather than attempt to interpret the problem away, making the words conform to our preconceptions. (The latter is called “‘eisegesis,” reading into the text, in contrast to “exegesis,” reading out of the text.)
Our preconception of marriage is that it is supposed to be uniformly harmonious.
A READING of “a helpmate, against him” attributed to Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1816-1892) provides a perceptive explanation — the unexpected lesson.
The greatest help a spouse can pro- vide — and the only person who can provide it — is opposition to his or her mate’s unwise plans. All other people will either keep silent when they see someone heading in the wrong direction, or will speak up yet do so with an ulterior motive.
The marital relationship, on the other hand, is to be predicated on love and trust, such that if a spouse says, “stay away,” or, “reconsider,” or “this is a bad idea,” or “you haven’t thought this through,” or “you’re act- ing impulsively; slow down,” the spouse is providing the greatest help of all.
Precisely because the marital relationship is based on love and trust, a spouse need not be a “yes man.” A spouse has his or her mate’s best interests in mind. Sometimes, that best interest is to oppose one’s mate.
Only a spouse can offer this type of criticism out of love; and, just as important, only a spouse can hear — can take, can receive — this type of criticism knowing that it comes from love.
Indeed, a helper can be an opponent; sometimes, the biggest helpers when they are contrary — not in Rashi’s sense of being “at war,” but in quite the opposite sense of being the most deeply concerned, keenly perceptive and willing and able to speak up.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News