“And the Lord said: it is not good for a man to be alone. I will create a helpmate for him.”
The actual Hebrew words for helpmate here are “ezer k’negdo”, meaning “a helper against him”, which creates a sort of cognitive dissonance: how can a helpmate be against one?!
There are many interesting tractates on this verse, but an explanation I find beautiful in its simplicity is as following:
Consider marriage as a seesaw. If two people sit on the same side with one always attached to and behind the other, the seesaw won’t move. It will only function if the other person steps over to the opposite side, creating a dynamic balance.
The image of the wife as a helpmate evokes a beautiful picture of a godly and hardworking man and a woman who stands behind him and supports all his endeavors. So far, it’s all sweet and simple. But the Torah doesn’t just exist to guide us in simple situations. It is universal and everlasting.
Consider the following scenario: a husband becomes addicted to video games. He is perpetually glued to the computer screen and refuses to turn away from it even at mealtimes. Instead, he demands that his wife should serve him sandwiches which he can eat while playing.
If a wife is supposed to always defer to her husband, she will serve him those sandwiches out of misguided respect and submission. Does this make her a good helpmate? Nope, it makes her an enabler of bad behavior.
A real helpmate will tell her husband, respectfully but in no uncertain terms, that he will get no assistance in his destructive habits from her. She will refuse to support his addiction and will insist on a normal functioning family.
The Jewish sages have written, “A good woman does her husband’s will”. Does this mean that a wife simply caters to her husband’s every whim? No, that would be doing them both a disservice. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with complying with a reasonable request (“could you make pea soup for lunch, please?”), but what if the husband says, “I don’t want you to visit your parents anymore, ever again”? In that case “doing the husband’s will” would mean encouraging good tendencies, turning his will towards positive things (like making him understand that he cannot cut his wife away from her family).
We are all imperfect flawed human beings walking the bendy road of improving and growing, in the hopes that when we finally meet our Creator, we will be able to testify with a clear conscience that our time in this world had not been in vain. Living in a marriage is one of the ultimate hardcore tests of this personal growth (but that doesn’t mean one should put up with abusive patterns for the sake of “personal growth”). Even if you love your spouse and have a healthy, loving marriage, it’s easier to live alone than together, to make one-sided decisions rather than work as a team.
No one can be charged with the impossible task of changing one’s spouse because real change can only come from within. However, it is not healthy, loving, godly or spiritual to bend to character tendencies that are clearly flawed. Being a good helpmate does not always mean going the route of minimizing conflict. It does not mean complying with laziness, rudeness, disrespect, irresponsibility, or passive aggressive behavior.
In my case, the most obvious way such misguided rigidity of principles manifested was the area of our family finances. I believed that my calling was to close my eyes and cling to my husband on his end of the seesaw, even as our family was freefalling into a bottomless pit of financial crisis. I believed I was supposed to act and think like my husband’s decisions about money were the Voice from Mount Sinai, rather than what they were: human reasoning that could, and often WAS, flawed. He might not have liked to admit it, but what he, and my children, really needed was not for me to keep “trusting” his reasoning even as I reached deep into the corners of the freezer for some leftover flour to make a loaf of bread with. My job back then, though it took me way too long to recognize, was to jump on the other side of the seesaw and call out, “Hey, this isn’t working! We have to figure out something different!”
It sounds less nice than “I trust you implicitly and you are the supreme hero of the universe and I’m backing you no matter what you do because that is my spiritual calling”. But sometimes having another’s back means giving them what they NEED, rather than what they want. And what our entire family needed was for me to be more proactive about earning money and handling finances.
This didn’t happen overnight or without some sharp growth pains (which included some serious ego-deflating, because if you have never been held accountable in your life and suddenly you are, it might not fly very nicely). But it is definitely happening and our lives are so much better for it.