My wife is such a pain in the rib

Times of Israel, October 8, 2015

A woman of valor, who can find?

King Solomon, the husband of a thousand wives could not find a woman of valor?

What was he looking for? What should he have been looking for?

There are many books and articles written about what the role of a woman is or should be. Is she the homemaker? The career woman? The doctor? The professional? The mother? The wife? You’re not going to like this, but the perfect wife is the nag. There, I said it. Before you give up and stop reading, let me explain.

Let’s go to the source to find the perfect woman. “G-d said: It is not good that man be alone; I will make him a helper against him”, (Genesis 2:18 Artscroll Sapirstein edition).

What does “helper against him” mean? Was Eve created to help Adam or was she created to go against him, to be his rival, his competitor? “Helper against him” sounds like an oxymoron. How could one be a helper and be against someone simultaneously? Was woman created to help her male counterpart or was she created to be in competition with him? To understand exactly what this means, let us look at some models of women in Jewish history.

Sarah, the matriarch of our people, was barren for many years of her marriage with Abraham. She tells Abraham to take Hagar as a wife and perhaps in that merit she would be blessed with a child. And so Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael is born. Lo and behold at the age of 90 years old, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. As the two young boys grow up, Ishmael follows in ‘the ways of his mother’s house’ and is an idol worshiper while Sarah is trying to raise Isaac as a good observant monotheist. At one point Sarah turns to Abraham and requests that he send Hagar and Ishmael away, since Ishmael is being a bad influence on their son Isaac. Abraham is distressed. How can his wife demand that he drive out his own flesh and blood? Abraham turns to G-d, Who says to Abraham “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice” (Genesis 21:12).

Our second matriarch, Rebeccah seems not quite as bold as her role model, Sarah. She was kind, she was meek, she was humble. She was the one that not only went back and forth a dozen times to draw water from the well for Eliezer, the servant of Abraham but continued to work just as hard for his thirsty camels.

Fast forward to her husband Isaac’s death bed where he is ready to give the firstborn blessings to his son Esau. He commands Esau to go out in the field and bring him some meat so that they can celebrate the continuation of their tradition. Rebeccah overhears the conversation and summons her son Jacob to deceive his father by pretending he is Esau so that he could receive this special blessing.

You can imagine Jacob’s surprise — his own mother advising him to lie to his father! She reassures him and says that she will take full responsibility for his actions. And so Jacob does just that, he brings meat and covers himself with goatskin to pretend that he is hairy Esau. Giving the meat to his father, Isaac is confused and says, “Hakol kol Yaakov hayadim yaidei Esav” — The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), and gives him the firstborn blessing.

Now let us look at the leader of the women in Egypt, Miriam. From a young age Miriam had the strength of character to speak up and challenge when necessary. She has the chutzpah to stand up to her own father, Amram, who divorced his wife Yocheved so that he could avoid the decree of Pharaoh to throw new born boys into the Nile river. Little Miriam has the audacity to tell her father that he is behaving worse than Pharaoh since he is also “killing” the girls by not allowing them to even be born! He listens to her sage words and remarries his wife, who gives birth to our saviour, Moses.

And one final example of Miriam’s fortitude was her leadership at the sin of the golden calf. When the men came to their wives asking for their jewelry, the women followed Miriam’s lead and stood up to their husbands, refusing to give their jewelry and doing their best to persuade them to abstain from the terrible sin.

So what does a “helper against him” mean? It means a challenger. All these women (and there are many more examples in the Tanach) challenged the men in their lives. They worked against them in order to help them.

Sarah’s demand of Abraham to send Hagar away was so that Ishmael would not be a bad influence on Isaac. Abraham could thereby continue his legacy of monotheism and pass on the tradition to future generations. She was challenging him to ultimately help him continue his mission. G-d acknowledged the truth of her activism and instructed Abraham to follow her advice.

Rebeccah’s deception was similarly motivated as the spousal challenger-activist. Her goal was to force Isaac to give the blessings to the G-d-fearing son in order to continue their legacy for the next generation. Although Isaac was shocked at first, in the end he recognized that Rebeccah was indeed correct in recognizing who really deserved the blessing.

Miriam’s chutzpah to her own father was so that the Jewish people could continue to survive. The women challenged their husbands at the sin of the golden calf, in order to continue our heritage of monotheism.

And that’s what I mean when I say that the ultimate role of the wife is to nag. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way. To never let their husbands settle for mediocrity. A good husband will understand that and acknowledge the incredible role of his wife. A bad husband won’t see past the nagging and will always think that he knows best, becoming defensive as his wife strives to bring out the best in him.

Of course, this “helper against” concept may be applied to all of our relationships. We challenge the person/people in our lives in order to bring out their greatness. That’s your role as a spouse, whether husband or wife. And certainly, that’s your role as a parent.

Nevertheless, you need to make sure to do it the right way. On another occasion, Miriam challenged her brother Moses over his separation from his wife, Tziporah. However, she went to Aaron and talked about it behind Moses’s back, and was therefore punished for her actions. She may have challenged him; she may have wanted to bring out the best in him, but she went about it incorrectly. If you want to be a successful ‘helper against,’ you need to make sure that your motives are truly pure and sincere to help the other person grow. Otherwise you come across as nothing more than a ‘pain in the rib’!

Rabbi David Fohrman suggests that King Solomon was searching for a wife that would be just like his great-grandma Ruth. Perhaps the wisest man could never find the perfect woman, because he failed to understand that the perfect woman needs the perfect, humble man who will heed her advice and take the challenge.

May we all stand up and challenge our loved ones to be better human beings, successful achievers and proud, committed Jews. And the next time you feel challenged ask yourself how you can become a better person because of it!

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbanit Batya Friedman