By Rabbi Be Sternman
In Pirkei Avot (5:22), Ben Bag Bag is famous for being quoted: “Turn it (Torah) over and turn it over again, for everything is in it.” We are this week starting to turn it over again beginning again at Beresheet. And once again, we learn through its study that God is speaking to us through this sacred text, leaving us lessons in how we should live our lives morally and well. For ourselves, we only have to open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to take in God’s message.
This week, as I turned the text again and again, I focused on two words that come in Genesis, chapter two, verse 18, which states: “The Eternal God said: ‘It is not good for man to be alone; I will make an ezer k’negdo for him.’” Usually ezer k’negdo is translated as helpmeet or fitting helper, but in turning it again, I think it means so much more than that.
Abarbanel explained the phrase as follows: “A ‘helper’ would imply another of just the same kind, as a doctor can help another doctor or a tailor another tailor. But a ‘fitting helper’ implies someone complementary.” Sforno builds upon this concept of complementary balance that a fitting helper would bring to the relationship. He commented: “Literally, an ‘opposite’ helper, the image coming from a set of scales, which rest precisely opposite each other when they are in balance.” Both Abarbanel and Sforno point out that opposites attracting leads to a balancing off of strengths and weaknesses, such that the couple is stronger together than they would be apart or with someone who is more similar.
But while Abarbanel and Sforno both point to the balance that opposites can bring to a relationship, Chasidic master Rabbi Mordechai Leiner points out that opposites can in fact drive the other to greater heights. He wrote in “Living Waters”: “God specifically wanted man to have a helpmeet who would be against him, as is the case with a student and his teacher. Thus we find (in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 84) that Rabbi Johanan cried when Reish Lakish died, because he felt he had bothered him needlessly by asking 24 questions on every statement Reish Lakish had made, which had required the latter to give 24 answers — but which at the same time had led to a better comprehension of the law. A basic principle of all creation is that it is opposition which creates unity.” In other words, it is through the clash of opposites that a greater truth is revealed.
Somehow today, we have gotten away from the idea that the clash of opposites is a good thing. Somehow, we have gotten to the place where those who hold opposite views and ideas are not just wrong, but the enemy to be crushed. That for me to be right, you must be destroyed. We have moved away from the concept of a loyal opposition, an opposition whom we disagree with but whom we recognize as also wanting what is best for society. Instead we have moved to a poisonous belief that those who disagree with us are traitors who wish to destroy all of society. In reality what we need — what we desperately need — is to learn from the phrase ezer k’negdo, an opposite helper. We need to recognize once again that those who hold opposite views from our own can help us and all of society to achieve greater heights.
Rabbi Ben Sternman serves Adat Chaverim in Plano and is the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.