The Torah uses very few words, which can leave the casual reader confused or even misinformed about what any given verse means. Careful study links the uses of words together, which will invariably help open up new – and sometimes clearly more correct – ways of understanding the text.
Take, for example, the creation of woman. The Torah says, “G-d said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him.” Or, if you prefer the King James: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
The problem is that the Hebrew words for “a counterpart/comparable” do not neatly translate into either of those meanings. The key word is neged, which is commonly translated – but only in this verse — as “comparable” or “opposed.” Everywhere else in the text, neged means something else. There are a few places where this word refers to being close to someone, in physical proximity (Ex. 19:2) or in someone’s presence (Ex. 34:10, Deut. 31:11), so it is reasonable to suggest that woman should be physically close to man. But that hardly tells us anything!
However, if we look at its dominant use in the text, we find another meaning entirely: neged means “to tell someone something,” something that they did not know beforehand.
So, for example:
Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told (neged) his two brothers outside. (Gen. 9:22)
Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell (neged) me that she was your wife? (Gen. 12:18)
A fugitive came and told (neged) Avram the Hebrew [that Lot was captured] (Gen. 14:13)
In all of these cases, information is shared – information that was not known previously, and which changes how the hearer acts. It changes how the recipient of the information sees his world.
The key is that the very first use of this word comes from a pivotal episode in the Garden. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, and they realized that they were naked. G-d comes to them and asks, “Who told (neged) you that you were naked?”
At first, this seems like sarcasm – which it certainly is, at least in part. After all, G-d surely knows the answer before He asks it.
But there is another element here as well: by using neged, G-d is asking a real question, “who gave you a different perspective?” Adam and Eve now see the world differently than they did before – even though the world itself had not changed at all! All that happened was that they became able to view themsleves and their world in a completely changed way than they had before! The world neged is about gaining a new vantage point from which to understand things, understanding something that we did not know before. In the text, this happens more often than not through speech, imparting of information through communication.
This perspective explodes the simple translation of the purposes of a woman as being a “helper comparable to him.” What we see is far richer, and much more interesting: a woman helps a man to see things from a different perspective. And she usually does it through speech, neged.
This explains why Adam needed a wife: a single man is too set in his view of the world, too inflexible in thought (with a belief in his own correctness), to be able to properly grow, change and develop. Women, as any married man can testify, undermines that perspective, forcing a man to change, to listen, to adapt. Women force men to grow.
The consequences of this understanding change a great deal of our comprehension of the world: if the purpose of marriage is (as the Torah repeatedly alludes) to prepare us for a more complete relationship with G-d, then it makes sense that learning to see the world through someone else’s eyes would be a necessary precondition for trying to understand G-d Himself!
Notes: Here are a few of the questions that the above understanding answers:
Adam’s response to G-d.
Remember that G-d made woman to help Adam see things from a different perspective. When he replies to G-d’s accusation, he suggests that it all must have been G-d’s doing!
Adam said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
In other words: Eve did precisely what she was created to do! Thanks to you giving me Eve, I now see things differently. I now see the world differently, thanks to your gift of the woman. She was a neged. She did her job.
When Hagar is evicted from Avram and Sarai’s home, she goes to the wilderness, and decides she is going to die. The verse is quite striking – as well as being odd.
And she went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting from neged, she raised her voice and cried.
That “from neged” is seemingly extra; it adds nothing to the plain meaning of the text. But if we see neged as being able to connect, to see something from someone else’s perspective, then the meaning is unveiled: Hagar is disassociating herself from her crying son’s perspective. She is keeping herself away from her son, where she cannot see things his way. That way she can wallow in her own loss, without turning into a mother who puts her son first. Hagar has chosen to block her maternal instincts, a mother’s ability to have empathy with her child. (I write on why a bowshot here.)
[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @susan quinn work]