Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Leviticus, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern
Our sidra of this morning opens with the commandment to the kohen that he not defile himself by contact with the corpse of any person save his closest relatives. These include his father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and unmarried sister. Before these, however, appears one category which presents a problem. The Torah expresses this as “she’eiro hakarov eilav,” which most English translations render as, “his kin who is nearest to him” (Leviticus 21:2). This would indicate that this expression is but an introduction to the detailed list of relatives that follows. However, our tradition (Yevamot 22b) has declared that the word “she’eir” refers to one’s wife who, therefore, is the first instance of a relative to whom a kohen may, indeed must, defile himself in order to accord her her last honor.
The question is: Why did the Torah not say directly and explicitly that the kohen may defile himself for his wife? Why this peculiar idiom? And if indeed “she’eir” does mean a wife, why is it in the masculine form?
The answer offered by the Keli Yakar – and anticipated by the Rashbam in his commentary to the Talmud – is rather prosaic; in fact, so prosaic as to be almost banal. Yet, it says something to us of great significance. “She’eir” means a wife because, he tells us, the word originally means “food,” as in the Biblical expression “she’eira kesuta ve’onata” (Exodus 21:10).
But why does the Torah use the word “she’eir” for “wife,” when it means “food”? And the answer that is offered is: because it is she who prepares her husband’s food for him!
What a disappointing and pedestrian answer! But what he means is clearly more than the reduction of the role of the wife to chief cook and bottle washer. On the contrary, the reference to a man’s “she’eir,” his wife, as “hakarov eilav,” as one who is close to him, indicates that the wife’s occupation as “she’eir” somehow attains a significance that makes her exceedingly close to her husband, closer than any two beings can otherwise be to each other.
In support of his answer, the Keli Yakar quotes a remarkable passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 63a) in which we are told that Rabbi Jose met (in a mystical vision) the prophet Elijah. Rabbi Jose presented to the prophet some of the problems that were bothering him. He said to the prophet: In the Torah it is written “e’eseh lo eizer kenegdo,” that God, noticing the loneliness of Adam, said, “I shall make for him a helpmeet for him” (Genesis 2:18). Now, in what way is a wife a help for her husband? (A strange question, but a question nonetheless.) To this the prophet answered: When the husband comes home from the field and brings with him wheat, can he eat the wheat as it is? Does he not require the service of his wife in threshing it, grinding it, baking it, and thus making it fit and palatable for him? Or, he comes home laden with flax. Is it possible for him to wear the flax as it is, without his wife weaving it into a proper garment for him? By means of her assistance, she “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet.” Thus, the function of a wife, in the material sense, is to take the raw material provided for her by her husband and make it palatable and usable for him and her family.
One wonders – for such an interpretation of the function of a wife we need the prophet Elijah? But if we look a bit deeper, we find that we have here indeed an insight of rare wisdom. For, in order to truly be one who enlightens the eyes and places a man on his feet in stability, a wife must take not only the raw material that her husband gives her, but the raw material that her husband is, and transform every great potential within him, every advantageous possibility that he possesses, into a creative reality. That is why the wife is called “she’eir.” For just as nutritionally she converts the wheat into bread, just as her fingers weave the flax into clothing, so psychologically she must draw out all hidden talents from her husband, she must bring out the best in him. When she has done that, in this larger sense, then indeed she is one who “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet.”
This, then, is the true meaning of eizer, a helpmeet. One who “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet” is not a servant, or an assistant, or simply an extra pair of hands. Rather, such a woman is a catalyst of human development and progress, one who can creatively elicit from the deepest resources of a person that which is valuable, constructive, and enduring. Such an individual is an artist whose medium is the human personality, one who helps to release untapped human energy or, in the language of the Kabbala, an agent of the emergence “min hane’elam el hagalui,” of that which is hidden to that which is revealed.
Hence, the true wife is the kind of she’eir who is “hakarov eilav,” who is indeed close to her husband, closer than words can describe, because she is a veritable “eizer kenegdo,” a helpmeet for him. Just as she takes the raw food and transforms it into a palatable delicacy, so she is even closer in that she takes the raw potentialities that he brings to her – and no living, dynamic human being is ever complete and perfect – and encourages the emergence of his underdeveloped abilities. And this dynamic works both ways – in a marriage, each partner is a she’er for the other, bringing out the best in the other.
The same even holds true, although perhaps to a lesser extent, for any devoted relative or teacher or friend – not the least of which is a parent. The role of such a person, no matter what the relationship, is to teach not in the sense of informing, but in the sense of molding and shaping and directing the inner life so that it emerges more developed and more finely oriented.
What is true for individuals holds true for communities as well. Thus, the relationship of Israel to the United States is, or ought to be, that of husband and wife, that of one who “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet.” On this Sabbath before Israel’s Independence Day, we of course are concerned about Israel’s military security and economic well-being. But over and beyond that, each country must help bring out the best in the other – each must assist the other in focalizing its major concerns and directing its energies creatively instead of squandering them diffusely. Israel must help American Jewry survive with its moral concern for other Jewries intact, and not to imagine that it is sufficient to be complete Americans of Jewish persuasion. And American Jewry must help Israel realize the purpose of its existence, which is much more than being just another Levantine state, by placing demands on its spiritual reservoirs and demanding a certain quality of life therein.
As in marriage, this creative agency of helping to bring out the best is usually through sweet reasonableness and encouragement; but sometimes, it works also through criticism and reproach and rebuke. Sometimes indeed the best way to be an eizer is by being kenegdo, over against a mate; so each of us – Israeli and American Jewry – must not be hypersensitive to criticism. It is quite alright to be kenegdo, provided the purpose is always to be an eizer. Only thus can we be for each other one who “brings light to his eyes and puts him on his feet,” enlightening and stabilizing.
But most of all the greatest eizer is God Himself. Thus we read in the Psalms (121:1) words which are known to us through the prayer book, “shir lama’alot, a song of ascent, I lift up my eyes to the hills (el heharim), from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord who makes heaven and earth.” The greatest eizer is God Himself.
Our Rabbis in the midrash on this psalm (Yalkut Shimoni, Psalms 879) pointed out that unlike the other psalms in this section, this one is introduced by the words “shir lama’alot” rather than “shir hama’alot,” “this is a song for the purpose of steps” – that is, this song is that which assists the righteous man in rising up the steps from his own soul to the divine Throne of Glory. This psalm tells us how to bring out the best in ourselves, ascending the ladder of the spirit.
God, Torah, and faith provide for us a sense of purposefulness which enables us to harness all our energy towards one goal, like a magnet acting on a disoriented group of iron molecules, focusing all of them in one direction – or like a laser beam, which, by causing all the light rays to go in one direction, gives us a tool of unprecedented power.
Moreover, the midrash saw in this psalm about eizer a historical reference of great tenderness and pathos. They say that it was uttered for the first time by our father Jacob, and the word should be read not “harim” but “horim,” not mountains, but parents. When Jacob was about to meet his beloved Rachel, he thought of the time that his father first met his mother. “I lift up my eyes el heharim (or horim)” means, I lift up my eyes and recall the time that my parents first met. How different were their circumstances! When they met, Isaac had Eliezer as his servant or ambassador bearing carloads of gifts and jewels and gems for his wife Rebecca. They began life with all the economic advantages that any young couple could ever want. And here I am, coming to my beloved Rachel as a fugitive from a hateful brother, fleeing for my life, in tatters, hungry and tired with not a penny to my name. “From where shall my help come?”
And his answer came: My help, my “she’eir,” comes from the Lord, “who makes heaven and earth.” God, who fashioned and ordered the world out of the primordial chaos, the “tohu vavohu,” He will do the same for my own life. It is He who will be my eizer by bringing out the best in me and allowing this best to emerge from the depths of my heart and soul to overcome my infirmities and my poverty and the harshness of life about me. Indeed, Isaac and Rebecca started out life with a great deal of wealth – yet they were not altogether happy. Somehow their relationship was not quite smooth – they often failed to communicate with each other. Whereas Jacob and Rachel, despite the difficulties that beset them in the beginning, despite the harshness of their few years together and the tragedy which brought early death to Rachel, managed to attain a life which was blessed with love and affection. The quality of their relationship was sublime – many decades after her death, Jacob was to remember with warm affection the immortal bonds that held them together. No doubt the quality of their relationship was largely the result of the fact that they had to struggle during their early years, that he had to work seven years and seven years again in order to win the hand of his beloved wife, and that in this mutual struggle together each was an eizer for the other, each one brought out the best in the other.
This too was the way in which God proved to be an eizer to Jacob. He taught Jacob how to bring out the best in himself and in his wife. Indeed, the greatest gift from God is not outright blessing, but an indirect blessing in which God teaches us how to approach the raw material of life and fashion something of enduring value. We read “ezri mei’im Hashem,” “My help is [literally] from with the Lord,” not “mei’eit Hashem,” “from the Lord.” God does not usually answer our prayers
by sending us miraculous deliverance or depositing a fortune at our doorstep. Instead, the experience of being with God, of entrusting our confidence in Him, of being aware of his presence at all times, gives us the strength to reorient our lives, to redirect all our energies, to refocus all our desires towards Him. This was the way in which Jacob’s prayer was answered and his eizer came to him from the God who was the Creator of heaven and earth. Even as he prayed to God, saying, “As You helped my parents, so help me O God,” and his prayer was answered when God proved to be his eizer, by bringing out the best in him – so may our prayers be answered.
We too pray for the divine eizer. Our hope is that He will grant us that same assistance whereby, as a result, we shall be the beneficiaries of the enlightenment of our eyes and the stability of our feet.
*May 13, 1967.