Monday, October 17, 2011

Between Men and Women

This Shabbat we begin the Torah anew and with it we tell the story of the first couple and their early days on this planet. Even then men and women had their struggles. We read of the forbidden fruit and that Chava, the first woman, ate and then gave her husband, Adam to eat in defiance of G-d's command. When G-d challenges them to explain their sinful behavior, Adam immediately blames Chava saying "the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me of the fruit and I ate". Even then male-female relationships were complex, oscillating between love and hate, acceptance and disdain. And why not, in creating Chava G-d said "I will make for him an 'ezer knegdo', a helpmate opposite him." Yes men and women help each other. And yes, they are in many ways opposites. It is only in knowing both, that our spouse is indeed our partner, and that s/he is very much unlike us, that their can be any hope for a good union.

Lets explore this fascinating story of the sin of the forbidden fruit a bit further to see just how different male and female can be. When the serpent tries to entice Chava to eat the fruit,Chava tells him that the fruit is forbidden. She says to him, "Even though G-d told us that we may eat the fruit of all the trees of the garden, He forbade us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or even to touch it". The Sages of the Talmud point out that Chava added a restriction G-d never spoke. She added a prohibition to touch the tree. Nowhere do we find G-d forbade touching the tree. That added restriction, the rabbis point out, served to cause her downfall. The serpent seized the moment and pushed her into the tree. She saw that nothing happened as a consequence. She then concluded, if touching engendered no harm why should eating, since both were equally forbidden. The Sages discern from here that " all who add (meaning they embellish a prohibition) only serve in actuality to lesson its impact.

The question that leaps out at us is how is it that Chava added what G-d did not say? And if she did of her own, then how could she be deceived into believing that touching should have the same consequence as eating?

Many a commentary points out that Chava never heard directly from G-d the prohibition of eating from the fruit of the tree. She got her information from Adam.
It may well be that in telling her of G-d's rule he added the injunction, that G-d forbade touch as well. He did not trust his wife not to sin. He thought if he added a safeguard, prohibiting touch, it would serve to protect her from the real sin of eating from the tree.

Men and women often struggle to trust each other. They note the differences between themselves and their partner in temperament, personality, and life priorities. In not trusting its not uncommon for one to take added precaution with the other, to share truths in a less open way, for fear real honesty will cause a problem. Husbands and wives often hold back from each other or embellish to minimize what they fear will be the other's reaction or follow-up behavior.
From the story of Adam and Chava the Sages warned us, "Sometimes adding can turn out to be be subtracting". Though different than us, we need to risk in trusting our partner. There is no other option!

But there is more here than that. One great Bible commentary argues that Chava, in only hearing G-d's command from Adam, misinterpreted what G-d was actually saying.
She thought the ban on eating from the tree was not because of the impact eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil would have on them. Oh no, she thought the basis for the mitzvah not to eat of the tree was to protect the tree! Thinking that the prohibition was given to protect the tree, it was perfectly logical for her to infer that touching could be as consequential to the tree as eating the fruit. After-all it was not eating the fruit that mattered. To protect the tree, meant not taking from it. Touching then should have a similar deleterious consequence. And hence when the serpent pushed her into the tree and nothing bad happened to the tree she figured it was all okay.

Adam and Chava heard the same charge. Yet each heard in it something different. Adam heard in it a call to protect himself from eating that which G-d deemed detrimental to him. Chava heard a call to care for others, in this case the tree. Women and men hear things differently, even when the same words are used. Carl Jung wrote of masculine and feminine energy and how different they are. Masculine energy, typically dominant in men, is more linear, rational, valuing form, and practical, more focused on 'truth', and the right. Feminine energy, more often dominant in women is more metaphorical, spiritual, non-linear, relational, about persons rather than objective truth. It prioritizes peace and harmony over doing the right!

In marriages we see these differences between men and women all the time. Often they struggle to understand each other. A woman lives closer to her feelings. Whats true for her might seem factually incorrect to her husband. He might become angry at what he perceives as her failures. Yet the woman's priorities may be totally different and through those priorities she both sees the world and fixes her behaviors. In the context of her life's priorities and values she is not a failure at all and she resents her husbands insensitivities to what she perceives as her response to her call and life's work.

It is not surprising that marriage is a work and to have a successful marriages men and women need to understand that they are substantially different. They need to stop expecting the other to behave and think like themselves. Most importantly they need to cease being disparaging of the other's priorities or condescending. Adam and Chava in the Garden could easily do teshuva and repair their relationship with G-d.
It would take more to heal the tension between the genders and their respective ways of thinking, doing, and prioritizing. Those struggles, long after our banishment from Gan Eden, we continue to carry.

The beginning of the Torah and the beginning of the year impels us to make the work of understanding gender differences and showing respect for attitudes and behaviors other than our own a priority in our lives. If not we, like Adam early in the Garden, will remain alone.

Shabbat Shalom

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