The Torah in Parashat Bereshit tells about the beginning of the world and of mankind, and also of the beginning of marriage. We are told that after G-d created Adam, He created a woman alongside him, to be an “Ezer Ke’negdo” (2:18), which literally means, “a helper opposite him.” Many commentators have noted that this term appears to be an inherent contradiction. The word “Ke’negdo” implies an opposing force which is applied against a person. How can somebody who works against a person be considered his or her “helper”?
The Netziv (Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin, 1816-1893) offered an explanation of this phrase at a Sheva Berachot celebration held after his granddaughter’s marriage to Rav Haim Soloveitchik (1853-1918). He noted that all people, every one of us, faces a grave dilemma of sorts. No person is perfect, yet people are naturally blind to their faults. We all have flaws in our character and conduct that we need to correct, but we are, by nature, prejudiced in our own favor, and thus we do not often notice these flaws. As such, we are trapped. We need to improve, but we are seldom capable of seeing where we need to improve.
Marriage, the Netziv explained, is intended, in part, to resolve this dilemma. Spouses help one another by being “Ke’negdo,” through the ability to view one another objectively. In a healthy marriage, the husband and wife are each the devoted “Ezer” of the other, sincerely interesting in helping and assisting one other. And they can do this by being “Ke’negdo,” by living “opposite” one another and seeing where the other needs to improve. It goes without saying that this must be done carefully, respectfully, and in moderation. Constant or even frequent criticism is not going to help at all. However, the Netziv said, fortunate is the person whose spouse is “Ke’negdo,” able and willing to correct his or her mistakes. We do not get married so that our spouse will always agree with us and always tell us how wonderful we are. As important as it is in marriage to be yielding and to give compliments, the true “helpmate” is one who occasionally, and in an appropriate manner, points out mistakes and flaws that need to be corrected, so that both husband and wife can learn from one another and grow together throughout their lives.