If the man is the head, what is the woman?
In 1923, A young Jewish Austrian psychiatrist published a book called The Ego and the Id, introducing a new groundbreaking theory on the human mind. Freud’s theory was, in short, that “the human personality has three distinct components: the id, ego, and super-ego. One’s impulses, drives, and desires are a part of the id, operating on a pleasure/pain principle (‘Id’). Left unchecked, these impulses would drive an adult person to try to satisfy their urges immediately with no regard to consequences. On the other hand, the ego is rooted in the ‘reality’ principle and ends up limiting or balancing the id’s behaviors by determining what is appropriate based on social conventions (‘Ego’).”
Three hundred years prior to Freud, there was another person who also described the id-ego principle, though a tad more artistically than Freud. In his famous tragic story, Macbeth, Shakespeare describes how one’s deep impulses and desires (the kind of Freudian “id”) can lead to immorality. Lady Macbeth acts as a sophisticated Freudian id, to influence her husband’s (Macbeth’s) ego, taking action with no understanding of the true consequences of her immoral actions. (She wanted to become the queen (responding to her “id”), so she manipulated and convinced Macbeth to kill the King, Duncan, seeking only to achieve her desires with little care for the consequences.)
This motive is also sometimes referred to as the Faustian motive or “Faustian bargain” (after Goethe’s Faust, who makes a deal with the devil by Act 3), i.e., a type of “id”, to fulfill his desires with no regard for the greater consequences.
For Chazal (the Jewish Sages), this phenomenon was already clear a few thousand years before Freud, Goethe, and Shakespeare. In this week’s parshah, our Sages relate how a woman’s desires and wisdom can influence her husband’s destiny.
The parshah contains the story of one of the worst internal rebellions in Jewish history. Korach, one of the leaders of the Jewish people, leads the uprising against Moses and is successful in recruiting masses to join him. But the Midrash points out that it was actually not Korach who was the source of the rebellion, but rather it was his wife. Likewise, the Sages also point out that in the meantime, Korach’s partner, On the son of Peles, was saved by his wife because she prevented him from becoming involved. The Sages of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 110a) apply to these two women the verse in Proverbs (14:1), “The wisdom of a woman can establish her home, and the foolish woman destroys it with her own hands.”
A man’s wife has the influence to bring about his success and failure. In Jewish terms, she is called man’s ezer kenegdo (lit. a “helper opposed to him”). The “ezer kenegdo” is based on the assumption that women can persuade and encourage men to do what they want, whether it’s right or wrong. The “ezer kenegdo” oxymoron means much more than the well-known quote, “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” A wife (ideally) knows and understands her husband’s true features and faults (often even more than he does) and is thus able to “help” him when he is on the right path and “oppose” him when he is on the wrong path.
This week’s parshah shows how it was a woman behind the scenes (both in the case of Korach and in the case of On) who shaped the fate of the two men. Korach’s wife (similar to Macbeth’s wife) was politically-minded and wanted power, so she convinced her husband, Korach, to rebel against Moshe. In the case of On, although he began as a follower of the rebellion, his wife saw that this was a path of falsehood, and so she convinced her husband not to join and thereby saved him from destruction.
In the Jewish tradition, it has been the Jewish woman who intuitively knows how to proceed along the right path. The Sages tell us that it was in the merit of the righteous women in Egypt that the Jews were redeemed from slavery – that’s big! Then later it is the women who receive great merit for not participating in the sin of the Golden Calf or in the sin of the spies. The Torah says: “Thus shall you say to Beit Yaakov [women], and you shall tell Bnei Israel [men]” (Ex. 19:3) – The Sages explain this to mean that “Moshe first offered the Torah to women and only then to men”, signifying that if the women accept the Torah first, then their husbands will follow.
In other words – as was so eloquently put in My Big Fat Greek Wedding – “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants.” Or as the final words of Goethe’s Faust: “The Eternal Feminine Leads us onward.”
PS: The final words of the Torah are “…in the sight of all of Israel”. All of Israel means ALL. Both “Beit Yaakov” and “Bnei Israel”, both woman and man. In the Jewish understanding, the only way forward is for the masculine and the feminine to oppose, balance, and thus complete each other.