Thank You Shabbat Six
April 13, 2018/30 Nisan, 5778
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
One Soul Residing in Two Bodies
The list is long of famous people we know simply by their first name. Elvis and LeBron, Madonna and Beyonce, Ringo and Yoko are a few of the many. But how many of us know Lucy? All of us should.
Lucy is our great grandmother, with “great” repeated to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago. Her official bionomenclature name is Australopithecus afarensis. However, she was given her name “Lucy” by the paleoanthropologists who discovered her bones in Ethiopia in 1974. Where did they came up with her name? From the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Every person on earth, now approaching 8 billion in number, is descended from Lucy.
The question I asked myself recently is what about Louie, our great grandfather to whatever mathematical power that goes back 3.2 million years ago? I’ve named him Louie not only for its assonance with Lucy, but also in the same Baby Boomer spirit, for the frat party classic “Louie, Louie.” Science is silent on the question of Louie’s identity and whereabouts, but the Torah has a well known answer, a single name known far better and far longer than Elvis, etc.: Adam.
Yet, for the Torah, this answer is far from sufficient. The Torah explains exactly why: “It is not good for the man – Adam – to be alone.” God then promised to make for Adam an “Azer Knegdo.” This Hebrew term is found nowhere else in the Torah or the entire Bible. As unique as it, it also has challenged and confounded generations of commentators and translators. English translations vary: a “fitting helper,” a “helper corresponding to him,” or two translations that elude my comprehension, a “help meet,” and a “helper over against him.”
Regarding the word “Azer,“ “helper,” the Torah is not – repeat not– offering a job description for a domestic employee. God Himself is called “Ezrat Yisrael”, The “Helper of Israel!” “Azer” is an expression of esteem.
Where the term “Azer Knegdo” gets tricky is with the second word, “Knegdo”; hence the confounding various translations. If we are confused, we should appreciate that God also was apparently confused. God needed two tries to remedy Adam’s aloneness. God’s first try was to give Adam all the cattle, the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field for Adam to name. This first try failed. God’s second try succeeded precisely because Adam had to give up a part of himself to eliminate his aloneness, a part from deep within himself. God cast a deep sleep upon Adam and took one of Adam’s ribs, then fashioned it into a woman and brought her to Adam. Adam welcomed her with “This one at last is bone of my bone” – indeed she was literally – “and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ‘Woman’ for from man she was taken.” The Torah text then declares, “Hence a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”
Thereafter Adam gave a proper name to the woman. Dollars to doughnuts, many more people on earth recognize her name than Lucy’s name: Eve, “Chava,” in the original Hebrew, meaning “the mother of all life.” Paired with Adam, they likely are humankind’s most famous single names.
According to the Midrash, God did not merely bring Eve to Adam, God officiated at their marriage, with the ministering angels serving as witness and then rejoicing with the bride and groom. From all of the above, we might learn the following.
First, nothing bespeaks the fact that we are created in God’s image more than the notion that is not good for us to be alone. This is reason why God created us in the first place: it was not good for God to be alone. God wanted to love something, someone, who could love God in return. The creation story in Genesis Chapter one, rises day upon day until God fulfills this need, this fundamental desire to love and to be loved, in the creation of man and woman. In turn, as Martin Buber so beautifully described in “I and Thou,” when we acknowledge one another’s existence in deep meaningful relationship, we also experience a finite part of the Infinite One dwelling in each of us. Buber would also teach that such connection can and should be sought in any relationship, but every human relationship began with Adam and Eve. The father and mother of all life were also the first husband and wife. Today we have several definitions of deep and committed relationships, any one of which can fulfill this intrinsic need that is both human and divine. However we may define them today, they all began with Adam and Eve. To our traditional commentators, they were one soul dwelling in two bodies, and so the commentators maintained for every couple whose love is sanctified in God’s Name.
Second, Adam and Eve were also the first parents. Given the tragic fate of their two sons, Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve may not have been the best parents. Neither were Adam and Eve role models for reciprocating God’s love. God gave them one simple command to keep as the expression of their love for God. Keeping this one command was all it took for them to remain happy ever after in the Garden of Eden. They blew it. Banished from paradise, Adam and Eve experienced many of the woes too familiar in our world. But they always had each other. And herein lies the real meaning of “Azer Knegdo.”
An anecdote and analogy….
With my retirement now seventy-seven days away, I will acknowledge something to you that I would only acknowledge to you seventy-seven days from retirement. I’m getting older.
The other night, Alice and I were out to dinner together, and we were talking about our undeniable signs of aging. I then offered an analogy that describes our relationship and what Alice has meant to me, not only at this point in my life but throughout our many years together, soon to be forty-four years of marriage and counting. I likened my life to a sail boat with myself the captain at the helm. The winds of life range from gentle, to steady and strong, to turbulent and torrential. The seas of life range from calm to tsunami. But Alice is always there as the keel that runs deep into the waters, the ballast that always steadies the boat whatever the conditions. This may not be a literal translation of “Azer Knegdo,” but to me it captures the essence of its meaning and its importance. Moreover as Alice is the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in my life, I am the “Azer Knegdo,” the keel, the ballast in hers.
And so I speak now especially to those of you who have come tonight in response to my invitation to the many brides and grooms for whom I officiated at their wedding ceremony. When we first met to discuss your love and marriage, especially if you were a young bride and groom, I am certain that I said that I hope you discover what I have discovered, that the longer you are together the deeper your love will grow. Such is the gift of being one another’s “Azer Knegdo.” If so, Mazal Tov!
I also want you to appreciate that as I combed through the Temple directory looking for all the members for whom I officiated, I found any number whose marriage ended sadly between Scylla and Charybdis, which is Greek mythology’s equivalent of the devil and the deep blue sea. That you safely traversed the occasional straits that challenge every life also merits a hearty Mazal Tov!
Next, I want to thank you for having me be a part of that most sacred and incomparable moment in your life. At the same time, I must confess that I approached every wedding with the burden of the highest expectations, stressed with the anticipation that I will be standing with you as God stood at Adam and Eve’s wedding, and this moment must be one of the happiest moments in your life, if not the happiest. Please know that I always strived to make it so. And please know that I was deeply gratified by your kind expressions of gratitude for the ceremony that I had led you through, as well as the kind comments I received afterwards from your families and friends in attendance. Thank you for making me feel that my burden and my striving ultimately measured up to your highest and happiest expectations.
Before I conclude, I must tell you a little story that tickled me. In a way, who knows wedding ceremonies better than photographers and videographers? Over the years, many have told me that my wedding ceremonies are the best. I’ve been to too many weddings over the years where other rabbis have officiated to accept such a compliment at face value. However, several years ago, one photographer asked me if I would officiate at his daughter’s wedding because he believes my ceremonies are so beautiful. The funny thing that tickled me: Neither the photographer, nor his daughter, nor her groom were Jewish. I accepted this invitation as a compliment … but because I am a rabbi, not a justice of the peace, I declined to officiate.
From Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Judaism’s message regarding love and marriage is loud and clear. It is God’s gift to you and your incomparable gift to each other. Mazal Tov! And thank you for inviting me to be the rabbi who launched you on your loving voyage.