The Torah tells us that after G-d created Adam, He said: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him." (Genesis 2:18) These words have often been misinterpreted, so much so, that they have come to be associated with the assignment of a demeaning status to women at large. The assumption is that Eve was created in order to fulfill an unskilled, debasing role requiring a minimum of talent and intelligence.
There is a basic error here. The Torah clearly did not assign Eve the task of serving as a "cleaning woman." The fact of the matter is that she was designated as Adam's help meet while he and Eve were still in the Garden of Eden, and all their needs were met by heaven. The Midrash clearly describes how angels were sent to fill the physical needs of Adam and his wife. Their food was provided for them directly by Heavenly messengers. Even so, G-d declared that it was "not good for Adam to be alone."
Why did Adam need a help meet? Obviously, not to cook, clean, and launder for him. Rather, Eve's task was to serve as his companion in spirituality, in achieving his life's task of serving G-d. At that juncture, while Adam was still in the Garden of Eden, his task in life was purely spiritual. It was only in consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve that they were fated to till the ground and to provide their own sources of food.
Given that the task of serving as a "helpmeet" cannot be explained as providing culinary and cleaning services, we must look for another meaning, as explained in traditional sources.
Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, and has not another to lift him up.
The Talmud compares the weight a person can lift off the ground to that which he can carry once a load is on his shoulder. It tells us that the ratio is three to one, that is, if I am capable of lifting 10 pounds off the ground, I can carry 30 pounds on my shoulder once others help me to place it there (Tractate Sotah 34).
The same principle applies to bearing the burdens of life. "Two are better than one." Having someone with whom to share life's challenges doubles and triples one's capacity. Rabbi Samson Refael Hirsch writes:
(Man's task in life) is too great for the individual; it must be shared between two. Therefore man was given a wife, so that together, they might completely fulfill the mission assigned to man.
G-d declared that Adam and Eve "become one flesh" because it was through them both together that their joint mission would be achieved. Even though their individual tasks differed, they complemented each other, so that in combination, as a united whole, they could achieve the purpose for which G-d had created and joined them.
In the words of the Sages:
A man cannot succeed without a wife, a woman cannot succeed without a husband, and neither of them can succeed without the Presence of G-d.
(Jerusalem Talmud, Berochos 62b)
This is because each of them complements the other. Without his or her spouse, neither can fulfill his mission on this earth. Consequently, he or she will not be able to experience the inner happiness and inner satisfaction that comes from achieving perfection and fulfilling one's purpose in life.
Help in Educating Offspring
Marriage does not imply that the woman's role is secondary to that of her husband. A wife is an integral part of the pair who completes one another to create a single unit. Our forefather Abraham was chosen by G-d to found the Jewish nation because of his devotion to the education of his offspring:
For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the L-rd…
(Genesis 18:19 )
His entire life was directed to raising a son who would follow in G-d's ways and make His Name known in the world. This is the life-purpose of every Jew. Our task is to prepare ourselves and our children to receive G-d's blessings. To this end, G-d chose the people of Israel and revealed His Torah to them, that they might bequeath it to their children and children's children after them.
"So that you may tell in the ears of thy son, and of your son's son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the L-rd."
Our assignment is to receive the Torah and to pass it on to the generations to come. It is too great an undertaking for one person to accomplish on his own. Therefore G-d assigned it to a couple, so that they might divide the tasks between them. Woman was created so that man might fulfill his task to the maximum. Both father and mother play a role in transmitting the Torah further, as the verse tells us:
For I was a son to my father, a tender, only child in the sight of my mother.
Hearken, my son, to the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the teaching of thy mother;
The Women's Role in Sublimating the Physical World
Man fulfills his goal by sublimating the material for spiritual purposes. His every act can potentially fulfill this goal. Our forefathers, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, are buried in Hebron, the city whose very name indicates a combining (hibur) of Heaven and earth. These founders of our nation achieved lives of complete sanctity, in the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their lives, so that they reached the level of human perfection. All of their deeds were dedicated to the purpose for which G-d created them. The Matriarchs attained even greater sanctity than that of their husbands, because only they determined on what level the day-to-day routines of their households would be conducted. It is the mistress of the house who establishes the essential content of the family's life in this world.
All acts, even those which at first glance seemed to be intended to meet purely physical needs, can be imbued with immeasurable sanctity.
The Respect Due to the Jewish Woman
To avoid any misunderstanding, our Sages warn the bride and groom that neither of them is to regard the other as a lackey to meet his or her needs. If one is to be merely the servant of his or her spouse, neither partner will have the opportunity to attain their mutual goal as a husband and wife and to achieve perfection as a family. In addition, the love between them will not be the inner, pure love which the Creator intended should bond them into one.
The underlying value upon which the Jewish home must be based is the mutual respect of each spouse for the other. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes:
And thus commanded the Sages, that a husband should show more respect for his wife than he does for himself … and so did the Sages command upon the wife that she should honor her husband exceedingly."
(Rambam, Laws of Marriage, 15:18-19)
Many women make the mistake of thinking that the obligation to honor their husbands diminishes their personal status. This opinion ignores the husband's obligation to honor his wife. Secondly, showing deference for one's spouse creates awareness that he or she has an equal share in the partnership that the couple aspires to attain. In other words, a bond of mutual respect is a step towards success in attaining their mutual goal, and the happiness inherent in accomplishing their joint objective together.