The Tree of Life /3
Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni

And God saw: it is not good for Adam to be alone

“Death will come and will have your eyes” (Cesare Pavese)


“It is not good for Adam to be alone.The creation is completed when that ‘something very beautiful and very good’ – Adam – is revealed as a plural reality, and becomes a person. The rhythm of the second chapter of Genesis is fascinating and amazingly rich as it leads from Adam (the human being) to man and woman.

From the very beginning, Adam is placed in the garden of Eden, he takes care of it and cultivates it: that is, he works. Two of the trees have a name: ‘the tree of life‘ and ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil‘.

Adam is allowed to eat the fruits of the tree of life and the other trees but not those of the second tree. And at this point Elohim says: “It is not good for Adam to be alone.” And so: “I will make for him a helper as his counterpart.” (2:18). For the first time, in a creation that is still all good and beautiful, we find that there is something that is “not good“, which has to do with loneliness, a relational shortcoming. This is where one of the most striking and rich passages of Genesis starts. There is an assembly of animals and birds of the sky in front of Adam. Adam gives them their name, that is, he enters into a relationship with them, gets to know them and discovers their nature and mystery; but at the end of this procession of the non-human creation Adam is not satisfied because he has not yet found any creature that could stand by his side as his ‘counterpart’.

There is a turning point here in the narrative that pushes the reader to position themselves on another level, to enter into a new dimension of humanity. The ezer kenegdo enters the scene, a Hebrew expressionthat refers to taking a glance of something and the eyes themselves. We could translate it as ‘someone with whom you can exchange glances as equals’; someone who stands opposite you at the same level, ‘eye to eye’. It is the first human encounter. The first eyes that saw other eyes that are completely the same and completely different: “Now this is it, at last!” (Cf.: 2:23) It is also the debut of man (male) and woman: before this first meeting there is only Adam, the earthling (adamah means earth).

History does not begin by sin, but with the exchange of looks by counterparts. The ezer kenegdo is the woman, the ishàh standing face to face with the ish (man), just as ish is facing ishàh: “man [ish] has a yod more than woman [ishàh], while woman has a he more than man. If we combine these two letters that distinguish the two names we get יה i.e. Yah, which is the short form of the sacred tetragrammaton for the name of God” (Franco Galeone). True human nature is relational, contained and explained in the male-female relationship (1.27) which is the one founding and generating all others.

For Adam’s happiness Eden with its trees and its fruits is not enough. Animals are not enough either, because they are not his ‘counterparts’ and they do not fill the gap of human loneliness (even if there is a certain culture today, with an impressive business, presenting them as perfect substitutes for the eyes of the other). They can only accompany man, providing a company that is sometimes valuable and helps us to live, and is all for the better if embedded within human relationships. For pleasure only, Adam may be enough, for happiness, however, both ish/ishàh are needed, just as those special eyes that welcome us when we are born, and are the last ones we’ll see on this earth, those that in the end will close ours, and those we would like to see again first upon ‘reopening them’. But we must practice it all this life so that the eyes that we seek are those of the other person, not our own reflection in their eyes; and only when we actually manage to meet and truly recognize each other in our true diversity will their gaze return to us what is the best part in us. The lack of someone watching us so, someone to recognize us and reveal us to ourselves is among the most severe forms of poverty and deprivation of the person, which is very frequent where there are great richness and great power – and where you are rarely looked at and loved as an equal.

It’s striking how even this description of man-and-woman flies immensely higher than its own time. The sacred author could only see a reality of submission and inferiority of women around and behind him, but he was inspired to write a song about reciprocity between men and women. A song of love but also a critical judgment on the world of yesterday and today, as the result of a disorder, a deviation, a downfall. But in the beginning there was the ezer kenegdo. Human history out of Eden was not only the denial of Adam with Cain, it was also the betrayal of the primordial reciprocity of ezer kenegdo in the many ‘Adams’ who desecrated the moral equality, equal respect, freedom and dignity of women.

Men and women have nevertheless cooperated. The woman has always been the first helper of man, and vice versa. But in the streets and in our homes our eyes did see counterparts in each other. The differences in work, educational, civic and institutional opportunities, and often in those for happiness were too large – and are still in too many places. Although, we must not forget, even in the most sexist societies of the past and the present there have always been times and places where a man and a woman could exchange glances at par. Many daughters were saved because sometimes they have been able to see that original look of Eden through the eyes of their parents.  And they still see it, look for it, fight for it to become culture, politics, rights.

The question about the ish-ishàh relation is at the core of every civilization, even our own. Some good answers are beginning to arrive, but many forms of deception are still continued, too, just like those that are common in large companies where you think you have reached the equal dignity ‘conceding’ the (few) women to take leadership roles in organizations where the culture, language, admission tests, incentives and the rules of the game have been entirely written by ‘ish’ without ‘ishàh’. If and when we have to revise not only the language, but the criminal justice systems, schools, politics, finance and tax collection with the ish-ishàh reciprocity in mind, the work awaiting us will be huge, but exciting and decisive, too. When we lack this fundamental reciprocity, women suffer a lot, but men also suffer because the happiness of all is inside this reciprocity between equals.  When we lose the gaze of the other who is our counterpart, we lose the sense of the limit, we get lost, we become masters or subjects, we no longer understand who we are and generate a thousand moral and spiritual disorders.

There are a great deal of challenges and questions that the humanism of the ezer kenegdo caters to our economy and society. Just think of work. Adam took care of the garden and cultivated it even in times of loneliness. You can work on your own, too. But work is a fully human experience and the venue for ethical excellence when we are not alone, and when we, men and women, can work together as equals. If the fruits of labour, even if salaries are measured in millions, are not shared at home in an ‘eye to eye‘ way, they do not become full happiness – at the most they can get us some comfort and pleasure. The eyes of those we love multiply our salaries, they can make the yoke of unemployment bearable, and when they are missing even the best pay slips become signs of poverty.

It is not good for Adam to be aloneis then also a word addressed to our work. We have worked and are working in the factories, in the fields, in the mines and remained human because we did it together, side by side, because we have crossed gazes at par, even when our eyes were filled with tears or anger. Work culture and its new forms of organization in our days are likely to bring us back to the phase of the lonely Adam. Not only because of the development of new technologies (often without eyes to look and bodies to touch), but even more so for an anthropological vision that thinks to increase the well-being and reduce injuries by simply deleting (or procedurising and sterilizing) the human encounters at par. And so we end up recreating artificial Edens around the individual-worker, populated only by trees and snakes, but without the joy of living.

Every time that we do not want or are not able to look each other in the eyes as equals, we end up contenting ourselves with ever lower looks, we ask too little of ourselves and others, and the fruits of the Tree of Life remain unripe. The sad Ish is back in Eden without human gazes, and hears it again, echoed in the garden: “It is not good for Adam to be alone.

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on March 2, 2014

Translated by Eszter Kató