The Talmud relates (Yevamot 63b) that it was customary in ancient Israel to ask a newly wed groom “Have you found or do you find?” The question refers to an apparent contradiction between two statements of King Solomon, the wisest of men. In the book of Proverbs (18:22) he declares “He who has found a woman has found good.” Yet in the book of Ecclesiastes (7:26) he states “And I find woman bitterer than death.”
Although these two verses seem to convey conflicting images of woman, if we examine them closely we can detect some subtle grammatical differences that will explain the apparent discrepancy. To begin with, the verb in the former verse is in the past tense–“he who has found a woman,” whereas in the latter it is in the present tense–“and I find woman.”
According to our tradition (Zohar 343b), the souls of the truly matched couple derive from a common soul-essence. For this reason, the two are destined even before birth to unite in matrimony. The use of the past tense in affirming the good to be found in marriage suggests that–both in the process of seeking a wife and in relating to the woman he has married–a man should strive to discover and focus on this deep-rooted, shared mutual identification.
Should he ignore this instruction and focus instead on the transient gratification of his immediate desires and predilections–as implied by the present tense employed in the second verse–the relationship will inevitably prove to be a bitter one.
This is further alluded to by the fact that in the first verse the verb (“he who has found”) is followed directly by its object (“a woman”), implying that what the husband has sought and found is indeed his wife. His mind and heart focus on her, and his conscious concern is to meet her needs and the needs of his family, as opposed to his own. This is the foundation of a happy married life.
In the second verse, however (which in the original literally reads “and find I bitterer than death the woman”), the subject (“I”) is interposed between the verb (“find”) and its object (“woman”), thereby implying that the man is really more concerned with finding himself–i.e., with his own self-gratification.
Thus, selflessness is the key to “finding” and relating to one’s wife at the level of their common soul-root. The egocentric husband will be unable to achieve a genuine, mutual relationship with his wife that will sweeten with time rather than grow bitter.
Although in such a case the husband is apt to feel that his wife has become “bitterer than death,” it is in fact his own interposed “I” (which he projects on her) that has become so. This is indicated by the fact that the phrase “bitterer than death” directly follows the word “I,” even before the mention of “the woman.”
Let us look at these verses again. The first verse reads in full “He who has found a woman has found good, and will elicit [good] will from G-d.”
The second verse reads in full “And I find woman bitterer than death, for her heart is snares and nets, and her hands are fetters. He who is good before G-d will flee from her, but he who sins shall be caught by her.”
In other words, just as King Solomon calls the positive relationship between husband and wife “good,” so does he call the flight from a negative relationship “good.” The previously self-seeking husband begins his return to the “good” state by reorienting his consciousness such that he stands “before G-d” rather than being concerned solely with himself. By doing this, he “flees from her,” i.e., from the image of his own ego that he has projected onto his wife. Only then can he proceed to find his true soul-mate.