Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Jewish woman par excellence

My own personal Eshet Chayil- photo courtesy of Geoff Karr
Every year Kenton Shul honours two special ladies who have done so much for the community. We call them “Women of Worth” This year we honoured Clemy Lazarus and Kathy Peters. We wish them all the very best, and they should have lots of joy from their children and grandchildren.

Here are a few words that I spoke in Shul this past Shabbat :

Did you know that up in heaven there are two queues for the men? One is a very long one; the one for hen-pecked men. The other for non hen-pecked men, has only one person standing in line. The angel goes up to him and says:
“What are you doing standing alone in this line?”
He answers: “My wife told me to stand here!”

Today I intend to speak a little about the Jewish woman, but I feel a certain inadequacy here. First, because I’m not a woman, but second, because I see my wife and how she is able to multi task and juggle all the things that I, in my deficiency cannot do- and I ask:  Who and what am I? I am humbled when I am in the presence of a true Eshet Chayil.

But these words Eshet Chayil what do they really mean?
We know that the phrase comes from the Book of Proverbs chapter 31 Verses 10- 31. These words are supposed to be read, chanted or sung by a husband to his wife on a Friday night. It’s because the Jewish woman is the hub- the core of the Jewish home.
When we speak of our Women of worth we seem to be following the old Singers Prayer book which translates the word Chayil as worth- the woman of worth:
“Who can find the woman of worth- for her price is far beyond rubies”.
But not every Siddur translates the same.
The Centenary edition translates it: The valiant woman. Etymologically this could be more correct- the noun chayal- a soldier is a person of valour.
The Artscroll translation renders; the accomplished woman, and the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur translates; the woman of strength–and there’s a comment from the Chief Rabbi who says that the word Chayil in the opening phrase signifies strength both moral and physical.
I could be naughty and translate the word in the context of Sedra Ekev which renders the word Chayil as wealth.
“Who can find the wealthy woman for her price is far beyond rubies?” In my humble opinion all the above could be applicable to a true Eshet Chayil. A woman of: valour, worth, strength, accomplishment. The main thing is that the Eshet Chayil is the Jewish woman par excellence to whom we look for inspiration.

This morning’s Sedrah we read about the last three plagues, the killing of the first born. How Pharaoh finally acquiesces to let the Israelites free, and how G-d instructed Moses in the taking of the Paschal lamb, the eating of the Matzah and Marror, the keeping of the Chag HaPesach- the relating of the Exodus from Egypt; all of these things are to be found in this morning’s Sedrah and much more.
The Gemara in Pesachim discusses the obligations of women in relation to the four cups of wine at the Seder; the eating of Matzah and maror; the participation in the Hagadah. Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi says that the Jewish woman is duty bound to keep these mitzvoth even though they are time bound mitzvoth in which they are not usually obligated because  “they were involved in the miracle”.
According to the Rashbam- the Jewish women were delivered by Hashem from the hands of the Egyptians just like all the other Israelites so therefore they have an obligation as well to thank Hashem.
Tosfot takes it one step further.
He says that it’s not just because the Jewish woman was delivered from slavery but more. It was the Jewish woman who was intimately involved in the deliverance of the Israelites. In the words of the Midrash:
“In the merit of the righteous women of that generation our forefathers went out of Egypt”.
We are reminded of the two Hebrew midwifes Shifra and Puah who refused to listen to the decree of Pharaoh to throw the Hebrew children in the Nile. Or, Miriam and Yocheved who protected the baby Moshe whilst in Pharaoh’s palace. We are reminded also of the Jewish women who still continued to have children despite the decrees against them.

However, there are those who postulate that Judaism doesn’t look too favourably on the role of the Jewish woman.
We start with creation. Adam was created first, meaning or implying that somehow the woman is inferior- the woman being created from the tzelah –the rib/side of Adam.
Even later on when Adam was commanded NOT to eat from the Etz Hadaat- it was Eve who succumbed and tempted Adam to eat of its fruit.
It implies that the woman is of the weaker sex.
Indeed even in the role of the Jewish woman today- women are told that they are relieved from mitzvoth that have any time element.
What? Are women just not good enough?

There are answers to these questions.
At the creation of woman the Torah says that G-d caused man to fall asleep

Vayiven et hatzelah- and he built the rib

Notice the word Vayiven comes from the same root as binah meaning understanding.
Indeed our Rabbis learn from this:
 Binah yeterah nitnah beishah- a greater binah perception/ intuition was given to woman. So far from being a put down, Man was created first because he was the prototype, the trial product but the Woman has a deeper greater spiritual understanding. So far from being inferior the woman comes out better.

It was Eve who was tempted by the serpent to eat of the fruit, she in turn gave it to Adam.
But look into the Torah again. Who was the one commanded directly by G-d NOT to eat of the fruit?
It was Adam.
Eve had received the information second hand with a bit of corruption in between- and somehow it had lost something in the transmission process.

In two weeks time we read Sedra Yitro. G-d says to Moses; Ko tomar lebeit Yaakov vetageid livnei yisrael- Thus you shall say to the House of Jacob and you shall tell the Children of Israel.
Our Sages say: Beit Yaakov- these are the women-bnei yisrael - these are the men. Moses; when you are about to give the Torah to Israel say to the women first and only after that to the men, because it is the Jewish woman who has the power to influence the Jewish man.
If the Jewish woman is keeping kosher, then all the household keeps Kashrut. The same goes to many of the other Mitzvot. It is the woman who holds the rein of power who has the binah yeteira the extra understanding to transform the household into a place of holiness. And it is the Jewish woman who has the binah to educate our children in their formative years and bring them a love and a feeling for Judaism.
Shabbat Shalom!

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