“Jewish Women and Jewish Destiny”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Vayakhel, we encounter an intriguing set of verses. The vast majority of Parashat Vayakhel deals with erecting the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle–in almost excruciatingly painful detail.

In Exodus 35 verse 21, the Torah describes the various donations that were brought by the people as a “free willed offering.” “Va’ya’voh’oo kol eish asher ni’sa’oh lee’bo,” Every man whose heart inspired him came, and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion of G-d for the work of the Tabernacle for all its labor and for the sacred garments. Verse 22 then tells us that not only the men came, but the men came with the women. Everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose rings, rings, body ornaments, all sorts of gold ornaments. Everyone raised up an offering of gold to G-d.

But the Torah in verse 22 uses a very unusual expression in Hebrew, “Va’ya’voh’oo ha’a’na’shim al ha’na’shim.” Generally these words would be translated as “the men came along with the women,” but according to the Ramban, this term implies that the men were secondary to the women. Since the jewelry enumerated in the verse was worn mainly by women, the Torah, in effect, pays tribute to the women. For as soon as the women heard that precious metals were needed, they immediately removed their most precious possessions and rushed to bring them to the Tabernacle.

This verse and the interpretation extolling the women for their devotion to G-d and devotion to the cause of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, is only one of a broad series of verses and midrashim that appear throughout the Book of Exodus that underscore the uncompromised devotion of the women to G-d throughout the ordeal of servitude in Egypt, the rescue through the Exodus, and the entire 40 year period of wandering in the wilderness.

Early on in the story of the Exodus, Chapter 2, verse 1, the Torah tells us, “Vayelech eesh mee’bait Levy, va’yee’kach et bat Levy.” Now a man went from the House of Levy and took for his wife a daughter of Levy. This, of course, is referring to Amram, the father of Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, who marries his aunt Yocheved. Why does the Torah use the unusual expressions “Vayelech” and “Va’yee’kach,”–he went and he took? Rashi points out that because of Pharaoh’s decree that the male children be drowned upon their birth, Amram had separated from Yocheved, and they lived apart. Now, the Torah informs us that there was a reconciliation, and Amram took Yocheved his wife back, and entered into a second marriage with her. The Midrash elaborates, and informs us that when Pharaoh decreed that all the male children that were to be born would be drowned, Amram, who was the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Court of Law, and the highest ranking leader of Israel at that time, separated from his wife, so that no child would be born who would be destined to be drowned. Because of Amram’s position and prestige, most of the Jewish husbands did likewise. According to the Midrash, Amram’s young daughter, Miriam, then 6 years old, approached him and said, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh only decreed that the male children die, and you decreed that both male and female children never be born. Pharaoh only decreed that the children die in this world, and you have decreed that they will have not this world or the next. Pharaoh is wicked, and it is doubtful whether his decree will be fulfilled. But you, Amram, are a righteous person and there is no question whether your decree will be fulfilled.” When Amram heard this, he was filled with remorse and brought Miriam to the Sanhedrin, where she repeated the argument she had presented to her father. The Elders of the Sanhedrin said, “You, Amram, were the one who discouraged us from being together with our wives, now you must go and publicly announce that the men return to their wives.” Amram contritely rejoins his wife. Little Miriam, of course, is depicted as having played a singular heroic role.

The second instance of heroic women is recorded in Exodus 15. After the Jews cross the Red Sea, Moses leads the people in the famous song, “Az Ya’shir.” After the men are done singing, Exodus 15:20 describes the women: “Va’tee’kach Miriam han’vee’ah, a’chot Aharon, et ha’tof b’yah’dah, Va’tay’tzeh’nah chol ha’na’shim ah’cha’reh’ha beh’too’pim oov’m’cholot.” And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrels in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them: Sing to the Eternal for He is gloriously sublime, the horse and his rider hath He hurled into the sea! Rashi, once again citing the Midrash, points out that the righteous women in that generation were so confident that G-d would perform miracles for them that they brought timbrels with them from Egypt. In juxtaposition to the men who were fearful every step of the way and complained to Moses why he brought them out of “wonderful” Egypt only to be drowned in the sea, or destroyed by the Egyptians, the women never for a moment wavered. In fact, the women had such profound faith that G-d would redeem His People, that they brought their instruments, their timbrels, so they would be prepared to sing to G-d once the salvation had taken place!

In Exodus 32, the Torah once again describes a contemptible rebellion–the sin of the Golden Calf. When the people saw that Moses had been delayed, they assembled unto Aaron and told him to make them a new god. Scripture tells us in Exodus 32:2 that Aaron tried to delay the people from their nefarious act by instructing them: “Par’koo niz’may ha’zahav asher b’oznay n’shay’chem, b’nay’chem, oov’no’tay’chem, v’ha’vee’oo ay’lie.” Pull off the golden pendents which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters and bring them unto me. The Midrash indicates that Aaron calculated that through this action, he would be able to stall the people. Had he instructed the men to bring their own gold and silver they would have brought them immediately. But by telling them to bring the jewelry of their wives, sons and daughters he knew that this would cause delay. When the women heard the demands of their husbands, they refused to take part in the outrage! The commentators note that the expression “Va’yit’par’koo” –and they removed their jewelry–which underscores breaking off, indicates that when the women refused to give their jewelry, the men broke off their own jewelry from their own ears, and in their passion to defy G-d ripped their ear lobes in the process.

Toward the end of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, Exodus 38:8, the Torah describes the manufacture of the Kee’yor, the Laver, the washing basin. “Va’ya’as et ha’kee’yor n’cho’shet, v’et ka’noh n’cho’shet, b’mar’ot ha’tzov’ot aher tzav’ooh peh’tach O’hel Mo’aid.” And he [Moses] made the laver, the sink, of copper, and the frame of it of copper, of the mirrors of the women who crowded at the entrance of the Miskhan, the Tabernacle. Rashi, again citing the Midrash, says that the Jewish women possessed mirrors of copper into which they would look when they adorned themselves. And when they offered these mirrors of copper for the building of the Mishkan, Moses wanted to reject them since they were made to pander to vanity. But the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Accept them! These are dearer to me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt.” Rashi explains that when their husbands would tire due to their crushing labor imposed by Egypt, the women would bring them food or drink to the fields where the men worked, and induce them to eat. Then they would take the mirrors, and each gazed at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am handsomer than you!” Thus they awakened their husband’s affection, and subsequently became the mothers of many people. As it says in Song of Songs (8:5), “Under the apple tree I awakened thy love.” This is what is referred to when it says, “The mirrors of the women who reared the hosts.”

Clearly, had it been up to the men, we would probably, to this very day, be slaves in the land of Egypt, unworthy of redemption.

In Numbers 26:64, scripture relates that when they counted the Jewish people after 40 years in the wilderness, not a single male of the previous generation survived, because they had all died as a result of the sin of the spies. Rashi points out the emphasis in the verse that “No man of them that Moses and Aaron numbered” survived, but the women of that generation did survive, because they held the Promised Land dear. The men said, “Let us appoint a chief and return to Egypt,” while the women said, “Give us a possession in the land.” The women loved the land of Israel; the men were ready to return to Egypt.

The key role of women in redemption may be summed up by the famous statement of the Talmud, Sotah 11b, “Biz’chut na’shim tzid’kan’ee’yot sheh’ha’yoo b’oh’to ha’dor,nig’ah’loo Yisrael mee’Mitz’ra’yim.” In the merit of those righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt. I would go even further and argue that not only the generation of Egypt, but each subsequent generation has been redeemed because of the righteous women of that generation. And if we are to be redeemed in our generation, much of it will depend upon the commitment of the women in our generation to keep the faith, to keep the men faithful, to inspire the children with faith, and to create a generation devoted to God and His Torah.

This wonderful testament to women is even more remarkable because it was authored by men! The Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, at least 2000 years old, represents the feelings and values of the exclusively male hierarchy of Jewish leaders who did not shrink from depicting the men of the generation of the Exodus as being unworthy of redemption. And yet this “chauvinistic” male hierarchy was not at all uncomfortable in hailing and praising the role of the women, not only in the salvation of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, but also promoting the crucial role that women will play in future redemptions, and the ultimate redemption.

May you be blessed.