“Jewish Women and Jewish Destiny”
(Revised and updated from Vayakhel 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The vast majority of this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, deals with erecting the מִשְׁכָּןMishkan, the portable Tabernacle–in almost excruciatingly painful detail.

In Exodus 35:21, the Torah describes the various donations that were brought by the people as a “free-willed offering.” וַיָּבֹאוּ כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ , 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. Exodus 35:22 adds that not only the men came, but that the men came with the women. Everyone whose heart motivated him brought bracelets, nose rings, rings, body ornaments, all sorts of gold ornaments. Emphasizing the people’s generosity, the Torah reiterates that everyone raised up an offering of gold to G-d.

The Hebrew expression, וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים עַל הַנָּשִׁים , that the Torah in Exodus 35:22 uses, is very unusual. 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’s special generosity. Apparently, since the jewelry enumerated in the verse was worn mainly by women, the Torah, in this manner, 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 commitment 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 selfless devotion of the women to G-d. Particularly, when compared to the men, the women show remarkable faith throughout the ordeal of servitude in Egypt, the rescue from the Exodus, and the entire 40 year period of wandering in the wilderness.

As the story of the Exodus unfolds, the Torah, in Exodus 2:1 records, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי, וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי , that 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 Moses, Aaron and Miriam), who marries his aunt Yocheved. Why does the Torah use the unusual expressions וַיֵּלֶךva’yei’lech and וַיִּקַּח –va’yee’kach, he went and he took? Rashi cites the Midrash that maintains that Amram had separated from Yocheved, and lived apart from his wife. Now, the Torah informs us that there was a reconciliation, and Amram reunited with Yocheved his wife and entered into a second marriage with her.

Elaborating on the reason for the marital separation, the Midrash informs us that when Pharaoh decreed that all the male children who were 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 children would be born who would be destined to be drowned.

Because of Amram’s position and prestige, most of the Jewish husbands did likewise and separated from their spouses. According to the Midrash, Amram’s young daughter, Miriam, then only 6 years old, approached him and said, “Father, you are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh only decreed that the male children should die, and you have decreed that both male and female children will never be born. Pharaoh only decreed that the children die in this world, and you have decreed that they will not have both 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 that your decree will be fulfilled.”

When Amram heard Miriam’s rebuke, he was filled with remorse. He brought Miriam to the Sanhedrin, where she repeated the arguments that she had presented earlier 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 publically announce that the men must return to their wives.” Amram contritely rejoined his wife. Little Miriam, of course, is depicted as having played a singular heroic role.

A second instance of heroic women is recorded in Exodus 15. After the Jews crossed the Red Sea, Moses led the people in the famous song, אָז יָשִׁיר –Az Ya’shir. After the men concluded their song, Exodus 15:20 describes that the women also burst out in song: וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ, וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת . 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, notes 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, so they would be prepared to sing to G-d once the great salvation had taken place! In stark contrast, the men were fearful every step of the way and complained to Moses, arrogantly demanding why he had brought them out of the “wonderful” land of Egypt only to be drowned in the sea, or destroyed by the Egyptians.

In Exodus 32, the Torah once again describes a contemptible rebellion against G-d–the sin of the Golden Calf.

When the people mistakenly concluded that Moses’ return from Mount Sinai had been delayed, they assembled before Aaron and demanded that he make a “new god” for them. Scripture, in Exodus 32:2, relates that Aaron tried to delay the people and divert them from their nefarious intentions by instructing them: פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם, וְהָבִיאוּ אֵלָי . “Pull off the golden pendants 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 their valuables immediately. But, by telling them to bring their wives’ jewelry and that of their 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 וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּva’yit’par’koo–and they removed their jewelry–implies breaking off, indicating 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 conclusion of this week’s parasha, Vayakhel, Exodus 38:8, the Torah describes the manufacture of the כִּיּוֹרkee’yor, the Laver, the washing basin found in the Tabernacle. וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת, וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת, בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד , 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, once again citing the Midrash, says that the Jewish women possessed mirrors of copper, which they would use to check their appearance as they adorned themselves. And, when they offered these mirrors of copper for the building of the Mishkan, Moses’ initial reaction was to reject them, since they were objects of vanity. But, the Holy One, blessed be He, instructed Moses: “Accept them! These [copper mirrors] are dearer to me than all the other contributions, because through them the women reared those huge hosts in Egypt.”

Rashi explains, that when the Israelite husbands would tire due to the crushing labor imposed on them by Egypt, the women would bring them food or drink to the fields where the men worked, and induce them to eat. The women would then take the mirrors, and each one would gaze at herself in her mirror together with her husband, saying endearingly to him, “See, I am more handsome 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, Exodus 38:8, “The mirrors of the women who reared the hosts.”

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

In Numbers 26:64, scripture relates, וּבְאֵלֶּה, לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ, מִפְּקוּדֵי מֹשֶׁה, וְאַהֲרֹן that when they counted the Jewish people after 40 years in the wilderness, except for Caleb and Joshua, not a single male of the previous generation survived, because they had all died as punishment for the sin of the spies.

Rashi notes the emphasis in the verse that “No man of them that Moses and Aaron numbered survived,” but that the women of that generation did survive, because they held the Promised Land dear. The men, in Numbers 14:4 cried out, “Let us appoint a chief and return to Egypt,” while the women declared, Numbers 27:4, “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 the redemption, may be summed up by the remarkable statement of the Talmud, found in Sotah 11b, בִּשְׂכַר נָשִׁים צִדְקָנִיּוֹת שֶׁהָיוּ בְּאוֹתוֹ הַדּוֹר, נִגְאֲלוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם , In the merit of those righteous women who were in that generation, the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.

There are those who argue even further and maintain that not only was the generation of Egypt redeemed in their merit, but that each subsequent generation has been redeemed because of the righteous women of that generation. And, if we ourselves 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 G-d and His Torah.

This wonderful testament to women is even more remarkable because it was authored long ago by men! The Midrash, the legendary interpretation of the Bible, that is at least 2,000 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 reluctant to hail and praise the role of the ancient Israelite women, not only in the salvation of the Jews from the slavery of Egypt, but also promoting the crucial role that women would play in future redemptions, such as Chanukah and Purim, and in the times of the “Ultimate Redemption.”

May you be blessed.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first portion of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16 and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.