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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, with mortar and with bricks, and in all manner of bondage in the field; besides all their own service, wherein they made them labor with rigor. (SHEMOS 1:14)
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was once seen on the street in Vilna, chatting and laughing in what seemed like a very frivolous manner with one of the city folk. People who saw them noticed that Rabbi Salanter was trying to make the other man laugh at his jokes.
Observers were struck by how strange this behavior was for the Rabbi, as every one knew that he was filled with the fear of Heaven, continually guarded his tongue, and never spoke an unnecessary word. Suddenly, contrary to his usual custom, here was Rabbi Yisrael speaking apparently idle words, and joking.
One of his students could not contain his curiosity, and got up the courage to ask the Rabbi to solve the mystery of his strange behavior. Rabbi Yisrael answered, "The person I was speaking to was depressed and bitter. I was just trying to cheer him up. There is no greater chesed than making a sad soul happy. (OLAM CHESED YIBANEH, p. 66)
If Rabbi Yisrael Salanter went out of his way to make a mere acquaintance happy, it should be all the more expected that we do the same for our own spouses, to whom we are obligated by marriage.
Rabbi Akiva gave a derashah and said: In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt. When the women went to fetch water, G-d put little fish into their pails, and they drew half fish and half water from the river. They returned home and put two pots on the fire, one of fish and one of water. Then they brought the pots to their husbands in the fields. They washed their husbands, rubbed them with oil, then fed them and gave them to drink; and then they had relations with them in quiet, secluded places, as it is written, "If you will lie down in quiet places." And when they conceived, they went home. When the time arrived to give birth, they went and gave birth in the fields underneath the apple trees. (YALKUT 164, SOTAH lib)
Why were the righteous women's actions considered to be so meritorious that they brought about the redemption of the entire Jewish people? What was so special about these women, that G-d Himself intervened to make fish appear for them? Why do our Sages first mention that they washed their husbands and rubbed them with oil before the other actions which are described? Why do they first mention food and drink, and only afterwards speak about having relations? What is the expression "quiet places" meant to teach us? Why did they return to the fields to give birth?
The special qualities of the righteous Jewish women which caused our ancestors to be redeemed from Egypt were their bitachon in G-d, and their great chesed. We see these two characteristics in their actions described in this midrash. In spite of the fact that their husbands were in bondage, they did not give up hope, but instead trusted in G-d. We learn this from the fact that they planned trips to the fields where their husbands were working in order to have relations with them, so that they could conceive children.
Many women in the same situation might have said, "Why should I bring a child into the world only to suffer and be a slave? Especially since my husband is not even available to help me. Why make all the extra effort to become pregnant under such impossible circumstances? No, thank you!" But these special women said to themselves, "G-d can redeem us at any moment. Slavery is only temporary, but bringing a child into the world is something that will have an effect for generations to come. I will do that for which G-d has created me; I will serve my husband, conceive, and have children. And I am sure that in that merit, He will do His part and redeem us from this bondage." Such righteous women certainly deserved to be redeemed from Egypt, and so their self-sacrifice was the catalyst which saved the entire Jewish nation.
The second outstanding quality of the righteous Jewish women in Egypt was their chesed. They were not satisfied with their husbands being given a slave's portion of food. They wanted them to have something more, and they also wanted to give them special attention. So they went to great lengths to carry pails of water and food all the way from their dwellings to the fields. This obviously involved tremendous effort. Their minds were set on pleasing their husbands and making them happy. This exemplifies a true Jewish wife in all her glory, one who devotes herself to her husband unselfishly. This is chesed in its fullest sense. Just as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter went to great lengths to make the depressed man happy, even contradicting his usual behavior, so too did these women go out of their way to make their husbands happy in order to lighten their heavy burdens.
After performing such righteous deeds, G-d felt that they were truly worthy of redemption. In order to reward their great desire to personally do acts of kindness with an act of a similar nature, G-d performed for them the miracle of the fish which appeared in their pails when they went to fetch water from the river. They had no means with which to acquire food, but they wanted so much to please their husbands, G-d blessed them with the food they needed for this purpose.
First they would wash their husbands and rub them with oil. This teaches us that they were sensitive to all of their husbands' needs. When a person performs heavy manual labor, especially in a warm climate, the first thing he wants is to refresh himself with a bath. In those days rubbing with oil was part of the bath, as we find was the case also in the Book of Esther. 2 And so we see, the women fully looked after their husbands' needs.
Mentioning food and drink before relations alludes to the fact that in order for the men to have relations with their wives, it is important that their other needs be taken care of first. If a person is hungry, tired or worried, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to have relations. Intimate relations are the closest bond between a man and his wife, and nothing should be allowed to diminish that bond.
Another explanation for mentioning food and drink before relations might be that these righteous women used the food and drink to entice their husbands to have relations with them. When a person is given something by his wife, he feels an obligation to return the kindness and bring his wife pleasure. Here the husbands reciprocated by having relations with their wives, which was what the women wanted, as we understand from our Sages' words.
The mention of the "quiet places" where they retired to have relations teaches us of the great modesty of our forefathers. In spite of their being slaves and living under the harshest and most difficult of conditions, they were able to keep their modesty intact and only have relations in quiet, secluded places, as required by Jewish law. This teaches us their noble stature, since they could easily have lost their sense of modesty while in bondage.
The reason that they went to the fields to give birth was that they had total faith in G-d. Normally, a woman who is ready to deliver seeks a midwife, or at least an untrained attendant to assist her. But these righteous woman had unbelievable faith in G-d, and were so sure that G-d would help them, that they went to the fields alone to give birth unattended. Even though a person is not allowed to depend on miracles or put himself in a situation of danger, these women had no choice because of the fear for their children's lives. Their faith in G-d helped them overcome impossible odds.
Models of Modesty and Courage
We can learn from these righteous women and try to emulate their actions. Their trust in G-d was indescribable, evidenced by the fact that they went out of their way to bring children into the world under such conditions of hardship. We must learn from them not to be afraid of the hardships in our lives, and to try to have as many children as we can bear physically and emotionally. Having children is a sign of unselfishness, and shows that a person wants to give to others. We must not let the opportunities of having children go by, since one's childbearing years are limited. If a couple has doubts as to whether or not they should have a child, they should certainly consult a Rabbinical authority, to make sure of whether they are justified in waiting. Having children is a holy, precious gift and a person should not waste it.
We can also learn from the great chesed that these righteous women performed for their husbands. Their determination to look after their husbands, even in times of despair, showed that they were truly devoted to their spouses and wanted to honor them and help them in every possible way. We can apply this lesson to our own lives. When one's husband comes home from work or study, his wife should try to make him as comfortable as possible and not be distracted by other things that she has to do at that time. She must give her husband the feeling that he comes first and is always wanted and needed at home. Even though a wife may feel this in her heart, it is important that she show it to her husband through loving words and actions. Greet your husband with a smile, and, if permissible, an embrace, to show that he is truly welcome when he comes home.
Of course, even though our Sages were speaking about women, a man is also required to show chesed to his wife and to greet her warmly, just as she must greet him. Fondness for one another should be demonstrated constantly.
Imagine how great is the reward in the World to Come for treating
a spouse properly, as we can see from the words of our Sages that
in this merit the whole Jewish nation was redeemed from Egypt,
and the reward in the World to Come is far greater. But the rewards
of such loving and caring behavior are not reserved only for the
next world. There are rewards that can be enjoyed right here and
now - a beautiful marriage full of peace and contentment.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network