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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayakhel/Pekudei-Parashas HaChodesh: Ladies first
It is a pity that this good woman and so many others have a distorted picture of how Torah Judaism views and treats women. "In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." Amram listened to his daughter Miriam and with great fanfare remarried his wife. Joseph Friedenson and his bride got married in the Warsaw Ghetto. "These mirrors are dearer to Me [G'd] than anything else as these were instrumental to help the women in Egypt to encourage their husbands to build up their families." There was no limit imposed on the donation of mirrors by these righteous women. The donations of the men were "secondary" to the donations of the women. The men had a reason to donate due to their guilty conscience. The women donated out of their untainted desire to contribute to the construction of the Tabernacle. The Torah and our sages clearly show that the judgment of the righteous women is superior to that of the men, when they use their innate sense of what is right. The Torah attitude towards Jewish women is that they have a special ability to rise to an occasion and make the right decision.
No prejudiced view of women
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a young man who recently became observant. He told me that he often has discussions with his mother who feels that observant Rabbis are prejudiced against women. Unfortunately, this opinion is expressed by many who do not realize that women are viewed with great reverence and respect by the Torah. It is a great pity that this good woman and so many others have such a distorted picture of how Torah Judaism views and treats women.
Redeemed from Egypt
This week we will read an extra-portion called "Parashas HaChodesh" besides the regular Torah reading. Every year on or before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, we read this portion as an introduction to the month of Nissan. This is the month of our redemption and freedom when G'd took us out from the slavery of Egypt. The Talmud (Sotah 11b) says: "In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt." The Talmud continues to explain how despite poverty and difficult times the Jewish women took great pains to look after and be loyal to their husbands. They went out into the fields where their husbands were suffering under the harsh conditions of their slavery and provided them with food and nourishment. More than that, despite that their future looked bleak at the time, the women encouraged their husbands to build families.
The Talmud (ibid 12a) further relates how one young girl was instrumental in developing the Jewish Nation in Egypt. The men were depressed and bemoaned their seemingly desperate situation as slaves in Egypt. When Amram, the leader of the generation, heard about Pharaoh's decree that every newborn male must be thrown into the Nile, he decided that there is no purpose in continuing his married life and went and divorced his wife. As the Jews saw their leader divorcing his wife, they also followed in his footsteps and divorced their wives. Amram's young daughter, Miriam, said to her father, "Daddy, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh's decree. Pharaoh only decreed on the males; your decree is both on males and females. Pharaoh only decreed in regard to this world; your decree will have an affect both in this world and in the world to come. Since Pharaoh is a wicked person, it is doubtful whether his decree will come about altogether. But you are a righteous person; no doubt whatever you decree will be fulfilled." Amram listened to his daughter and with great fanfare remarried his wife. One can well imagine how the rest of the Jews followed suit and remarried their wives as well. In this way, the Jewish families in Egypt had more children and continued to grow despite the very harsh conditions. The Talmud tells us of the many miracles G'd performed looking after and providing for these children. Miriam as well as the other Jewish women had the optimism to look beyond their immediate circumstances. They had complete trust that G'd would take care of their children. As the saying goes "The One Who provides life will also provide sustenance" (see Talmud Taanis 8b). They had no doubt that eventually G'd would bring a change for the better and redeem them from the slavery as promised. It was this strong belief and perfect trust of these righteous women that brought about the redemption of the Jews from Egypt.
Marriage in Warsaw Ghetto
It is interesting to see how history repeats itself. Not so long ago I read an article in the Jewish Family Weekly, Mishpacha, interviewing an elderly journalist, Joseph Friedenson, who survived the Holocaust. As incredible as it sounds, he and his bride got married in the Warsaw Ghetto. Many residents wondered aloud how the journalist's father could sanction this wedding amidst such uncertainty. Mr. Friedenson quotes his father who answered them, "If we stopped marrying off our children, we are in effect surrendering. We have to have bitachon (trust)." He adds that the Zichliner Rebbe, who was also confined to the Ghetto, promised that this marriage would serve as a merit in Heaven and ensure the young couples survival. The Rebbe's promise came true and they were among the few couples who were reunited after having gone through Auschwitz and other concentration camps. This is the kind of trust the Jews exhibited in Egypt and this is how we have survived throughout our long and bitter exile even in the most difficult times.
At the end of the first of this week's two portions, it says (Shemos 38:8) how Moses made the water basins for the Tabernacle from the copper mirrors donated by the women. Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma who explains that these mirrors were the very same mirrors that had been used in Egypt when the wives had beautified themselves to encourage their husbands to build their families. Originally, Moses was hesitant to accept the mirrors as he felt that they were tools of the evil inclination used to incite immorality. Just as nowadays it is quite common for women to use mirrors to dress up when they go to work or social gatherings thus appearing beautiful to other men. So too Moses was concerned that these mirrors had been instrumental in the women attracting the attention of other men, rendering them inappropriate to be used in the construction of the Holy Tabernacle. However, say our sages, G'd told Moses, "These mirrors are dearer to Me than anything else as they were used by the women in Egypt to encourage their husbands to build up their families."
Rashi continues to explain that one of the functions of this water basin was to restore peace and ensure the harmony between spouses. The water would be used to prove the innocence of a woman suspected of having been disloyal to her husband. The Ibn Ezra points out that by all the other vessels made for use in the Tabernacle, G'd gave an exact description how much material should be used to produce these vessels. By the water-basin no such instruction was given. All the mirrors donated by these righteous women were to be used to construct the basin.
Men were secondary
In the beginning of this week's portions, we are told how the Jews generously donated all of the material to build the Tabernacle and the Holy Vessels. In this connection it says (Shemos 35:22): "And the men came on top of the women. Every generous heart brought bracelets, nose-rings, rings, body ornaments, and all different golden ornaments." The commentaries note this unusual expression of the "men coming on top of the ladies." The Ramban explains that the jewellery was more common by the ladies and as soon as they heard that there was an opportunity to donate to the building of the Tabernacle and its vessels they came. The men also came but they were only secondary to the women. This is the meaning of "coming on top of" that the donations of the men were only "secondary" to the donations of the women.
Rectifying the golden calf
The Kli Yakar points out that this was a special merit for the women. Whereas the main reason, for the men to donate their jewellery to the Tabernacle was to repent and rectify their wrongdoing of donating to the golden calf, the women had no such purpose for they had not participated at all in the making of the golden calf. As it says in last week's portion (Shemos 32:2) that Aaron had told the men to bring the rings of the women and children, but the men were so eager that they just took their own rings. Nevertheless, the women knew when to get involved and were the first ones to donate for the purpose of making a dwelling for G'd.
Superior judgment of women
The Torah and our sages clearly show that the judgment of women is superior to that of men when they use their innate sense of what is right. The Talmud (Niddah 45b) teaches that G'd blessed the women with superior understanding to the men (see Rashi's commentary on Midrash Rabbah Bereishis 18:1). Every woman has the potential to use her special understanding to decide what is right and what is wrong. As King Solomon (Mishlei 14:1) says: "The wise woman builds her house and the silly one destroys it with her own hands." The Jewish woman is both the foundation and the builder of her household. If she uses her special understanding to follow in the footsteps of the righteous women of the past her house will be a bastion of faith where she will enjoy the pleasure of bringing up her family together with her husband. But if she allows the outside world to infiltrate her home she may destroy it with her own hands. In general, the men who are more involved with the outside world are more vulnerable to foreign influences. As a protection against these dangers they are obligated to toil in Torah study and to perform more mitzvot than the women. As a result of this they are commonly more knowledgeable about the intricacies of Torah study and the performance of mitzvot. However, provided that their wives are going in the ways of the Matriarchs, they should remember what G'd said to Abraham (Bereishis 21:12): "Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice."
Every man is different and every woman is different. Every human being can be right or wrong. But we clearly see that the Torah's and our sages' approach to the status of women is in no way looking down upon them as being inferior to the men. To the contrary, the Torah attitude towards women is that they have a special ability to rise to an occasion and make the right decision.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network