Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Tragedy of Biblical Woman

I was reading Family Redeemed over Yom Tov, and there were some pieces that really touched me. I'll reproduce them below.


The woman is a crisis personality. In normal times, when routine decisions are reached, the man makes up his mind and the Biblical woman follows him. However, in times of upheaval and transition, when the covenantal community finds itself at crossroads and the choice of alternative courses of action is about to be made, a choice that will shape destiny  it is then that the mother steps to the fore and takes command. The greatness of the man expresses itself in everyday action, when situations lend themselves to logical analysis and discursive thinking. The greatness of the woman manifests itself at the hour of crisis, when the situation does not lend itself to piecemeal understanding but requires instead instantaneous action that flows from the very depths of a sensitive personality. "God gave woman binah yeterah, an additional measure of understanding over men" (Niddah 45b).


Rebecca is responsible for the covenant being transmitted to Jacob instead of Esau (Gen. 27). Isaac had contemplated entrusting the spiritual heritage to his oldest son. At the hour of crisis Rebecca intervened and thereby determined the historical destiny of the covenantal community. She sent Jacob to Haran to marry her nieces. Miriam is responsible for the emergence of Moses as a leader and redeemer of his people. If not for her, he would have never been imbued with great passionate love for his brethren. She suggested to the princess that a Hebrew wet-nurse be employed for the infant, preventing Moses from disappearing in anonymity and ignorance. "And his sister stood afar off, to know what would be done to him...Then said the sister to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and call for you a nurse of the Hebrew women...' and the maid went and called the child's mother" (Ex. 2:4, 7:8).

Similarly, Deborah saved the people from oppression and slavery when she organized the rebellion under the military command of Barak (Judges 4-5). And the Aggadah relates that the women refused to contribute to the Golden Calf (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 45) while they gave generously to the Tabernacle (Ex. 35).

The woman is both a demonic and Divine crisis personality. Eve and Delilah represent the woman-demon; our matriarchs, the Divine individuality. The destiny of mankind and of the covenantal people was shaped by the woman.

The Book of Proverbs dedicated its last section (31:11-31) to the woman of valor in whom the heart of her husband trusts. Valor as a trait of the feminine personality was born in the covenantal community where motherhood, instead of being a factum, became a challenge and an ideal.

The Tragedy in Motherhood

And yet the story of the Biblical woman, the covenantal mother, ends with a tragic note. The very moment she brings her job to a close, the instant she completes her task, when the crisis is over, she returns quickly to her tent, draws down the curtain of anonymity and disappears. She is outside of the hustle and bustle of the male society. Abraham sits "in front of the tent" (Gen. 18:1). His name appears in the press and many know him; he is the leader, the father, the teacher, his lips drip honey; he enlightens the minds; he fascinates the passersby. Hardly anyone knows that there is a Sarah, humble, modest, publicly shy. Somewher ein the tent is the person who is perhaps responsible for all the accomplishments credited to Abraham, for all the glory that is bestowed upon Abraham, who is superior to him, who leads the leader and teaches the teacher and guides the master, who inspires the visionary and interprets his dreams.

Sarah, the Biblical woman, is modest, humble, self-effacing. She enters the stage when she is called upon, acts her part with love and devotion in a dim corner of the stage, and then leaves softly by a side door without applause and without the enthusiastic response of the audience which is hardly aware of her. She returns to her tent, to anonymity and retreat. Only sensitive people know the truth. Only three travelers inquired about her. These travelers were not ordinary people whose eyes see only the surface. They were the angels of God. Their glimpse penetrated and apprehended the image of the true leader, teacher, prophetess, to whom everything should be credited. Nonchalantly, they remarked, "Where is Sarah, your wife?" (Gen 18:9). In other words, we know that without her you could not play the part that God assigned to you. Where is she? Why do not people know the truth? Why has she been just trailing behind you? Why did she not march in front of you? After all, the covenant cannot and will not be realized without her. Abraham answered tersely, "She is in the tent" (Gen 18:9). Indeed she is enveloped in mystery.

It is quite interesting that although Abraham survived Sarah by thirty-eight years, his historical role came to an end with Sarah's passing. Isaac leaves the stage together with Rebecca. Jacob relinquishes his role to Joseph with the untimely death of Rachel. Without Sarah there would be no Abraham, no Isaac were it not for Rebecca; no Jacob without Rachel.

And yet, and here the tragedy manifests itself with all its impact, we say, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob," but not "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel and Leah," even though they had an equal share in Borei Olam, the Creator of the World.

The Halakhah was cognizant of the greatness of the covenantal mother when it formulated the rule that Kedushat Yisrael, one's status as a Jew, can be transmitted only through the woman. The Halakhah was also conscious of the loneliness and the tragic note in the feminine commitment when it accepted a contradictory rule that the child takes his father's name and family status.

-Pages 116-120

(For more thoughts on the Rav's special view on the role of anonymity, click here.)


Anonymous said...

Good article !

PS: Rebecca's death after Jacob's 20 years with Laban indicates that Jacob was 72 when his mother died and Rebecca was either 120 or 134 (based on different Midrashim mentioned earlier about her age at marriage).


Isaac was 37 when she was born and he died at 180. So even him disappeared from the Story after Rebecca's death.

Biblical women rule! said...

Succinct discussion, but there are 2 errors:

First, the Matriarchs purposely remained in the background only due to their profound and utmost Tznius. No other reason.

Second, Sarah did indeed surpass Avraham, but only in prophecy (and perhaps also household maintenance.)
But make no mistake. Sarah was actually also a STUDENT of Avraham. It was only he that, through his own intellect, and starting from scratch, discovered Hashem his creator. And he then taught others, including his "prize pupil" Sarah. Who then actually surpassed him in some ways.
(Eliezer was his 2nd prize pupil.)

Sarah played her role as "Ezer K'negdo" perfectly.