By Rabbi Ori Bergman
The Jewish people have always thanked heaven for Jewish women, because our survival as a nation has been primarily because of Jewish women. Consider:
- The biblical matriarchs guided the Jewish people through nation-building and familial challenges.
- During the slavery in Egypt, the women kept their faith and continued having children, despite the bleak outlook for redemption.
- During the years of wandering in the desert, the women refused to participate in the Golden Calf and the sin of the spies.
- The heroine of Purim was Esther, and the heroine of Chanukah was Yehudit.
At every crucial juncture in Jewish history, women have come to the forefront, steering the Jewish people in the right direction.
Thus, our sages say: As the reward for the righteous women who lived in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. Let’s explain.
If you have ever been to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, you might have noticed a large multi faucet station to wash one’s hands in preparation for prayer. This station, in one sense, reminds us of the Kiyor, the washstand in the ancient sacred temple where the priests would come and wash their hands and feet prior to the day’s service.
In regards to this washstand, the Torah states: He [Betzalel] made the copper washstand and its copper base out of the mirrors of the dedicated women [ha-tzove’ot] who congregated at the entrance of the Communion Tent (Exodus 38:8).
Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan (Mobile Temple in the desert), but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.”
When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands’ desire and would be intimate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5).
The Jewish women of the time carried with them their faith and hope for better days and uplifted their dejected husbands.
When the time came for them to give birth, they cast their gaze heavenward, and said to God: “I have done my part regarding what You said, ‘Be fertile and multiply,’ now You do Your part.” The women would go to the fields to prevent the Egyptians from killing their sons and would give birth under the apple trees, as it says (Song of Songs 8:5): “under the apple tree I roused you; it was there your mother conceived you, there she who bore you conceived you.”
Why did they give birth under the apple tree? Because the apple tree first produces its fruit and only then produces protective leaves. The women thus declared that they would do likewise—first give birth to their “fruit,” and then G‑d would come protect and redeem their offspring (Eliyahu Ki Tov).
The heroism of these Jewish women inspired the following teaching:
Rabbi Elazar ben Zadok says: [the preparation and eating of] Charoset [on Passover] is a religious requirement. Why is it a religious requirement (even though it is not mentioned in the Torah)? Rabbi Levi said: In memory of the apple tree under which the Jewish women in Egypt gave birth to their children so they would not be seen by the Egyptians.”
We eat charoset, to remind us of the mortar and back breaking labor forced upon the men in Egypt yet we prepare it with apples to remind us of the heroism of the Jewish women who risked their lives to uplift their husbands and secure a Jewish future.
Yet, the story doesn’t end there. Fast forward to the Jews in the desert.
Our sages are clear that when the (vast minority) of Jews sinned by creating a golden calf, the women took no part in it. Yet, when the men were asked to donate jewelry to the Mishkan (the Tabernacle/Mobile temple in the desert), as a tikkun — a redemptive and corrective act — for their sin with the golden calf, the women joined in eagerly, bringing their gold and silver and their mirrors (Exodus 35:22, 38:8).
The Torah in Parshat Vayakhel, which describes the making of the Mishkan, goes out of its way to emphasize the role women played in it: The men accompanied the women (who went first), and those who wanted to make a donation brought bracelets, earrings, finger rings, and body ornaments, all made of gold. Every skilled woman put her hand to spinning, and they [all] brought the spun yarn of sky-blue wool, dark red wool, crimson wool and fine linen. Highly skilled women volunteers also spun the goats’ wool.
Every man and woman among the Israelites who felt an urge to give something for all the work that God had ordered through Moses, brought a donation for God. (Exodues 35:22, 25-26, 29). The women came to make their donations first, and the men merely followed their lead (Ibn Ezra(.
The Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, 1550 –1619) makes the point that since the Tabernacle was an atonement for the Golden Calf, the women had no need to contribute at all, since it was the men not the women who needed atonement. None the less, women gave, and did so before the men.
According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (chapter 45), the women’s refusal to participate in the golden calf (chet haegel) resulted in their being rewarded with a holiday dedicated to them — Rosh Chodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon. It is no wonder that the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people as they prepare to leave Egypt is to sanctify the new moon each month, in recognition of the Jewish women’s role in the redemptive process.
The moon which carries with it a message of hope, rebirth and empowerment. We carry with us the words of the prophet Isaiah who states that in the future “…the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun” (30:26). These words foretell that in days to come, the message of these righteous women (represented by the moon) will be more than beacons of light that light up dark times but will illuminate in a manner where “night will illuminate as day” )Psalms 139:12) ushering in the long awaited time that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks: Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war”
Shabbat Shalom and Happy and Healthy Passover!
Ori Bergman is Rabbi at Kehillat Ohr Tzion.