What's my place as a woman on Shavuos?
“Women and Torah” seems a straightforward, no-brainer topic for a Shavuos column.
Until we think about the real women making up the mosaic of Family First readership. Backgrounds, education, and circumstances differ. Some fully champion the Torah of their family members, and others haven’t quite worked through what this is all about.
This column is dedicated to my mother and mother-in-law with all my heart. And anybody who knows them realizes why.
Not My School of Thought
My fifth-grader has a huge Chumash test. I can’t wrap my head around why she’s learning this. The kid can’t fry an egg but can describe the korbanos in detail. Will this help her be a nicer person or better mother?
First, the egg. It’s high time your daughter got introduced to the kitchen.
Next, the scholastic issue. There are esteemed communities that agree with you and never adopted the kind of broad textual study you describe. Your daughter’s school follows the precedent set by the Chofetz Chaim, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the Imrei Emes of Ger, the roshei yeshivah of Telz, rabbanim of Germany, among others, who endorsed the Bais Yaakov-style approach of more extensive Torah instruction.
The original Bais Yaakov students did not share your qualms. Their courses demanded wide mastery of Tanach, and they recounted discussing pesukim and commentaries in conversation between friends. The surviving Krakow students, women of exemplary character and modesty, established schools in the United States with high academic expectations. No fluff here.
A generation down, my own morahs, perplexed by our occasional illiteracy, would say, “But girls, it’s a Rashi.” We honestly thought that one day, grand proficiency in Rashi would be as self-evident to us as to them. They weren’t cold intellectuals, but fired up with a love of what was revealed at Sinai, cognizant that all of Torah can inspire.
Much of women’s learning has been co-opted by those with questionable agendas and sometimes less-than-solid halachic allegiance. The sad upshot is that we’ve lost a bit of confidence and conviction in the enormous value of a woman being knowledgeable and learned. Just as wherever there’s water, there’s growth, being touched by the holy words of Torah will lead to being “nicer people and better mothers.”
Times have changed, and what flies with kids has changed with it. All learning should be tempered with clearly stated hashkafic objectives and practical application. But appropriate adjustments don’t change the original premise: that being a well-versed Jew is essential when we’re bombarded from all directions with myriad questions, challenges, and misinformation. Filling a young woman’s mind with Torah is an antidote against all the junk trying to break in.
Go Team Go
I heard that a woman earns reward for encouraging her children and husband to learn. What about me and the good things I do? Is my job only to be a cheerleader?
A woman spends her days doing wonderful things, and of course is rewarded for all of them. But Berachos (17a) tells us that women have a greater assurance in their portion of the World to Come than men do, because women bring their children to their teachers, send their husbands to study in the beis medrash, and wait for their husbands until they return from the beis medrash (which was often far away). Olam Haba is not a prize, but an achievement of a specific spiritual temperature. Why would waving farewell and dropping off carpool develop a moral standing superior to someone shvitzing over a Gemara, breaking their head to interpret a sugya?
Perhaps it’s this: It’s natural for a woman to be sending her child toward a range of hopes and outcomes when helping him on the school bus. Likewise, there might be an array of ambitions she is excited to encourage her husbandto pursue. When a woman is genuinely sending her husband and children off to Torah, and her heart is warmed when she can welcome them back from learning Torah, then she’s reworked her internal self from the ground up, becoming a person in sync with Torah. Pretty intense.
This isn’t cheerleading on the sidelines; it’s more resemblant of the team coach. The coach needs to be the one most into it, eyes on the goal. If he’s not pumped for the team, the team’s not winning. Everyone knows what makes Mom tick and what does her proud. We hope that this passion and primacy spills over and suffuses those we love.
I’m Not Sure I Can Do It
My husband joined a Sunday kollel, and it’s his virtual oxygen in a hectic work week. I feel I need at least one day a week with him at home, especially Sunday with the kids around. I feel guilty that I’m not adequately encouraging him, but I have needs, too. Is this wrong?
Is this wrong? That would partially depend on Abba’s schedule the rest of the week, and what Ima can emotionally handle. It’s a tough call, and completely personal, so speaking to a mentor or rebbetzin who knows you is invaluable.
We function on two tracks, one theoretical and one actual, and that’s okay. Even G-d mixed perfection with mercy to establish a workable Creation (Rashi, Bereishis 1:1, see Sfas Emes 5637). Consider what you would do if you could do anything. Those are your sheifos, your deepest dreams, and they define who you are at your core. Now, stir in a healthy dose of self-knowledge and ask yourself, What will honestly work?
Step one is having that appreciation for Torah. Then you can say, “I know that Torah is premier, and I really want it, but I’m human, and I’m going to have to begin at my level, with this kind of family time.”
There’s a reason a woman has so much sechar wrapped up in her encouragement of her husband. We all feel for your dilemma. Suppose, despite the conflict, you were to squeeze in crucial family time elsewhere, and figure it out with the kids on your own; there’s no doubt you’d be granting your family the gift of Torah and giving of yourself in an incredible way.
Not the Script I Know
Many of the Shavuos talking points are baffling for someone like me, who’s not married. I won’t be sending a husband out to learn, because he hasn’t shown up yet... A married friend was telling me how her husband is totally cut off from learning and her son isn’t frum, and she doesn’t know how she’s supposed to relate to all this either.
Frankly, I came close to opting out of this whole article because there is no way to adequately respond to you, or to the thousands of women operating solo. Discussing a woman’s relationship with Torah demands broaching home structures that don’t fit the mold, if one in fact exists. Gotta love that come-home-from-sem-marry-nice-guy-have-lovely-family-marry-off-kids-cootchie-coo-the-grandchildren-live-happily-ever-after plot.
But a few thoughts.
First, viewing Shavuos as a man’s holiday is outrageous. (Same for Simchas Torah and Purim.) You were at Har Sinai getting the Torah same as everyone, and a quick check of the details show women standing first in line. The leaders of the Jewish people were Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam, and our prototype of Torah commitment is Rus.
Presumably Rus would find it preposterous if a woman couldn’t find her place on Shavuos. In addition to saying Tehillim on the yahrtzeit of her great-grandson Dovid Hamelech, we can work on accepting the Torah as whole-heartedly as she did. You can go to shul to hear her story, and the Aseres Hadibros too, plus get a blessing from the Kohanim, all in addition to the unlimited praying experience always available. You can learn more about the nature of the chag, whether through a shiur or on your own, and experience the seudahs meaningfully. Did you buy yourself something beautiful? That’s one of the 613 mitzvos, and is supposed to jumpstart you toward the joy of the day.
Furthermore, a woman’s connection to her Judaism stands on its own. Piggybacking on anyone else’s religious experience, husband or otherwise, is a loss. The oft-cited case of Devorah Haneviah married to the unlearned Barak informs us that G-d views everyone, “whether man or woman… according to their own specific actions,” and what we become is solely up to us (Tanna D’bei Eliyahu 9). Avigail, a prophetess, was married to Naval, who was quite unsavory and certainly no partner. The daughters of Tzelafchad were unmarried when they asked to inherit their father’s land. We don’t have a record of Serach bas Asher being married at all, so it’s not relevant to what we’re meant to learn from her. Rus wasn’t who she was because she married Boaz, nor was Miriam who she was because she married Calev. To quote my dear friend Mrs. C. Saphir, “Who would Rebbetzin Elyashiv have been had she not married Rav Elyashiv? Rebbetzin Elyashiv, that’s who.”
In modern times, some of our most eminent role models didn’t have children, or were unmarried for much of their lives, and no one would suggest that their accomplishments were lacking. Were their attainments despite, or because of, their circuitous road? We can never know, but we can suspect.
Finally, I turned to some unmarried women I am privileged to know to find out how they broaden their zechus of Torah. This is a sensitive and individualized area with no one direction right for everyone, so I only report.
There are groups of extraordinary women who support kollelim through Adopt-A-Kollel. Another woman contributes toward her nephews’ yeshivah tuition. A third devotes herself to teaching, and she rightfully considers the homes of Torah that her students are establishing to be her own part in Torah.
One thing’s for sure. Everyone could be looking at everyone else wistfully. With that, every soul is sent on their specific journey, with a planned and detailed itinerary. You know the game Paper Bag Dramatics, where your group gets ten random items and has to perform with them? Well, it’s all of us. We’re packed some unpredictable items in our Heaven-sent parcels and then, it’s on stage with you, no backs to the audience, playing the lead.
You’re Making Me Feel Inadequate
I’ve heard so many speeches telling anecdotes about women who give up on everything so their husbands will learn. Is there any middle ground? Because this is too extreme for me.
There’s a concept in economics called “Willingness To Pay (WTP).” Cutting past the different variables, we’re willing to spend exactly as much as something is worth to us. The currency is different for principles, but there, too, people forego more for what’s important to them. There are women whose WTP for Torah is higher because of how much they value it.
That said, there’s an art form to culling inspiration from those beyond us rather than giving in to exasperation when feeling out-leagued.
Years ago, I told stories about prolific women and their immense contributions, but I stopped telling those stories because they were stressing my students by setting a bar too high. My listeners didn’t have the capacity to absorb it.
Truthfully, that’s the intro I give before telling the stories, and then my students agree that, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. Actually, it’s amazing.”
Rebbetzin Scheinberg was an American 17-year-old bride arriving with Rav Scheinberg, all of 19-and-a-half, to the primitive freezing Mir countryside. Their luggage was thrown off the horse-drawn sled into the dark night snowdrifts, and she let her young husband know that she would handle the packages and find their lodgings, and could he please enter the yeshivah building and find a shtender.
If what we extract from that is to find a kollel in the coldest climate possible, we miss the point. If we’re a bit more emotionally supportive of Torah, it’s a win.
Rebbetzin Kanievsky gave up on having a phone and a couch, because she was afraid it would cause Rav Chaim to be distracted. Before you trash the sectional, how about being gracious about your husband taking time to connect with his Gemara while you’re on vacation?
The key is context and balance. Watching a runner shouldn’t make people have to sprint a four-minute-mile or feel inept, but it should motivate them to sign up for exercise. Reading about larger-than-life role models can expand our vision without shutting us down.
I Pressed the Right Button, Still No Results
I’d be happy to take over at home if my husband would go to night seder or a shiur. My husband spends his nights at home, unwinding from a long workday, and catches the daf on his phone when he commutes. How can I be part of his Torah learning when he isn’t learning?
It’s hard when we want something badly and when desire alone isn’t enough.
A woman who loves Torah isn’t culpable if the other side of the equation doesn’t add up. In discussing her merit, we don’t hear about a husband’s output, but the woman’s input: “By bringing their children… sending their husbands …and waiting for their husbands to return….” (Berachos ibid)
Take the Gemara’s case of a fellow who paid upfront for a shipowner to take goods across the river. The water drained from the river, and the ship couldn’t cross. Rav Nachman Bar Yaakov ruled that the shipowner keeps the money, because he didn’t renege on his responsibility, and the ship was faultless. The litigant can take it up with the river (Yerushalmi Gittin 7:6). Chacham Mordechai Eliyahu points out that both the Woman of Valor and the tribe of Zevulun, Torah supporters, are referred to allegorically as seafaring ships. Those who invest in the Torah of others, who are prepared and willing to sail the boats but are unable to control the river, retain full payment.
It’s important to note that your husband is learning, and the fact that it could be more comprehensive or exhaustive is true for anyone, wherever they’re standing.
A two-dimensional, black-and-white Judaica painting in our imagination sometimes competes with what three-dimensional, multicolored reality looks like. Every person is a work in progress, and no husband can stand against an illusory ideal state. It’s easy to look at a 60-year-old father, an 85-year-old grandfather, and wonder why a 30-year-old isn’t as mature, responsible, and focused.
While you settle in patiently for the long haul, use opportunities to celebrate every devar Torah, Avos U’banim session, and learning milestone —but for real. None of this gripey, passive-aggressive stuff.
Daf yomi makes festivities predictable: August 14th, Maseches Gittin siyum. Last day of Maseches Kiddushin is November 3rd.
Steak and fries sound fine.
I Want Him Doing Bedtime
My son-in-law is a real mensch, and happy to help my daughter in any way she needs. She refuses to ask him to cancel or even shorten his evening chavrusa. That means she’s often finishing off bedtime for three kids by herself so that he can leave. I don’t get the sacrifice. Pitching in with the kids is also a mitzvah, so why the heroics?
It’s certainly understood if Mr. Mensch occasionally stays to help with baths and Shema, especially as no one else can be a father to his children or a husband to his wife, which arguably makes it a “mitzvah that can’t be done by anyone else.”
Every home has its priorities, and you can be proud of your daughter’s resolve. There are often good reasons to cancel a chavrusa, and she’s not taking any chances with that slippery slope.
We talk about Torah and mitzvos as two different ideas, even though Torah is one of the mitzvos. Doing a mitzvah is likened to a candle and Torah learning to sunlight (Mishlei 6:23). Rav Aharon Kotler points out that all the lit candles that exist don’t rival the sun’s glow.
Here are some reasons Torah learning gets separate status.
Prereqs: Most obviously, understanding Torah is a condition for knowing how to do the other mitzvos (Talmud Torah 3:2).
Shield: A mitzvah’s protection, like its candle counterpart, has a contained aura that safeguards at the specific moments the mitzvah is kept. Torah protects after it’s studied as well, just as sunlight isn’t localized (Sotah 21a).
Either/or: Let’s hope we never come to this sort of choice. However, astoundingly, G-d tells us that if a choice were forced between Jews who kept mitzvos but didn’t study Torah vs. Jews who learned Torah but are not mitzvah observant, He prefers the non-observant learners, because “the light within [Torah] would return them to good” (Pesikta Eicha Rabbasi).
Benefits: The in-depth study of Torah occupies its own dimension in the World to Come. Whereas the prophets could fathom the reward of other mitzvos, even that of supporting Torah, no human eye could perceive the portion reserved for Torah scholars themselves (Berachos 34b).
Heftiness: Learning Torah is compared to all mitzvos combined in terms of pure Heavenly merit (Moed Katan 9b). Torah also stands equal to nine socially crucial mitzvos which build a thriving frum life: respecting parents; acts of kindness; coming to the study hall early; hosting guests; visiting the sick; helping a bride get married; going to a funeral; concentrating in prayer; causing peace between people. The act of studying Torah makes a contribution to society equal to all of the other mitzvos collectively, and so gets dividends in our physical world as all of them in total (see Hirsch Siddur, Mishnas Rabi Ahron I:I).
Staying power: A transgression can cancel a mitzvah, but it can’t cancel out Torah learning (Sotah ad loc).
Raison d’être: The purpose of creation is for Jews to learn Torah (Rashi Bereishis 1:1). When one learns, “the whole world was worth creating for him” (Avos 6:1).
Chances are decent that if your son-in-law is bringing meaning and purpose to the whole world, with all the blessing that he unleashes, he’s certainly doing awesome things for his family as well, even counting missed bedtimes.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 844)
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