What were the Ishah HaShunamis’s rare strengths?

Ishah HaShunamis

Very few people are described as “great” in Tanach. Among the exceptions is the woman from Shunem who is called a “great woman.” What was the source of the Ishah HaShunamis’s greatness? How did this greatness manifest? What lessons can we learn from her for our lives?

Greatness Defined

Rashi in the beginning of parshas Va’eschanan defines the middah of Hashem’s greatness as the attribute of goodness and kindness. This is the exact quality we see demonstrated by this woman in the Navi. In Melachim II chapter 4 the Navi describes how Elisha frequently passed through Shunem on his travels. This woman would continually welcome the navi into her home for meals. Eventually she even prepared a separate room in her home for Elisha’s personal comfort every time he visited this city.

It’s clear from the Navi that this renovation was her own initiative — she did so to fashion her home into a “beis vaad lachachamim — a meeting place for scholars.” Indeed the mefarshim point out the acronym of the items placed in the room — mitah shulchan kisei and ner (bed table chair lamp) spell out the word mishkan; this was a room where Elisha could meditate and connect with Hashem.

The mishnah in Avos enjoins all of us to create homes where scholars and Torah classes are part of the fabric of our homes — to create a family culture in which children are raised to view the home as a meeting place for sages. There’s a Talmudic statement that one “who is careful with lighting the candles will merit children who are Torah scholars.” What does this mean? Being careful with candles Rav Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik explains refers to a father who although tired from a long week stays up late on Friday night to learn by the candles’ light.

Imagine a young child who wakes up thirsty and pads out of bed to the kitchen. On the way he sees his father learning in the dining room softly chanting the words of the Gemara. An image that will be imprinted on this child’s memory and that will stay with him for all his life. When he grows up this will be his normal and he’ll naturally want to emulate his father in his own life.

But making our homes a beis vaad lachachamim doesn’t depend on a husband’s learning. There are so many ways for a woman to cultivate this tone and atmosphere. Hosting shiurim parlor meetings for tzedakah ushering in rabbanim who come collecting and offering refreshments — all these are simple ways in which our children see both our mesirus nefesh and love for Torah.

Community Connection

An alternate way of understanding greatness is the Talmud’s equation of greatness with humility: In all places that we find Hashem’s greatness mentioned there we find His humility. The quality of humility is clearly possessed by the Ishah HaShunamis.

Elisha asked what he could do to repay her kindness even offering to daven on her behalf on Rosh Hashanah. She declined and her answer has become a phrase that encapsulates the Jewish attitude to community: “Besoch ami anochi yoshaves — I dwell among my people.” This great woman wanted to be judged in the context of the rest of the nation. Rav Chaim Friedlander in Sifsei Chaim notes that one who connects himself to the community demonstrates humility and is therefore deserving of the special rachamim Hashem sends down.

The quality of humility is woven into the very text of our prayers. Heal us bless us restore us we ask each time beseeching not only for ourselves but for the nation in its entirety. Indeed Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichos Mussar) learns from here the importance of davening in the plural even for individual requests so as to link ourselves with the special brachos the community is granted.

We might think that the community is more a man’s thing — women serve Hashem from the privacy of their homes. But even when we’re unable to join communal events or join the kehillah in saying Tehillim for example we can still express our connection by saying some Tehillim at home at the same time as the communal gathering.

On another level we can work to engender a community spirit. When our kids come home and talk about a new child in the class we can encourage them to be warm and friendly. When kids disparage others we should discourage feelings of superiority and model to them how to look for and appreciate others’ strengths.