Towards the end of parshas Noach, Chazal give us some important insight into the nature and role of a Jewish woman. A woman, unlike a man, enters this world with two missions- a personal one, and a second, higher one that she later acquires and shares with her husband. Her success in life is dependent on how well she uses that first mission to support and enhance the second one.
Sarah Imeinu’s Three Names
וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים: שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת–אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת–נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת–הָרָן אֲבִי–מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה
And Abram and Nahor took themselves wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah.
Rashi on this possuk calls attention to the fact that Yiscah is really Sarah:
This is Sarah because she would see (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוּת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׂרָרָה)
The Maharal in his sefer Gur Aryeh then offers some interesting commentary. He starts with the possuk:
כל הנושא אשה לשם שמים כאילו ילדה
Any man who takes a wife for the sake of Heaven,
it’s as if he gave birth to her.
The Maharal goes on to say that women go through two “births” as it were- one to her father (and mother) and one to her husband. From her parents, she gets the חומר, the “building material” that makes her who she is. This would include the spiritual genes and personality traits that she inherited from her parents as well as her innate strengths and weaknesses.
Part of a Jewish woman’s lifetime goal is to refine this chomer, to go through a very personal process of rejecting the sheker that’s inside of her, connecting to the emes, and ultimately coming closer to HaShem. But, this process is only one part of the equation. Her second, and higher goal is to use who she is and all that she will become to aide her in her joint mission with her husband. Upon marriage, the husband gives her a “shape” (צורה) and this, states the Maharal, is like a second birth since it brings a kind of completion to a woman’s existence and tafkid in this world.
What is this shape that the Maharal is referring to? Chazal tell us that the man is likened to the sun, while the woman is likened to the moon. Just as the sun shines forth the light that the moon then reflects back, so too the husband is the main spiritual and physical mashpia, or influence, in the marriage. It is the woman’s job to take all of this light and reflect it back to her husband, to her family, and to those around her. In the process, she helps others shine their own inner light forth into the world. (This quality, by the way, is something that every single woman has inside of her.)
A woman can rely on her innate abilities to help her do this job effectively. She can refine herself so that the reflection that comes back is as clear as possible. But, it’s the light itself that she receives from her husband which gives her the ability to be mashpia on those around her. Just as the moon cannot generate its own light, to a certain extent, neither can a woman.
The Maharal continues that the name Sarai represents who Sarah became for having married Avraham, and as Avraham grew in his Avodas HaShem, she was uplifted along with him (Thus, when the letter “hei” was added to Avraham’s name, Sarah also received a letter hei). After marriage, Sarah was exclusively called by her later names, but in deference to her personal greatness that stemmed from her parents, the Torah also mentions the name Yiscah.
Success as a Jewish Woman: Bringing Out the Best in Herself and Others
So women really have two parts to them or missions: one is personal that she gets when she is born and continues throughout her life, while the other is the joint mission she gets upon marriage to her husband. This joint mission will obviously be unique to the couple, but it includes the support of her husband’s spiritual and physical endeavors as well as raising a family.
Things are a bit different for a man. Chazal tell us that a man and his avoda in the world are to a certain extent incomplete and unfulfilled until he has found a wife. In other words, his avoda doesn’t really start until he is married. Everything up until that point is like preparation. As it says Midrash Rabbah Bereshis 17:2.
Any man who has no wife lives without goodness, without help, without joy, without blessing, and without atonement… To which Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi adds, any man who has no wife lives without peace… Rabbi Cheya says that a man is not whole without a wife.
In closing, there are two main points to get from this…
1. The importance of constantly working on your personal growth. This process continues even after we are married. Since we women are constantly giving to our husbands, children, extended family members, and to the communities we live in, our personal work can easily get pushed aside. We can also feel that there is little for us to do spiritually since our husbands are out there “doing all the avoda.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The more connected we are to HaShem, the more we can help our loved ones reach their own potential. Period.
2. The relationship you have with your husband is there to give you direction, to bring you closer to yourself and to HaShem. Now, I do want to mention here that while every birth is difficult, some certainly come easier than others. The same could be said about marriage. Avraham Avinu was a spiritual giant, so when he married Sarah Imeinu there was an instant uplifting. As he went up, so did she.
But in these days of hester and galus, it doesn’t always come out so easily. Today, we have to work much harder to bring out the best in our husbands and to help them and our children in their avodas HaShem. We have to work harder at a time when depression, anxiety, confusion, materialism, and a lack of spiritual clarity is running rampant in our communities… and in our homes.
What this means is that we as woman have to pay particular attention to our personal path of growth. We have to be stronger, more connected to ourselves, to truth, and to HaShem than ever before in order to do what we need to. We have to live in the spiritual galus of Mitzrayim and wake up every single day with our emunah in tact.
This ability is in us…
If we get it right, we will not only be zoche see our lives being constantly filled with HaShem’s Goodness and Light, but we will be able to light up those around us as well.
- What exactly is a woman's purpose in Judaism?
- How does a woman come closer to HaShem without the mitzvah of learning Torah?
- What about single women or those without children?