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PORTRAITS AND MIRRORS

By Rivka Zakutinsky

The following text, taken from Rivka Zakutinsky's book, Finding the Woman of Valor, is an exploration of today's Jewish woman based on eternal models. Mrs. Zakutinsky's starting point is King Solomon's poem "Ashes Chayil," or "Woman of Valor," which describes and praises the ideal Jewish woman.

There is nothing ordinary about a Jewish woman, no matter who she is. Regardless of her particular circumstances, she is a potential wellspring of goodness and faith, reflecting all that was given at Sinai. Single, married, divorced, widowed, mothering, praying, working, learning, teaching, building, healing, growing, waiting...every daughter of Israel is a precious resource of unique creative energy. Each Jewish woman also represents one more possibility to reach the kind of merit needed to illuminate and transform our planet.

Even so, when Solomon composed his eloquent tribute to Jewish womanhood, "The Woman of Valor (Proverbs 31:10-31)," he began with a question: "Who will find her?" We learn from the wisest of all men that she is not apparent, not easily found. And from within King Solomon's query two further questions about this archetypal "Woman of Valor" can emerge: what is her true nature and, why are we looking for her?

A Biblical Princess in the Supermarket? To most of us dealing with snarled traffic as we venture out to stock up the freezer, finding a viable role model in the Bible may seem pretty unlikely. After all, the women of Solomon's day lived in an era when awareness of God and the knowledge of Torah permeated the very core of personal and communal lives. The Divine presence rested amidst the Jewish people, miracles were obvious, and Divine Inspiration infused even the mundane aspects of day to day activity.

Biblical women certainly appear larger than life, more mythic than human, able to accomplish or withstand inconceivable trials and still remain heroic and pure. In comparison we might feel like feeble spectators witnessing the dramatic sweep of their lives. We dutifully note their monumental spiritual achievements and then return to the more pressing reality of figuring out how to make a supper that everyone will like.

How can we, immersed and struggling in a most definitely "non-Biblical" world, hope to find out more about ourselves through distant historical figures? Do their lives address our need for practical methods of achieving successful Jewish womanhood? How can we even locate this illusive "Woman of Valor?" She's so hidden. And even if we excavate into the Torah, identifying and assembling the hints and mysteries hidden there, how can we recognize the qualities we seek so that we will be able to nurture them within ourselves and others?

The Possible Woman

We begin with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. "A Woman of Valor," the treasured Sabbath night song, from King Solomon's "Proverbs," is constructed according to the alef-bet (Hebrew alphabet). The woman of "valor" is someone who embodies the truth contained in our holy language, from alef (the first letter) to tav (the last letter).

The Hebrew word "chayil" has many facets, just as the woman it describes in the opening line. According to the way the letters are vocalized, this word can mean "valor," or it can also denote strength, power, wealth, virtue, honesty, courage, success, or accomplishment. Our sages also describe the woman of "chayil" as a "pious woman," who is straightforward and eager.

Examining other aspects of the Hebrew root "chayil" is an adventure in itself. We find: "soldier, military corps and rampart." But it can also mean: "to give birth, to create, to terrify, to perform wonders, to wait, to hope, to succeed and to mature." Who could possibly embody such a kaleidoscopic array of qualities?

But we are not merely seeking a person. We are seeking a "way": our own personal method to apply the Torah's wisdom so that we can be valorous, strong, powerful, wealthy, virtuous, honest, courageous, successful, accomplished...all in our unique way.

Let's face it. It's not enough for us to admire the heroism of women of the past. We want to know how "we" can triumph over and terrify the "enemy," protecting ourselves and all that is good. The "Woman of Valor" does not describe a passive sort of person. She is a determined individualist who regards even the most difficult adversity as an opportunity for spiritual progress. When confronted with destructive forces, she has the inner resources to fortify herself and those around her, becoming a fierce and uncompromising warrior.

The "Woman of Valor" is a wellspring of creativity, "performing wonders!" We too would like to be creative, to perform wonders, bringing new life into our world. We want to know how best "to wait, to hope, to succeed and to mature." But to do these things, we need "ourselves."

King Solomon asks, as we do, "who will find" the way to accomplished Jewish womanhood? A wise directive is concealed in his "Song of Songs (1:8)," where he assures us that there is, in fact, a way to find the "Woman of Valor": "If you do not know, O fairest of women, go in the footsteps of the flocks and shepherd your young ones near the shepherds' dwellings." We are advised to "go in the footsteps" of those who went before us, and this will serve as our way."

Put Your Heart to the Highway..."

We who inherit the responsibility of Jewish womanhood at this moment in history confront a great challenge, one that no previous generation has encountered. Global dispersion has fragmented the fabric of natural Jewish life to the point where the extended family support system has almost disappeared. We live without nearby mothers, grandmothers, sisters and cousins to ease and share the tasks of nurturing our families. Who even has time to think about becoming "the fully actualized woman" when we're late for work and didn't yet pray, eat or start the laundry!

Many valiant Jewish women today are clinging to the ways of Jewish tradition without the loving support and guidance of their families and are thereby shouldering emotional and spiritual work that is all too often underestimated. Who doesn't wish they could do something to enliven and refresh their souls, their families, their People, their Earth...but what, how, when and - who will babysit while we're doing it?

The Creator of the Universe, communicating through His prophet, Jeremiah, speaks specifically to women, giving us encouragement and direction: "Set up markers for yourself...put your heart to the highway; the road upon which you went...return...(Jeremiah 31:20)" Rashi explains that "set up markers for yourself" means that the path to our future is delineated by the actions and good ways of our ancestors. We are never told to imitate, however. We are advised to "mark" our heart's journey, traveling at our own pace, in our own way, delineating our path, step by step, with information gleaned from the lives of those who preceded us.

Any Jewish woman who will help lead her people through this dark exile to our glorious national destiny is given everything she needs to do so, even if at the moment it means simply the patience to happily put peanut butter onto one more slice of bread. Few of us can envision leading our nation into a new era. But the ways in which we are doing it are not being broadcast on the streets in neon lights. And what's more, who else do we think will do it, if not us?

We are not required to forge the way. It is already there. Nevertheless, in "putting our hearts to the highway," we are literally finding our way. We are taking up God's invitation to travel upon a hidden path that leads to nothing less than becoming our most singular self. Now, where does this "highway" begin?

Sarah There is a strong source in the midrash which demonstrates how the entire "Woman of Valor" was originally composed by Abraham as a eulogy for Sarah, his wife. It is recorded in the Torah that our mother, Sarah, was one of the most beautiful looking women that ever lived. She was also an unprecedented spiritual luminary, bringing to the world a revolutionary way of life and teaching countless women of her generation about faith in one God. She and her husband lived as nomads and traveled through many cultures. She was gifted with Divine Inspiration and Prophecy, but, as the archetype of the "Woman of Valor," she was, and remains, difficult to "find."

When angels came to announce the birth of Abraham and Sarah's long-awaited child, they had to ask Abraham, "Where is Sarah, your wife? (Genesis 18:9). An extraordinary feast had been prepared and served to three messengers of God, but the hostess was nowhere in sight. Abraham told guests what he knew without even having to investigate: "Behold, in the tent." Rashi explains that Abraham's simple, two-word reply meant: "She is modest."

This may be precisely why there are so few detailed or explicit descriptions of righteous Jewish women in the Written Torah. To catch a glimpse of the "Woman of Valor," we have to search for hints that indicate her way. We are told to "follow the footsteps," because our foremothers, our shepherdesses, were experts at concealing themselves. Solomon's words, "Who will find her?" is not rhetorical; it is a clue.

In the Tent

Almost every human culture records and cherishes folk tales or myths where invisibility is a valued power, a magical "gift" that is sought after and used to achieve heroic goals. But the quality of being hidden is neither "mythical" nor "magic"; it is a skill. A far cry from self-effacement, true modesty is the ability to be gracefully unpretentious in all circumstances, alone or with others. It is a skill developed by Jewish women who truly believe in God and who have achieved, through that belief, unshakeable self-knowledge.

Our foremothers knew exactly who they were. With composed inner mastery, they did not need outside validation, recognition, or praise. They were not reacting to mass media directives, nor were they enslaved by styles - or by mirrors. Without longings for illusive images draining their vitality, they could be wholeheartedly "in the tent." Our ancestresses had achieved the ability to be at home with themselves.

The characteristic of modesty (Hebrew: tsniut) is the crowning and defining achievement of a Jewish woman. Esther, the Queen and Prophetess, imbued all her actions with the quality of modesty. Her name, an expression of her inner being, is derived from the Hebrew word hester, which means "hidden." Modesty was the singular trait that Boaz recognized in the humble convert, Ruth, as she picked up the stalks of barley left on the floor of the threshing field. It is the soul and essence of Jewish womanhood, because through it, all other qualities are enhanced, mastered and protected. Fairy tales only dare to hint at what the truly accomplished Jewish woman knows: invisibility empowers. When we free ourselves from having to "appear," we have no need for façade or fabrication and can be our most genuine selves.

Portraits and Mirrors

As we learned, our task is not to blaze a trail through wilderness; that work has already been done. The path may be hidden, but it is there. Our challenge is to discern the landmarks. As our "guides" we chose to follow the traditional commentaries and other sources in the Oral Torah, particularly the Midrash Shocher Tov, compiled by Reb Yitzchak bar Shimshon z''l, son-in-law of the Maharal of Prague t''z. There, our source explains how each of the verses of "The Woman of Valor" corresponds to a particular woman in Jewish history (see individual "portraits" in, Finding the Woman of Valor).

All of the character traits mastered by these exemplary Jewish women are "genetic" spiritual possibilities for every one of their descendants. With help from Above, we can unlock and activate all the potential for successful Jewish womanhood that is already within each of us, no matter what our age, experience, level of education or budget.

Our sages tell us that it will be in the merit of the righteous Jewish women that the future Jewish redemption will come about. This future deliverance will not be exclusively for the benefit of the Jewish people; it will include all nations on earth and will initiate the long awaited era of eternal and universal peace.

Just as everything our ancestors did indicates the future of our People, so too do their actions provide us with a pathway to true self-knowledge and creativity. Our sages relate: "As the reward for the (deeds of) the righteous women who lived in that generation were the Israelites delivered from Egypt." It seems ironic that the most important tools our foremothers used to earn that miraculous redemption were their mirrors (Rashi). The women used their mirrors for the sole purpose of beautifying themselves in order to continue bearing children, despite the tortures they were enduring and the Egyptian decrees against their having children. Our hope: that we who may have been enslaved by the mirror can transform it once again to a tool of redemption.

Who will find the "Woman of Valor?" According to our sages, the sincere seeker can find her within the "portrait gallery" of vibrant and extraordinary lives. These women and their distinguishing qualities are described in the chapters of Finding the Woman of Valor. Their hidden qualities are sketched before our eyes, just as they are already etched within each of our souls. And since there is nothing ordinary about any Jewish woman, we hope that these portraits will become the mirrors we need to bring about the future redemption: mirrors in which we eventually find ourselves.


ABOUT RIVKA ZAKUTINSKY

Rivka Zakutinsky, author, editor, lecturer has been a professional educator for more than twenty years. She is a graduate of Beth Jacob Teacher's Seminary in Brooklyn, studied at Yale University and received her degree in higher education from Hofstra University. Mrs. Zakutinsky has written and published books with Jewish themes - many for children - including, Judah and Yoni; We're Really Going Home; The Case of the Missing Baseball Cards; King David and the Frog; The House that Shlomo Built and The Wonder Worm.

Books for Jewish women include Finding the Woman of Valor (Aura Press); A Voice From the Heart; Women's Techinos (a compilation and translation of women's prayers, Aura Press) and, most recently, "Around Sarah's Table (Simon & Schuster).

Mrs. Zakutinsky's books are widely available at Jewish bookstores. For further information, to order books or to schedule speaking engagements, phone Aura Printing (718) 435-9103 or email Jzakutinsky@aol.com.

Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2002 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.

 
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