Female friendships have the potential to enable women to bring out the best in themselves, even those relationships where jealousy or competition exists. The Torah points to many of the ways that women together not only uplift one another, but uphold or save entire communities or generations. Our biblical matriarchs Rachel and Leah model this for us. Most parents work actively to avoid creating competition between siblings, so Lavan’s manipulating to have both of his daughters marry Yaakov fits with our larger picture of Lavan as a deeply flawed character. Rachel and Leah had every reason to resent one another and stand in each other’s ways. Yet the midrash tells us that the night before what was meant to be Rachel’s own wedding, she taught her sister Leah the secret signs she had prepared with Yaakov, so that Leah would not be embarrassed. Certainly there was tension and jealousy; we know this from later in the story in Bereshit. However, the empathy and understanding of each other’s vulnerabilities was stronger than all the other reasons they had to resent one another. Their support of and negotiation with one another is what quite literally enabled the birth of Bnei Yisrael, each of our tribes, to be born.
Leah and Rachel enabled the foundation of our people, and during times of national crisis the Torah seems to point to the inner resolve of women as elevating and promoting the continuity of our people. The Gemara tells us in Sota 11b, that it was “b’zechut nashim tzidkaniyot” – through the merit of the righteous women – that Israel came to be redeemed from Egypt. We know about the heroic efforts of Yocheved, Miriam, the midwives, and Bitya (the daughter of Pharaoh) willing to defy Pharaoh and risk their lives. But Chazal tell us that it was also the heroic efforts of all the women of that generation who refused to resign themselves to the hardships of slavery and fears of murderous threats of Pharoh. The women sought out unconventional ways to beautify themselves and seduce their husbands into the conjugal activities from which they had lost hope. The women were responsible not only for Jewish continuity by continuing to procreate, they were also responsible for Jewish continuity of spirit. The women, through preserving marital intimacy, were responsible for preserving an important piece of humanity that existed and that became the foundation for the future of the Jewish People.
The Torah understands that preserving life involves not just physical but also the psychological triumph. There is a fascinating halacha regarding a woman in labor found in the Rambam’s Mishnah Torah Shabbat 2:11, “If she requires a light when she cries out because of labor pains, a candle may be lit for her [on Shabbat]. [This leniency is granted] even if she is blind, because light has a calming influence even if she does not see.” This halacha calls to mind the many halachic rulings that have been written during this pandemic with an eye toward the emotional health of people and the need for support.
This shabbos we read in Parshat Beshalach about Miriam leading the Jewish women in songs of praise of Hashem with her tambourine. Miriam facilitates the women coming together at this moment, spiritually uplifted, and expressing uninhibited joy to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. The women, in fact the entire community is able to be there for Miriam in return when they wait for her during her time afflicted with tzaraat and later when they mourn for her. This past week, my mother-in-law, Chani Kranzler Septimus, passed away. One of the many things that she was known for was her musical talents, her beautiful soprano voice and the numerous instruments she played. She played bongo, the percussion instrument like Miriam, in a Bais Yaakov of Baltimore girl band, the Melodettes. They uplifted the spirits of others particularly in old age homes where they often sang and played. Also like Miriam, when the tables turned and my mother-in-law was not well and stuck in the hospital and rehab without the possibility of in person visitors, her bandmates from 55 years ago, sang with her over FaceTime, and lifted her spirit, gave her strength, love and hope.
When women support one another, individuals can feel encouraged and loved, as well as families and communities being strengthened. This was the motivation for creating the Jewish Women’s Leadership Council, bringing together women across the spectrum of the observant Jewish community in the Five Towns to identify and address communal needs. Modeling ourselves after the heroic women in Egypt, the council agreed that strengthening marriage and taking couples away from the shackles of everyday life was a great place to start. 600 people agreed and joined for the inaugural event, which we called “an evening of love and laughter.”
The magnitude and scope of the effects Covid is having is too great to describe or even to understand. Thank God due to many varied heroes, we have hope for a way out of this horrific pandemic. But, the JWLC sees that we not only need a vaccine against the virus; we need antibodies to fight off disengagement and apathy, loneliness and negativity. We need to be brought together in a positive and supportive way and create the gateway to a new time for our community. On Motzei Shabbos, February 13th, JWLC will host it’s 3rd event, The Power of Positivity. Each participating shul will host simultaneous workshops on finding positivity in an era of challenges. Our hope is to facilitate the women in each local community connecting and supporting one another in new ways. Like in generations before us when women support one another the impact is far reaching, extending to the entire Jewish community in powerful ways.
Lisa Septimus is the Yoetzet Halacha of the Five Towns and Rebbetzin of the Young Israel of North Woodmere. She is available to answer any questions relating to Taharat Hamishpacha, Mikvah or marital intimacy and can be reached at 516-900-2109 or firstname.lastname@example.org