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18 Tammuz 5764 - July 7, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
Appreciating Being Jewish: The Mesirus Nefesh of Jewish Women

by HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l

The is an edited and adapted transcript of a talk given in Jerusalem.

The yesod hayesodos, the basis of the possibility of having an Am Yisroel, the most important thing that children can be taught in cheder to both boys and girls, is Atoh bechartonu. If we do not appreciate what it means to be Jewish, the Atoh bechartonu, the rest of Torah disappears.

Torah cannot exist until there is an understanding, an acceptance, an awareness and an appreciation of Atoh bechartonu. We say it in the posuk "Torah tzivoh lonu Moshe, moroshoh Kehillas Yaakov." The Torah is a moroshoh Kehillas Yaakov.

If I would ask: What is the most important single posuk that we Jews learn? What is the single, most important posuk in all of Torah that a Jew has to learn and to know and to keep and to do?

I think that everyone would say that it is, "Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod."

What is the first thing we do in the morning, and also in the evening, before we go to sleep? What would a Jew die for? And when he is dying, what does he die with? What posuk does he want on his lips? Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echod!

It is the posuk of kiddush Hashem. It is a posuk of commitment. It is the posuk of yiras Shomayim, a posuk that includes the all- and-all of being a Yid.

Yet, the gemora says that the first posuk that we teach our children is not Shema Yisroel. Shema Yisroel is the second posuk that we teach our children.

The first posuk is Torah tzivoh lonu Moshe, moroshoh Kehillas Yaakov (Succah 42a). There is no Shema Yisroel unless there is Torah tzivoh lonu Moshe, moroshoh Kehillas Yaakov.

Asher bochar bonu micol ho'amim venosan lonu es Toroso. The reason Klal Yisroel was chosen was to get the Torah. Without the Torah there is no Shema Yisroel. Without the choice of Klal Yisroel, there is nothing.

The first and most important thing we can give over to ourselves and to our children is what it is to be a Jew: that it is something special and that it is worth whatever it costs. Because unless we realize what is very, very special about being a Jew, we do not understand our place in the world.

In many ways it is easier to be a goy. There are not so many restrictions. And the goy can even get Olam Habo, too. So what is the big deal to be a Jew?

An appreciation of being a Jew is the basis of there being an Am Yisroel. And the Atoh bechartonu is the first and most important thing that all the schools must teach.

Atoh bechartonu -- to recognize that we were chosen and are special -- is the heart of being a Jew.

But it goes beyond that. You have to understand it very deeply. How does Torah itself start? When the Ribono Shel Olom came to give us His Torah, He spoke to Moshe Rabbenu and said, "Go and speak to the Jews to offer them the Torah."

What did He say that Moshe Rabbenu should tell them? Atem re'isem asher osisi leMitzrayim, vo'eso eschem al kanfei neshorim, vo'ovi eschem Eilai (Shemos 19:4). He said to them, "You saw what I did to the Egyptians."

Rashi explains that Hashem said: The Egyptians did many aveiros. They sinned against Me for many years, but I left them alone. But when they hurt Yisroel, then I sent the makkos, the plagues. So Hashem is saying to us in this phrase: You saw how much I care for you.

How does Rashi know that is what it means? Maybe it means that Hashem is telling us that we saw His power exercised against the Egyptians?

Because if it referred to Hashem's power it would have said "bemitzrayim." When it says "lemitzrayim" it means to stress that the Egyptians paid a price for what they did.

The main point is that the Ribono Shel Olom is saying to Moshe Rabbenu: If I want Klal Yisroel to become Mine and to accept My Torah, I first have to show them how much I love them and care for them and how special they are to Me.

And again in the next phrase of the posuk: vo'eso eschem al kanfei neshorim. Rashi says that the nesher keeps her children above her, on her back, while carrying them, because the only thing she fears is the arrow. Thus she puts her own body between her children and the arrows.

That, Hashem says, is the way I feel about you, My children, Yisroel.

That, in turn, is the reason for the consequence: . . . veheyisem Li seguloh -- you will be a special thing, mikol ho'amim -- out of all the nations.

So in the pesukim there, what does the Ribono Shel Olom say to us in order to enable us to accept His yoke, that is, in order for us to be able to say to Him: Na'aseh venishma? He shows us: I love you; I care for you; you are special to Me.

We should note that if He needs to say that to us in order for us to be able to say to Him Na'aseh venishma -- do we not still need it now in order to remain His people?

Therefore to appreciate what it is to be a Jew, is the basis of kabolas haTorah and kabolas mitzvos and that is the key to our acceptance upon ourselves of the burden of remaining Jews whatever the cost.


Make no mistake: it was not only in the past that we had to pay a heavy price for being Jews. We continue to pay that price today. In the past there were times our blood was hefker lekol ho'amim. Today it is still hefker to a large extent. The nations of the world become indignant at the loss of any human life unless it happens to be a Jewish life. Then it is acceptable. Am I exaggerating or am I stating facts? Facts. That is the fact; that is the way it is. Our lives are still hefker to the goyim.

And the truth is that if anybody pays a price, it is the noshim tzidkonios on whom we depend for our existence, and for our yeshuo.

The gemora (Sotoh 11b) says that in the zchus of noshim tzidkonios nig'alu -- we were redeemed from Mitzrayim.

Noshim tzidkonios are the source of our existence in the past and the source of our continuity for all times in the future. The noshim of Klal Yisroel are those who make possible the physical continuity and existence of Klal Yisroel.

I don't just mean that they bear the children, though that is absolutely true. I don't just mean that they nurture the children, though that is absolutely true.

I mean that they create the setting and the bayis out of which their husbands and their sons are able to accept the burden by which to maintain their existence as Yidden. Those are the nondramatic, the non-spiritually- stimulating parts of life that the woman has to conduct and that are the basis of Jewish existence. Our noshim tzidkonios pay the price by giving up prestige, by giving up the dramatic undertakings and fancy careers.

What does the Yiddishe woman do? She cannot be president of the United States. She cannot take the time off from her relationship with family, or the building of her home. She has to be involved in the non-glamorous, nondramatic, day-to-day details -- of making a Jewish reality.

We Jews have been accused throughout the ages by the neighbors amongst whom we live: "You Jews have a kitchen religion."

Yes, we have a kitchen religion. Christianity is a religion that is concerned with love, with brightness, with inspiration.

What do the Jews worry about? Whether you have a milchige pot there. Did he shecht the animal properly? Did he salt it? Kitchen details; a kitchen religion. So much of our energy goes into determining if it is kosher.

Chazal tell us in several places: Ein Hakodosh Boruch Hu nosein geduloh le'odom ad shemenas'eihu bedovor kotton. Hashem Yisborach does not give greatness to a man until he tests him with little things.

Before Moshe Rabbenu is appointed as the leader of all Jewry and the one who is going to take them out of Mitzrayim and give them the Torah and guide them in the desert, G-d tested him, Chazal tell us, with small things. He wanted to see whether Moshe would take his sheep out far away, where there was no chance of them stealing by eating other people's grass.

HaRav Tzadok Hacohen, the Lubliner Rov, asked the kashye which all of us would automatically ask: If you are going to give greatness, if you're going to make Moshe the teacher and leader of Klal Yisroel -- do you try him out to see if he is going to engage in petty theft?

It would seem that you would try to see whether he is prepared for mesirus nefesh. Is he ready to give his life? That's what you would test him with. Would you test him as to whether he is a gazlan or not? The same applies to other great leaders: Dovid Hamelech, for example, was also tested as a shepherd.

However, with a dramatic, profound test of faith, everyone might draw from himself -- for the moment -- the power and the courage to give life itself away. It's glamorous. It's dramatic. We have a spiritual adrenalin that runs through our bodies and in a time of danger we are capable of so much more than we are capable of normally.

The real test is if you can stand the drudgery, the nondramatic, unglamorous drudgery, day in-day out -- doing the things that are right. Will you go far away into the desert, day in-day out, to make sure your sheep do not wander into a stranger's field? That is the test of a godol beYisroel. That is test of how a Klal Yisroel can continue to exist.

The irritants, the pettiness, of day in-day out. Of worrying about getting up in time for the davening, about what we eat, about how we prepare the food, about what you can prepare on Shabbos and what you can't, about what the children can wear, about how long the sleeve is, about how long the skirt is. Day in-day out. Non-glamorous, nondramatic, drudgery, small details.

That's where the power of a life dedicated to the Ribono Shel Olom is to be found. That's from where the strength of Klal Yisroel is derived. That is the chiyuv of the existence of Klal Yisroel. That is the particular koach of the ishoh, the noshim tzidkonios who give existence and continuity to Am Yisroel.

And it is what a man is not really able to do. He needs stimulation, he needs growth, he needs a feeling of accomplishment, he needs a feeling of great things that are being done -- of building, of learning, of expanding. He cannot live with the day in-day out -- which is really the basis of Jewish existence. His daily life needs to be supported by his wife or his mother. That is where he derives the ability to continue. She is the source of the koach and the commitment of that ultimate mesirus nefesh.

Mesirus nefesh does not just mean to be ready to die. Mesirus nefesh means that I give my entire life to the Ribono Shel Olom. If necessary I will of course die for Him too, because I give my life to Him without reservations.

But it is better to live than to die. I give it to Him to use for His purposes, to use for His desires, to use for His wishes. That is the mesirus nefesh that the Torah demands, and that is the particular koach of the noshim of Yisroel. They undertake that ultimate and grandest mesirus nefesh in being able to serve Him. These small things are not pettiness. They are the actual life of Klal Yisroel. They are the lungs and the heart through which Klal Yisroel maintains its existence.

And that is how to appreciate it. Even though it may seem to be so pedestrian and so small. The answer of course is to recognize and to know that these apparently small things are very very great. They encompass a binah, they encompass an awareness and an understanding which animates, which motivates.

There must be a deep understanding of oneself and of other human beings. There must be a great deal of balance and judgment, of balancing the needs of my family with the needs of chesed, of balancing that which will contribute to the health of my children, and my husband and those dependent on me. The balancing must make sure that there is no selfishness, that there is a full acceptance of the need of chesed and rachamim to others as well.

There is a tremendous burden of judgment that a woman has to bear. A daily ongoing of measuring and balancing. The doing for others against the doing for self. Appreciating others. The recognition of gadlus for others. The recognition of helping other children not only her own, and helping her own primarily because that is her first responsibility and one that should not encroach upon the other. The need of understanding, the need of judgment. A continuous ongoing decision-making process. That is the lot by which she can manage to do so much, by which she can manage to give chinuch to Klal Yisroel.

To recognize that the task that she has been given is the task that is not only the most important but also the most meaningful, the most significant. To find the Ribono Shel Olom, the kedushoh of the daily ongoing reality of a human existence.

Sefer Kedushoh in the Rambam includes only those areas that apply to the body and its needs. Because it is only there that we can lift the world up to the higher realms, to give sanctity to our lives. It is in the care we take to preserve our tznius, in the care in doing that which we must do to maintain our daily physical existence, eating and drinking. It is there -- in the most physical areas in which we are immersed. There you find true kedushoh.

To recognize this is to find the ultimate holiness by which we raise ourselves to the shaarei Shomayim. That is a difficult task but it is the most inspiring one the Ribono Shel Olom has offered to the Jews. To recognize that it is within the body that one finds the neshomoh, and that through the proper maintenance of the lowest level of the body one is lifted up to the highest levels of kedushoh and can achieve the highest level of hashro'as HaShechina itself.

That is why the word Shechina has the feminine gender: because it is in these areas that we achieve it. It is these areas which the Ribono Shel Olom gave to the noshim of Klal Yisroel.

To recognize and realize what these obligations and burdens and duties signify and do, is to appreciate what it is to be a Jew. This is what it means to recognize the true meaning of Atoh bechartonu since it is through this that Klal Yisroel maintains its ongoing existence.

HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l, was rosh yeshivas Ner Israel in Baltimore. This year on 17 Tammuz was his fifth yahrtzeit.

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