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LADIES FIRST

Friday, 8 June, 2018 - 12:00 pm

You know the joke about the rabbi who gave a man marriage advice: His wife should be in charge of small decisions, and he, the big ones.

After 30 years, he complained to the rabbi, "In 30 years, there have been no big decisions!"

To which his wife responded: "Of course there have—and I allowed you to decide them all!"

"Like what?" asked the husband.

"Like what? I will tell you: A big decision is what to do about global warming, the conflict in Iraq, the situation in Iran…. That you decide, my dear, and I do not mix in. Small decisions are—where we live, where our kids go to school, which synagogue we attend, and which house we buy!

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550–1619), a most popular Torah commentator, was known as the Kli Yakar.

The Kli Yakar wondered about the meaning of the words in the opening of this week's Torah portion, Shelach, where G-d tells Moses, “Send for yourself men and let them scout the land of Canaan.” Why did He not say, “Send men?” What is the meaning of the words, “Send for yourself men?”

The Kli Yakar explains that the Torah is subtly conveying an argument between Moses and G-d. As it happens to be, Moses “won” the argument, and the results were disastrous.

G-d suggested that Moses should send women as spies to scout the land. Moses felt the mission would be served better by men. That is why G-d said, “Send for yourself MEN.” If it was up to Me, I would send women, but it is your decision.

The Torah relates that there is a major difference between men and women concerning the land. When the spies returned and claimed that the land was filled with mighty empires, and entering it would spell destruction, the males fell into despair. However, the women loved and cherished the land, and were excited to enter it. Rashi famously wrote: If you look through the Book of Numbers, you will see that the men constantly rebelled against taking possession of the land. The minute anything went wrong, they panicked and said: “Come, let’s return to Egypt.” The men in the wilderness preferred to live as slaves in Egypt than enter the Promised Land, if it meant they would have to fight to acquire it. 

On the other hand, the women loved the land. We see this from Tzelafchad's daughters telling Moses, after their father's demise, "Give us a share of the land." These women had never even seen the Promised Land, but they loved it so much, said the Kli Yakar, that they insisted Moses give them a part of it. They did not want to just visit the land, they did not want to rent the land or live in the land—they wanted to hold it, to possess it. That is how much they loved the land.

Thus, the Kli Yakar concluded: "Therefore G-d said, 'From my perspective, for I know the future, it would have been better to send women, who love the Land, and would not speak ill of it.'"

The Kli Yakar asked further: What if Moses had sent women to scout the land instead of men? Can you imagine the different report they might have brought back? Whereas the men focused on how strong and well-armed the inhabitants were, and how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to conquer the land, the women might have focused on how beautiful and prosperous and fertile the land was. They might have spoken about how G-d promised this land to us and would help us conquer it. They might have soft-pedaled the details about the enemy. And if they had, and if they had been listened to, they might have saved our ancestors from committing a great sin and having to wander in the desert for 40 years as punishment.

No one can say for sure what would have happened if Moses had chosen to send female spies instead of male, but surely it is one of the great “what if's” of history.

In truth, this notion of the Sages goes back to the very experience of Sinai, when we received the Torah.

The Jews had left Egypt and arrived at Mt. Sinai. What was about to happen would be the most important and defining event, not only for our people but for humanity. This was the only time the Creator of the world would communicate the purpose of existence and preset the manual for Jewish and human living. This Book of Books by the Creator of the human psyche, the Torah (which means "instruction") instructs us how to live. At that mountain, one people were chosen to be G-d's ambassadors to teach His world about goodness, holiness justice, and morality. Much of the world still can’t forgive us…

At this moment we encounter a strange verse: Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, telling Moses to speak first with "Bais Yaakov," the house of Yaakov, which refers to the ladies, and only after that the men. G-d wanted the Torah to be taught first to the women.

Why did Moses need to teach Torah to the women first? And why the need to differentiate between the genders? The Midrash offers several explanations.

Firstly, women are more spiritual and G-d conscious than men. If they to agree to accept the Torah, then the men will fall in line, too. Women have the most influence on their children.

Indeed, you will notice something fascinating. Since G-d made this decision to teach the Torah first to the women, every sin and mutiny the Jews were involved with in the desert was done by men. No women were involved. Since that episode with the Tree by Adam and Eve, we do not find even ONE transgression that included women. They remained loyal and steadfast in their vision and devotion. The men created the Golden Calf; the men rebelled during the story of the spies; the mutiny led by Korach was a man’s mutiny, and one woman actually saved her husband from rebelling. So too with all other sins in the desert.

Yet, despite all this, the fact remains that the women’s voice in Torah has not been heard, at least not loud and clear, for millennia—until our generation.

The feminine voice in Torah was not gone, but it was muted. Women's influence on family remained steadfast, and they held up the Jewish people, but learning was mostly a man’s thing.

This all changed because of one woman.

Sarah Schenirer dreamed of opening a network of schools for girls to receive an intense, stimulating, exciting, invigorating, and intellectually sophisticated Jewish education, coupled with secular studies—to create a generation of young Jewish women who can intellectually and emotionally appreciate Judaism.

The resistance she encountered is hard to describe.

During World War I, she fled Krakow to Vienna. At the end of the war, Schenirer returned to Krakow with her family, armed with both a German Jewish education and a Chassidic fervor for setting up a new movement: a school for young Jewish girls. Her brother, a member of the Belzer Chassidic community, discouraged her, insisting her chances were slim and that she was crazy, but finally agreed to take her to meet the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach in Marienbad, today in the Czech Republic. He was certain he would tell her to sober up.

Upon hearing Schenirer’s idea of a school, the Belzer Rebbe embraced her vision and blessed her. Some of the greatest rabbis of the century endorsed her passionately, both in the Chassidic and non-Chassidic world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as well as the Chofetz Chaim, the Gerrer Rebbe, and Reb Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (the Vilna Rabbi)—all knew how right she was. So Sarah Schenirer set out to found her school.

In 1918, she began teaching seven girls in a room in Krakow. The lessons in that cramped rented room featured intense study of texts coupled with a Chassidic emphasis on character development and joy, and were wildly successful. Within five years, Schenirer’s seven students grew to seven entire schools, numbering 1,040 students. She named her schools Bais Yaakov.

A mere 10 years later, in 1933, there were 265 schools in Poland alone, for almost 38,000 students. One Chassidic woman from Krakow founded 265 schools! Sarah Schenirer’s idea had taken Jewish Europe by storm and evolved into the Bais Yaakov movement, named after a biblical verse referring to women. The teachers were graduates of her schools, trained by a teachers’ seminary that Schenirer founded in 1923.

Sarah Schenirer became the “mother of Bais Yaakov.” Though she had no children of her own (her first marriage resulted in a quick divorce and she remarried towards the end of her life), she was a mother to them all. She did not only create schools and curriculums, she organized camps, parties, dancing, singing, gatherings, and a whole culture around feminine Jewish life. She transformed an entire generation of Jewish girls and women. She brought back the feminine voice of Judaism, the Torah that comes from the minds and souls of women, as well as the unique Toras Chessed, the Torah of kindness, depth, warmth, and love—emerging from the woman’s soul.

In addition to education, Bais Yaakov offered women leadership opportunities that have enhanced the Jewish world. Sarah Schenirer saw a need for girls to be able to forge connections with female leaders. On a rainy Sunday morning in March 1935, the streets of Krakow, Poland filled with thousands of mourning girls and women. They joined other Jews in paying their respects to Sarah Schenirer, the founder of Bais Yaakov, who had passed away the day before, from cancer, at the age of 52.

As the War decimated Europe and destroyed most of the 40,000 Bais Yaakov students and their families, the survivors fled to the USA and other parts of the world and founded Jewish girls’ schools in almost every Jewish community.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe often spoke of the revolution triggered by Sarah Schenirer, and how urgent this is in our generation, even though many rabbis and rebbes did not believe in “equal Jewish education” for women. He spoke of the unique role of women in building and revitalizing Jewish life, which requires them to receive a thorough and impassioned Torah education.

Reb Meir Shapira of Lublin once told a Bais Yaakov teacher, "If not for your work in educating Jewish daughters, I would have to close my yeshiva."

Instead of attempting to shatter an entire immersive legal and social system, Schenirer worked within the structure of Torah and social conventions, becoming a quiet emblem of powerful influence—not through a revolution in the streets, nor through unseemly opposition rallies. Rather than wielding a saber or picket, Schenirer held a schoolbook.

It is the calling of our time. Jewish women have to discover their unique spiritual power to teach Torah, to disseminate Torah, and to light up a generation with the light of Torah.

After all, they got it first, in more ways than one.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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