That evening, at my vort, Rav Shapiro didn’t elaborate, because he didn’t have to. My mother a”h had passed away at a relatively young age. The lives of the family she left behind would never be the same. She took with her much blessing, joy and love. Children without a mother, no matter their age, have a void in their hearts that cannot easily be filled.
Rav Shapiro recognized that, and he was wishing me that with the return of brochah, my life would once again be complete. I never forgot his warm words and generous wishes, and each year, when this week’s parshah is read, I contemplate the moment referred to by the posuk.
Yitzchok had lost his mother. She had longed for him, prayed for him, and finally merited raising him. With the passing of Sarah, his life was no longer complete. With Rivkah’s entrance, shleimus returned.
The posuk is telling us not only about the role of a woman, but about the essence of a woman, a wife and a mother.
Sarah and Rivkah were of two different generations, each one with a separate life experience. Sarah traveled with her husband from place to place and worked alongside him in his kiruv rechokim and chesed operations. Rivkah was from a different generation. She was the wife of a rov and rosh yeshiva, who stood firmly and loyally behind her husband in his quiet harbotzas Torah.
The role of a woman doesn’t change even as the externals do. Rivkah wasn’t Sarah, nor was she meant to be, but she brought nechomah just the same. Just as Sarah did, she illuminated the inside of the house, symbolized by the candles; she nourished and sustained, as represented by the challos; and she protected and sheltered, like the cloud above.
It is not patronizing to say that the role of women in the home is as important as that of the men, even if it is behind closed doors and performed with tznius. This is the message of the candles, the challah, and the cloud over the tent. The woman of the house may be out of sight, but she isn’t behind the scenes, because she creates the scene, providing it with color, meaning and depth.
To suggest that the role of the mother has changed and evolved over the generations is folly. It is not old-fashioned to recognize that to raise a wholesome child, a mother is necessary. Yes, times change and life today isn’t what it was several generations ago, but the role of the mother is eternal. We are mocked and ridiculed as close-minded people resistant to change, because we seek to maintain the sanctity and divisions of the Jewish home. We refuse to redefine marriage and to carve out new roles for parents.
One of the Kanievsky children walked into his parents’ home after one of his father’s frequent siyumim. He watched as Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky brought coffee in an over-sized glass to her husband, Rav Chaim. She placed the huge cup in front of her husband and quietly said to him, “I am so proud of the siyum you made today. I bought this new glass and made you extra coffee to celebrate and show you how happy we are.”
The Rebbetzin told her son that while Rav Chaim didn’t need more coffee, he appreciated the chizuk. “A woman, a wife and a mother, has to know how to fill the space of her home with praise and more praise,” she said. Yes, it works both ways, but she sets the tone.
Peace, warmth and simchah flow through the home via the mother, who is the heart of the family.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky was asked to explain the blessing of “she’osani kirtzono,” recited daily by women. Feminists and apikorsim often point to this brochah to claim that it was written by the rabbis to demean women. Rav Kamenetsky suggested that the translation of the words is as follows: “She’asani,” Hakadosh Boruch Hu created women, “kirtzono,” to reflect His essential ratzon, His will, which is to do good, as reflected in the statement, “Ratzon haTov leheitiv.” The flow of goodness that emanates from Hashem is emulated by a woman. Hence the brochah of “she’osani kirtzono.”
But we have grown weak and under-confident. We buy into the messages and agendas of the surrounding media and society and feel obligated to apologize for our positions. We are insecure and apologetic, as if our tradition is in any way disparaging of women. We need only contemplate the message of the posuk and understand the function with which the Torah charges the woman.
To more fully understand Yitzchok’s nechomah, we should better understand the meaning of the lights that are kindled in every Jewish home on Erev Shabbos. The candles are lit to provide shalom bayis, peace in the house. Halachah mandates that if one can afford either Kiddush wine or candles, the candles have priority, because peace in the Jewish home is a supreme need and there can be no peace without light.
The reference to the light, which remained lit from Erev Shabbos to Erev Shabbos, signifies that a Shabbos-like peace reigned in the home of Avrohom and Sarah throughout the week. In tribute to this rarified atmosphere, the onon, a Divine cloud, hovered over their tent. As Hakadosh Boruch Hu says (Medrash, Parshas Pinchos), “Lo motzosi kli machzik brochah ela hashalom.” The vehicle for blessing is peace.
The Maharal, in explaining the connection between the neiros and shalom, says that there can only be peace when everyone understands their role and place. Countries go to war and people fight when the lines between them are not clear. The light of the candles makes everything visible and clear. There is therefore no reason to fight and this brings shalom.
When Yitzchok brought Rivkah into his mother’s tent and saw the ner of shalom, he was reassured that life in his home would reflect the spiritual elevation in his parents’ home. Their respective roles and missions would be clear. Peace and blessing would reign.
Last week, the Rabbinical Council of America reiterated its position, rejecting the ordination of female rabbis. The fact that there was argument and dissent and that the wider Jewish establishment condemned the RCA for its position is a sad statement on how far we have veered from appreciating what a woman is and is not. While we applaud the position of the rabbinic group, we are pained by the bewilderment and insecurity that abound during these trying times, when intelligent men and women feel compelled to buy into an agenda that comes from a world estranged from Torah.
Yitzchok understood that his wife’s role would be different than that of his mother. Generations change. Circumstances change. The distinct role of the woman in a Jewish home, however, is eternal. What she is meant to do never changes. When Yitzchok saw that even though Rivkah was different than Sarah, she too brought brochah into his home, he understood that she was meant for him and he was comforted.
Rav Don Segal was in Montreal last Shabbos. In an impassioned shmuess he spoke about the prevalent confusion and bilbul hamochos. He shared a story heard from Rav Shalom Schwadron, who heard it from Rav Elya Lopian.
Rav Lopian told the story of a former yeshiva bochur who had enlisted to serve in the army. Shortly thereafter, the young conscript asked for a discharge. He explained that he was being exposed to a constant barrage of foul language. He said that the nivul peh he heard offended him and was making him sick. At first, the commanding officers laughed at his claim, but then they noticed that when people used improper or tainted speech, the soldier turned pale. Eventually, they let him leave. On the form listing the reason for his discharge, they wrote that he suffered from mental illness.
“Imagine,” Rav Elya would say. “He’s pure enough to feel pain at foul language, refined to the point of being physically negatively affected, and they viewed him as being insane.”
Rav Segal made the point that too often, those who cherish the mesorah and live with hope and faith are viewed as being sick and backward. Those who have veered from the moral path are considered progressive, open minded and intelligent.
Rav Segal closed with a story about a group of Polish soldiers who were told to prepare for a visit from the general. Garbed in their uniforms, shoes polished and guns gleaming, they stood at attention. It was a hot day, and as they waited beneath a scorching sun, a few of them started to grumble. The morning dragged on with no sign of the general and the soldiers felt their resolve weakening. “Wait a bit longer. I’m sure he’ll come soon,” the commander urged them, but as morning gave way to afternoon, the general was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, the tired soldiers gave up and many of them flopped to the ground, exhausted. At that moment, the general appeared. Those who sat on the floor were humiliated, while those who had remained standing were promoted to a higher rank.
The Chofetz Chaim would retell the story and say, “He’s about to come. Don’t give up now. Stand tall and wait. He’s about to arrive.”
We are at the end of the day and have been waiting so long. The wait is getting progressively more difficult. Only a few remain standing.
In this, too, we look to our neshei chayil to inspire us. The Gemara in Maseches Brachos (17) says that women attain merit through waiting for their husbands to return home from the bais medrash.
Thus, one of the sacred responsibilities and mandates of the woman is to wait. They teach the rest of us how to wait. Now is their time. Now, as a lonely nation awaits Moshiach’s arrival, we look to the women to inspire and teach us how not to lose focus. Together, we wait for the day when the world will once again be filled with light and we will all be comforted.
Perhaps we can understand Yitzchok’s nechomah on another level.
When Sarah Imeinu lit the Shabbos lights in her tent on Erev Shabbos, she sanctified the profane and the workweek. She brought the holiness of Shabbos into her home, where it remained until the following Friday, when, once again, she lit the neiros Shabbos.
The kedushas Shabbos in her home began as she kindled those lights. Yitzchok learned this avodah from her. He learned from her example how to bring kedushah into the world. He saw the mechanism by which Friday afternoon is transformed into Shabbos, and how one can add holiness to one’s day and to the Jewish home.
After Yitzchok brought Rivkah to the tent, he saw that when she lit the candles on Erev Shabbos, she brought the kedushah of Shabbos into the home. Just as it was with his mother Sarah, the holiness and light lasted the entire week. Yitzchok was then assured that he could build his home with this woman, for she knew the avodah of Minchah.
Perhaps this explains the statement that all of Sarah’s days were “equally good.” Since she used the power of making the profane holy, all her days were spent in holiness, as signified by the ner of Erev Shabbos being lit in her tent from Erev Shabbos to Erev Shabbos.
Everything she did was suffused with holiness, which is what Rashi refers to when he writes at the beginning of the parshah that her bread was blessed. With this in mind, we can understand the test Eliezer conducted to see if Rivkah was a fitting match for Yitzchok. Eliezer was looking for a girl who would understand that spiritual elevation is achieved not only through servicing him, the most prestigious official of her world-famous uncle, the tzaddik Avrohom.
Even when performing menial chores for camels and cattle, such as bringing them food and drink, one can raise one’s level of kedushah with the proper kavonah. A girl who understands this concept and runs to care for the animals as she cared for Eliezer is a suitable life partner for Yitzchok, for she appreciates her role in the Jewish home, which is to be meitiv and emulate His ratzon.
As we seek to find mates, to bring happiness into our home and to bring meaning to the daily grind we all endure, we should remember our mothers, Sarah and Rivkah, and the kedushah they brought into their homes every Friday, which lasted an entire week. We should remember that light – both physical light and the spiritual light of Torah – brings peace, and without peace there is no blessing. If we truly seek shalom in our bayis and in our life, we should strive to increase the light of Torah and Shabbos. Then we will surely be blessed, as were Sarah, Rivkah and their families, with days that are all good.