Parashat Vayakhel: The Merit of the Righteous Women
We read in Parashat Vayakhel of Beneh Yisrael’s generous and enthusiastic response to Moshe’s call for donations of materials for the construction of the Mishkan. The people came in droves, joyfully parting with their precious possessions for the sake of building a Sanctuary so that G-d would reside among them. The Torah makes a point of emphasizing that both the men and women came, and the commentators note that the women’s generosity exceeded that of the men. They came before the men with their gold and silver jewelry, ready and willing to donate for this sacred cause.
It has been suggested that the women’s generosity is especially significant in light of the events we read in last week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki-Tisa. The people confronted Aharon and demanded that he make for them a leader to take the place of Moshe, who had not returned from the top of Mount Sinai. In an attempt to stall for time, knowing that Moshe would soon return, Aharon decided to invite the people to donate their gold in order to fashion a golden calf. He figured that the people would not be so quick to part with their wealth, and this request would thus buy him time. In the end, Aharon was only partially correct. The women refused to give away their gold jewelry, but the men were zealously committed to the project and happily donated their gold. And thus the tragedy of the golden calf unfolded.
Why did the women refuse to give away their gold jewelry? Was it because of a woman’s natural affinity for her jewelry? Or was it due to idealism, to the women’s staunch opposition to the idea of worshipping a golden calf?
This question was answered in resounding fashion when the donations were brought for the construction of the Mishkan. The women led the charge, flocking to the site to donate their jewelry. At that point it became abundantly clear that the women were happy to part with their jewelry for a worthwhile cause, and that their refusal to give their jewelry for the golden calf was due to their rejection of idol worship, and their firm commitment to G-d. Indeed, our tradition teaches that women were given an extra holiday in reward for not participating in the sin of the calf – Rosh Hodesh, when many women have the custom not to work.
This is not the only example of the women’s staunch devotion. The Torah tells that the women spun the wool that was needed for the Mishkan, and the Sages explain that they spun the wool directly from the sheep, to ensure it would be as white as possible. This was, no doubt, a very difficult and complicated process, but the women were insistent on doing everything at the very highest standard, and so they found a way to do it.
The Israelite women played a special role already in Egypt, during the period of slavery. The men, who spent their days performing grueling labor, were broken, despondent and in despair, to the point where they did not want to beget children. The women, however, remained upbeat and confident in the promise of redemption. They worked to lift their husbands’ spirits and give them the encouragement they needed to continue maintaining marital life and begetting children. And so the Sages teach that the Exodus occurred in the merit of the righteous women among Beneh Yisrael. Without them, our nation’s story would have ended in Egypt, Heaven forbid, as the men had fallen into despair. It was only because of the efforts and optimism of the righteous women that Am Yisrael was sustained even during those years of hardship and oppression.
This pattern continued during the tragedy of the spies, who returned from their excursion and dissuaded the people from proceeding into Eretz Yisrael. Once again, the women remained steadfast in their faith as the men despaired. The men heard the spies’ frightening report and wept, deciding they could not possibly take possession of the land. The women, however, trusted in Hashem’s promise and were resolute in their belief that He would lead the nation to victory against the people of Canaan.
There is an all-too-common misconception that Orthodox Judaism is prejudiced against women, and views them as inferior and unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that our tradition assigns different religious responsibilities to men and women, but this in no way reflects its "preference" for one over the other. To the contrary, Hazal credit the Israelite women with rescuing our nation, and portray them as the courageous heroines who remained strong and steadfast when the men proved to be weak. While traditionally it has been men who have written the works of Torah that we study and cherish, it is the women that have sustained our nation’s spirit throughout the millennia just as they did in Egypt and at Sinai, through their unshakeable faith and devotion to G-d even during the most trying times. It is in their merit that we left Egypt, and it is in their merit that we are still flourishing today after centuries of exile.