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Binah: A Woman's Power

By Esther Wein

The Talmud comments (on Genesis 2:22) that women possess a certain power that, when properly cultivated, exceeds its counterpart in men. This intellectual power is called binah, a word derived from the Hebrew root bein, which means "between." Binah is the ability to analyze and then distinguish between situations or entities that on the surface seem similar, but are really quite different.

The definition of binah is found in one of the blessings said every morning: "You have given the rooster binah to distinguish between night and day." When the rooster crows, it still looks like night outside, but in fact it is the beginning of morning. The roosters ability to know a situation, not for how it looks on the surface but for what it truly is, exemplifies binah.

The biblical matriarchs used the attribute of binah to create the Jewish people. Early in the book of Genesis, we read about Sarah, age 90, and Abraham, age 99, who have devoted their lives to spreading novel, monotheistic ideas to a world steeped in idol worship. The couple is childless, and Sarah encourages Abraham to take a second wife, their maidservant Hagar, so that there will be another generation to continue their important work. Hagar gives birth to a son, Ishmael. In the meantime, God allows Sarah to conceive, and, at her advanced age, gives birth to Isaac. So there are now two male children in Abraham's household: Sarah's son, Isaac, and Hagar's son, Ishmael.

The Torah tells us that Ishmael considers himself the family's legitimate heir. This means that, in addition to the household's wealth, Ishmael claims title to the spiritual legacy established by Abraham and Sarah. As the next patriarch, Ishmael would have been charged with continuing to spread the new monotheistic concept of Judaism. Sarah does not support Ishmael's ambitions.

Sarah has great clarity with regard to his fundamental personality and foresees that he will eventually turn to idol worship, murder, and adultery. Later events prove her correct, but at the time Sarah alone perceives that Isaac should be the next patriarch and that Ishmael must be removed from the household. Only with the disappearance of Ishmael's negative influence will Isaac safely inherit the mantle of the fledgling Jewish nation.

Abraham strongly disagrees with Sarah's assessment. He is not yet ready to turn Ishmael out of the house -- he sees no tangible proof of the boy's sinful character. Ishmael's true nature is clear only to Sarah. At this juncture, the Torah tells us that God intercedes on Sarah's behalf and commands Abraham to "listen to her voice in all that she tells you. It is through Isaac that you will gain posterity" (Genesis 21:12). In the end, owing to Sarah's foresight, the second generation of the Jewish people's forebears is secured.

Sarah's decision to banish Ishmael was not the result of favoritism toward Isaac, her biological son. Rather, it was intellectual preciseness -- binah -- which enabled Sarah to act decisively for the good of the Jewish nation.


Isaac continues his parents' work and eventually marries Rebecca, the next great matriarch, who again decides the course of Judaism. She gives birth to twins, Jacob and Esau. (Unlike Sarah before her, Rebecca is the biological mother of both sons.) Jacob becomes a scholar, Esau a hunter. Although the boys are very different, Isaac and Rebecca intend for them to work as a team toward the good of the Jewish people. In this regard, Jacob is supposed to oversee spiritual and intellectual growth, while Esau is charged with physical and material sustenance.

The Torah tells us that Isaac wants to give Esau a special blessing for material success. Rebecca, who is deeply in touch with the essential nature of Esau, can see past his current superficial righteousness and understands clearly what he will become. It is apparent to her that Esau will eventually use his fathers blessing to undermine Jacob's scholarly pursuits, thus jeopardizing the future of Judaism.

Rebecca sees that Jacob must become spiritually and materially independent of his brother. To this end, she orders Jacob to disguise himself as Esau in order to procure Isaac's powerful blessing. The plan works, and the Torah tells us that when Isaac discovers what has happened -- and why -- he acknowledges the righteousness of his wife's plan (Genesis 27:33). Without Rebecca's clarity, Judaism would have ended then and there.


Jacob takes his place as the third patriarch and marries two sisters, Rachel and Leah. The Torah tells us that Jacob, with his wives and children, lives and works for many difficult years in the house of his father-in-law, Laban. In spite of Laban's dishonest treatment, Jacob remains upright throughout his employment. God ultimately commands Jacob to return with his wives and children to the Land of Israel.

At this turning point, Jacob -- a man of peace -- asks his wives' advice about whether to leave on good terms with Laban or whether they should depart abruptly (Genesis 31:4). Rachel and Leah are aware that their father hopes to infect the young Jewish nation with his pagan ways, and they urge Jacob to sever all connections to Laban's household (Genesis 31:14). Jacob heeds their advice, and the family leaves under cover of darkness. Again, due to the insight of Rachel and Leah, Judaism progresses to its next stage of development, within the Land of Israel.

The matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah built the Jewish nation from within. Each woman possessed the ability to see what was not obvious to the patriarchs, and that is why there is a Jewish nation today. The trait of binah -- the ability to analyze, distinguish, and thereby know the spiritual validity of something -- requires tremendous effort and is, without exception, predicated on Torah knowledge. The Torah explains to us God's view of good and bad, finite and eternal, true and false -- in other words, the value of all things we encounter. Then and now, Jewish women with a deep understanding of Torah use binah to categorize and understand new experiences and situations. Ultimately, female binah is meant to function as a searchlight of truth and clarity.

Every Jewish woman today is able to cultivate and excel in this aptitude. Binah is an inheritance of Jewish women and a gift to themselves, their families, their communities, and society as a whole.

Reprinted with permission from "Jewish Women Speak About Jewish Matters". Published by: Targum Press, Inc.



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