Jewish tradition does not consider only those who were famous for their righteousness, generosity, or Torah knowledge worthy of the title "great." Fundamental to Jewish thought is the idea that God creates individuals with particular strengths meant for their self-development and the benefit of those around them. Most of us will never be famous, but still have crucial roles to fill for ourselves, our families, and others. Realizing one's potential is what makes a person truly great, whether or not historians ever notice it.
However, one way to learn how to actualize one's potential is by following another's example. Knowing about great women, then, can inspire us regarding the important roles Jewish women have had in our history, helping us carry out our responsibility to perpetuate a legacy of generations of Jewish women devoting themselves to Judaism and the Jewish people.
Deborah was a great prophetess who served as a Judge of the Jewish people. When Israel was being attacked, the Jewish General Barak refused to wage war unless she joined him. She agreed and mobilized a huge army to defeat the enemy (see Judges, ch. 5).
Deborah was also known for making the wicks for the torches in the Temple in order to encourage Torah learning. In the Bible she is called "Deborah, woman of torches," because this support of Torah is considered an even greater contribution to the future of the Jewish people than her military victories.
With all her accomplishments, in the famous "Deborah's Song" she referred to herself as a "mother in Israel," because she saw motherhood as her greatest role.
Against her wishes, Shlomzion's (13967 B.C.E.) husband, Alexander Yanneus, conducted a reign of terror against the Jewish populace, especially the Sages. She succeeded him and restored respect to Judaism, inviting Jewish scholars to return from exile and rebuilding yeshivot. A strictly observant Jew, she was outstanding in her devotion to Jewish teachings.
Due to her great qualities, the entire Land of Israel was blessed, with fruits growing to great sizes. The Sages preserved some of these so that later generations would be inspired by the rewards of piety. Her reinvigoration of Jewish life enabled the Jewish people to survive the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile that soon followed.
Bruriah was a brilliant woman who is said to have learned 300 Jewish laws a day. One of the most famous incidents concerning her is a sad one. Her two sons died on Shabbat, but she did not want to burden her husband Rabbi Meir during the joyous holy day, and so she delayed telling him. After nightfall, she asked him: "Sometime ago I was given something to enjoy, but now the one who gave it to me wants it back. Must I return it?"
Surprised by the simple question, he responded affirmatively. Bruriah showed Rabbi Meir their dead sons. He began to weep and she asked, "Did you not tell me to return what was loaned? God gave, and God has taken away, blessed is God."
A Roman noble once visited Ima Shalom. He began to ridicule Judaism, claiming that it was preposterous to believe in a God who was a thief. Didn't he steal Adam's rib to create Eve?
Ima Shalom pretended to get angry and said, "I am going to the Roman ruler to seek justice. Last night a burglar stole my silver and left gold in its place."
The noble laughed. "Surely he is no thief, but a friend."
Ima Shalom responded, "So it is with our God. He took a single rib from Adam, of little use, and returned a most valuable gift: a partner, a wife."
The Roman pressed on. "If so, why did your God seem ashamed of it and put Adam to sleep before taking the rib?"
Ima Shalom summoned her servant and ordered him to go to the market and return with fresh meat. Upon his return, she spiced and prepared the meat before the Roman's eyes. When it was ready, she offered him a piece, but he refused. "I cannot enjoy the dish, for I still think of it in its raw, distasteful state of a little while ago."
Ima Shalom explained, "So it was with Adam and Eve. He was put to sleep in order to be able to appreciate her for beauty and not be a witness to her formation." (based on Talmud - Sanhedrin 39.)
DONNA GRACIA MENDES
The persecutions in 15th century Spain left hundreds of thousands of Jews dead and many more homeless and wandering. Many became conversos, outwardly leading Christian lives while secretly practicing Judaism. Discovery was extremely dangerous.
Donna Gracia was born into such a family and was in charge of a large banking empire. The Belgian king tried to confiscate the bank's holdings by claiming she was a hidden Jew. She cunningly avoided the charge and managed to get her family and her wealth into the Ottoman Empire. There she shed her Christian exterior and became a valiant leader of the Jewish people, using her wealth to provide for the needy, build synagogues, and give stipends to Torah scholars, enabling them to focus completely on their studies.
When the Christians in Ancona burned 24 Jews at the stake, Donna Gracia organized the first modern boycott to punish the city, setting a precedent that inspired much community action for future generations. Through her piety, meticulous observance of Jewish law, and leadership, she won the respect and admiration of the entire Jewish people and became known as the "Esther of her time."
THE MAID OF LUDMIR
Channa Rachel Werbermacher, who lived in the 19th century, was known as the Maid of Ludmir. She applied herself assiduously from a young age to become well educated in Torah and prayed with unusual devotion.
Once, upon visiting her mother's grave, she collapsed and fell into a coma. She explained to her father that she had visited Heaven and received a new soul. The great Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl substantiated her claim saying, "We do not know whose religious soul is dwelling in this woman." With this recognition, she took on new prominence.
She eventually moved to the Land of Israel, and, together with an elderly kabbalist, was intent on a course of action they understood would bring the Messiah. A meeting was set, but as her partner was leaving his home, a poor wayfarer came to the door asking for food and comfort. The meeting was subsequently missed. Chassidic lore explains that the wayfarer was Elijah the prophet, who interfered because the world was not yet ready for the Messiah.
A seamstress living in early 20th century Poland, Sarah Schenirer had a profound and invaluable effect on Jewish women. After centuries of pogroms, persecution, and poverty, Jewish learning had drastically declined. Only a small percentage of Jewish men had any real knowledge of their heritage. Women's education was even more neglected. For lack of alternatives, young women from traditional homes attended nonreligious schools and were led away from Judaism.
Greatly disturbed by the situation, Sarah Schenirer cried out, "Watch how the girls pray without motivation, as if it were forced upon them. Some are here to please their parents; others, as if God needs their prayers. My sisters! When will you understand that our main purpose for being on this earth is to serve God?"
A bright and warm-hearted woman, Sarah Schenirer understood that those who left Judaism did so out of ignorance. She wished to show them the great beauty and depth of the Jewish tradition. Leading rabbis blessed her endeavors and wished her success.
In 1918, Sarah Schenirer opened her first school with 25 girls. The girls loved learning about their heritage and religion, and more joined. Within a short time, Bais Yaakov schools opened all over Europe, and she founded a teachers seminary to fill the need for educators. By 1937, there were 250 Bais Yaakovs with 38,000 students throughout eastern and central Europe, along with youth organizations and summer camps. Today it is the largest Jewish women's educational system in the world.