Adapted from a lecture by: Rebbetzin Tehilla Jaeger
The following essay is the second of a two-part series exploring the Jewish woman’s power of speech. Part I traced this capacity to its roots in Creation and the Garden of Eden, and then continued to look at feminine speech through the prism of Sarah and Miriam, two of the seven prophetesses. This essay examines the contributions of the remaining five prophetesses – Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Hulda and Esther – as they relate to today’s Jewish woman.
Devorah: Speech that Motivates
Devorah – prophetess, statesman and Jewish woman of the highest order – is married to a man whose spiritual strength does not lay in the realm of formal Torah learning. Devorah finds a way to connect him with a wellspring of Torah that inspires him to cultivate his own spiritual gifts. Devorah exposes her husband to the Torah saturated environment of the Temple, by asking him to take a package there. The package is itself a symbol of enlightenment, given that it contains wicks for the oil that burns in the Temple. Devorah asks her husband to deliver the wicks to the priests and scholars in the Temple, so that they have light to study Torah into the wee hours.
Through contact with the Temple and those in it, Devorah’s husband becomes a scholar, profoundly connected to the other scholars there. While he does so of his own volition, motivated by the impulses that lie within every Jew, his wife has in a most subtle fashion paved his way.
Devorah lays the foundation for her husband by directing him to a place that responds to his needs, and she does so without insulting him or jeopardizing their marriage. She sets up a situation that allows her husband to reach his own conclusions about how his personal growth might take place. There is no hint of ego or superiority in Devorah’s tactics. Instead, she says only enough to point her husband in a direction where she knows he will ultimately want to go.
Devorah may be considered a role model for today’s Jewish woman. Her indirect way of motivating her husband to improve strikes a familiar note for us, given that our own society is so focused on achievement and on not hesitating to tell others to improve. Living in this culture, one is compelled to consider what the experience of improving life really means, and to inspire a truly meaningful journey of improvement in others. Devorah offers guidelines in this area. She manages to promote her husband’s connection to Torah, without offending him or eroding his self-confidence. Her method suggests that people may be more easily motivated to better themselves through a process of self-discovery, rather than through criticism or negative feedback.
Chana: Speech as Prayer
Chana uses her power of speech to converse with God. Her example teaches how each Jew may, through prayer, cultivate a relationship with Him. Barren for many years – Chana prays for a son. Through prayer, she turns a difficult personal situation into a tool for deepening her spiritual connection. At the same time, she paves the way for future generations, by transforming speech into modality that promotes closeness to God. Our sages tell us that Chana’s prayer is a model for the “shemoneh esrei” prayer, which is considered the heart of the Jewish prayer book.
Chana promises to dedicate her son to God if He fulfills her request. Her position is based on an understanding that God’s own goal in Creation is to give us the ability to forge a partnership with Him. Aware of God’s kindness in offering us this relationship, Chana uses the power granted her to do so. When Chana gives birth to a son, the name he is given reflects her effort:
She named him Samuel, for [she said,] “I requested him from Hashem” (I Samuel: 20).
Chana’s story teaches that God is fundamentally involved with a Jew’s every move, and that prayer is our line of communication to Him. Given that prayer is a form of speech, and that Jewish women have an intrinsic gift in this arena, prayer can potentially be a source of personal empowerment. Chana demonstrates how prayer bridges the gap between feelings and words, and connects us to a deep, unlimited source of hope and strength.
Avigail: Speech of Alternative Perspective
Before her marriage to King David, Avigail is married to Naval, a categorically evil man who refuses hospitality to David and his exhausted troops. David – yet to assume the throne, although he has already been annointed by God – determines that according to Jewish law Naval and his household should be put to death for transgressing the prohibition against insulting a ruler of the Jewish nation. (For further details, see Women in Judaism class entitled, “Avigail’s Righteous Conduct,” available through the Torah.org archives).
Avigail assesses this complex state of affairs and approaches David with an alternative perspective on the situation. She argues that David should not have expected hospitality from Naval, since he is incapable of this generosity. Rather, Avigail continues, David should consider her at fault, since hers is the renowned hospitality that failed him:
“With me myself, my lord, lies the sin…I, your maidservant, did not see my lord’s attendants, whom you sent…please forgive the sin of your maidservant…” (I Samuel: 24-29).
Next, Avigail explains to David that she did not know of his request to her husband, which is why she was unable to fulfill it. She also makes him aware that even though he has been annointed king, Saul still occupies the throne and, for this reason, Jewish law prohibits David from killing her husband as a rebel.
Avigail saves her husband’s life as well as David’s spiritual integrity, which would have been besmirched by his attack on Naval. She does so by offering a new way to look at what seems a non-negotiable circumstance. Her analytical clarity, creative problem solving and courage as an advocate for an undeserving husband are manifest in Avigail’s speech. In sum, she teaches us to reconsider what might appear a singular reality, encourages us to see the total picture and reminds us to respectfully make others aware of its different aspects in a way that inspires productive change.
Hulda: Speech of Mercy
In Hulda’s day, king Yoshiyahu is in the process of rebuilding the Temple. On site, his workers find a Torah scroll, which is open to a passage that foresees the Temple’s destruction. Yoshiyahu consults the prophetess Hulda for insight into the matter.
The Talmud asks why the king does not choose to confer with the senior prophet, Jeremiah, or with any other male prophets of the era. The Talmud then explains that Yoshiyahu approaches Hulda, based on the fact that women are inherently more merciful than men and that, for this reason, Hulda might personally experience the anguish of the Jewish people should the Temple be destroyed. As a result, her prayer on behalf of the Jews might be particularly fervent and effective.
Hulda’s ability to identify with the hardship of others, and then to articulate it through prayer is why Yoshiyahu chooses her to advocate for the redemption of an entire nation. She makes feelings productive, by expressing them in a way that inspires change, and she transforms kindness into a tool of redemption by giving emotion a voice. Today’s Jewish woman may, like Hulda, use her own intrinsic compassion to advocate for others in a way that motivates, by developing a way of speaking that embodies her emotional and intellectual strength.
Esther: Speech of Silence
Esther redeems the Jewish people at one of their darkest moments. Under duress in the palace of King Achashveirosh she manages to keep secret the fact that she is Jewish and comes from the lineage of king Saul. Esther’s royal background would likely add credibility to Achashveirosh who, himself, is not from distinguished roots. The king is so anxious to know more about Esther, that he threatens her in numerous ways.
Mordechai asks Esther to maintain her silence, and she does so in spite of anger and coercion from Achashveirosh. Esther trusts Mordechai implicitly, given the fact that he is the leader of his generation, a Torah scholar and a prophet.
Esther teaches that feminine speech at its best, includes the knowledge of when to be perfectly quiet. In our mass media culture, noise is a fact of life, opinions are expressed freely and people tend to share details of their own personal goings on. In such an environment, silence can be a place of refuge and rejuvenation – an opportunity to sort through, discard and retain what one selects from the multitude of choices and stimuli our world offers.
Today’s Jewish Woman: Speech of the Prophetesses
The Talmud tells us, “Women are a nation unto themselves.” Women constitute a unique entity and have a unique mission within the Jewish nation. Speech is their currency, and it comes in many denominations. The prophetesses set several examples of how words are the foundation of a woman’s ability to transform her environment and those around her. By committing to learn about the prophetesses in greater depth, today’s Jewish woman be enriched with the essence of their accomplishments.
Rebetzin Tehilla Jaeger has inspired scores of Jewish women worldwide. Her lecture series, “Ayelet HaShachar – Woman to Woman Inspiration,” is available on cassette. Titles include, “Speech – the Power to Recreate Your World,” “Marriage – the Exquisite Approach,” “Our Three Mitzvot – Wellsprings of Renewal, ” and “The Art of Parenting.” For further information and a complete list of cassette offerings, please phone (718) 471-7141.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2002 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.