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Women's Wisdom

Role Models (Purim 5766)
By Lisa Cook, EYAHT alumna

Bayla Falk was born in 1564 in Lemberg and died fifty-eight years later in Eretz Yisrael.  Each day she would be up hours before dawn davening and learning – always the weekly parsha with Rashi and other commentaries.  She was a brilliant Torah scholar who equaled the gedolim of her generation in her knowledge of family purity laws.  She wrote original commentaries on issues of Halacha, and when Bayla was not learning or praying, she spent her time attending to the needs of the poor and sick and mourners, weaving tsitsis and preparing parchment for sifrei Torah.  Despite her accomplishments and the honour accorded her by her community, she was totally devoid of pride.

Donna Gracia Mendes lived from 1510 – 1566 and was raised as a Marrano in Lisbon, Portugal.  The Spanish Inquisition of 1492 had spread to Portugal and in 1497 the Jewish community there had been ‘Baptised’ by the King under threat of agonizing death.  Forced to live outwardly as Christians, thousands risked everything to practice their Judaism in secret.  Donna Gracia devoted her life and her fortune to strategizing and facilitating elaborate escape routes for the Jewish community out of Portugal and across Europe into safer lands.  In this way she managed to save thousands of Jews from poverty and persecution and enabled Torah learning in her own as well as in future generations.  For all that she accomplished throughout her life she is recorded in the annals of history as ‘the Esther of her time.’

Sarah Bayla Hirschenson (1821 – 1888) is described as ‘one of the first women who took up the fight to preserve the traditional way of life’ in Eretz Yisrael at the onset of secular Zionism.  Sarah Bayla knew Pirkei Avos by heart and had a thorough knowledge of Tanach and Chovos Halevavos.  She moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1848 with the plan to establish a yeshiva in Jerusalem.  She saw her dream realized, and was personally involved in the project on a number of levels.  She was the architect of the building itself and she oversaw the construction and purchase of materials.  Once the Yeshiva was established, Sarah Bayla would rise at dawn to prepare breakfast for the students and be active until after distributing the midnight meal for those learning through the night - and on Mondays and Thursdays she would be up all night with the talmidim.  She also oversaw the education of the children in the yeshiva settlement and when they were older she helped arrange their marriages.  She also did kiruv.  She went into the colonies of secular settlers in Rishon le Zion, Zichron Yaakov and Petach Tikvah and pleaded with them not to violate the holy Torah in the Holy Land, and she took children willing to accompany her under her wing in Jerusalem.  Sarah Bayla was respected by Rabbis, layleaders and all those who knew her and knew of her.   

The Purim story clearly has special meaning and significance for women because of who Esther haMalka was and what she did.  Jewish women throughout the generations have certainly drawn strength from the mesiras nefesh displayed by Esther as she went into the palace of the King to sacrifice for the Jewish people.  When we learn the megillah at Purim, Esther’s strength, courage and self-sacrifice serve as inspiration for us all.That being said, a person doesn’t always need to turn to Tanach and the history books to seek out female role models.  The qualities of a great Jewish woman are tsnius, humility and a strong sense of identity.  Living in a Torah community like ours we are so, so privileged to be surrounded by women who embody these traits and who can help us to be even better than we might think we can be. 

I returned to Jerusalem not long ago from the city in which I grew up, and a few experiences that I had there really caused me to think about the world and the state of the Jewish people.  I spent some time with some of the young girls in my extended family, and it was unfortunately very, very painful for me as I’m sorry to say that these girls are far removed from Judaism.  It was extremely difficult for me to witness the obvious pain that they suffer because of what they’ve been taught to value in life.  A major part of the problem is that these secular girls don’t have strong, female role models – religious or not. Out there, in the world away from Torah, role models are a dead end.  Non-Jewish women and Jewish women who sadly emulate their ways are honored for all the wrong reasons - beauty, wealth, wit – nothing that can give a person lasting happiness or help her to fulfill her purpose in this world. 

On the other hand, a few months ago in New York Rebbetzin Weinberg took me to meet Rebbetzin Kalmanovitch, one of the great Rebbetzins of today.  Rebbetzin Weinberg requested that she give us a short principle by which to live, and I think that what she said will probably remain with me for the rest of my life.  Rebbetzin Kalmanovitch said to us, ‘if you want to be great, you have to be good.’  Let’s draw on the inspiration of learning Megillas Esther at Purim as motivation to seek out the Esthers of past generations and of today.  Let’s pursue only positive role models and let them to motivate and inspire us to become so much better than a bad moment might tell us we can be.  Let’s use our role models to help us be role models.