Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Women of the Tent

I had a long, activity-packed holiday weekend and I'm wiped. Lots of family stuff, friend stuff, guy stuff, most of it fun, some of it tiring.

Among some other events this weekend was my cousin's son's Bar Mitzvah. This is a cousin to whom I am very close...she is in many ways like a sister to me, though our lives couldn't be more different. Chana Leah married a Belz chassid and has a large, bustling family. She's works full-time (her husband is wonderful, but definitely parnassah-challenged) and because she has only nine children, her husband's family considers her "the modern one," as they are all into double digits in the children arena. You are getting a clear picture here? So I walked into the stuffy shteibel in Flatbush where the Bar Mitzvah was taking place. Chana Leah greeted me warmly, sincerely, took me aside in the middle of her simcha to quietly discuss a possible shidduch; her kids were jumping all over me, thrusting candy bags into my hands, fighting each other for the chance to hang up my coat, calling each other "stupidhead" and "poopyface," etc. I am happy. My family is nuts, but I love them so much.

Then all of the other female guests arrived....the small ezras nashim (with the always enchanting floor-to-ceiling mechitza) filled with fur coats, lots of very expensive jewelry and designer suits and shoes. I can hold my own in the style department, but I started to feel very small. I realized why. I was the only female there over the age of twenty who was not wearing a sheitel. I felt myself involuntarily shrinking.

I took a seat in the corner next to one of my sisters-in-law and started people watching. Chana Leah's husband's family is enormous, and most of her relatives knew who I was. I realized through a little lip-reading that they were spotting me, identifying me as "the divorced one without kids" and sighing and nodding. I shrunk even more as I concluded that, omg, these people were pitying me.

I was in a room where the sole measure of success was the quantity and quality of children that one produced, and I was a loser. Yes. A big loser.

I went outside to get some air and pushed away a few self-pitying tears. I was so angry at myself.

I lived through the Bar Mitzvah....I think we all have events like this in our lives, where despite everything that we know is true, we are made to feel unreasonably small and pathetic. These events are part of life.

Later that afternoon, I went to a Tziporah Heller shiur. I consider myself a student of Rebbetzin Heller. Tziporah Heller is a teacher and a kiruv professional, and I'm not a ba'alas teshuvah, but I have attended some of her classes in Israel, read all of her books, listen to her shiurim on my Ipod regularly. Let me explain what a Tziporah Heller shiur is like. You don't go to a TH shiur to get the warm fuzzies. Warm fuzzies, platitudes about bitachon, chessed etc. are for all those other kiruv professionals. TH delivers it like it is. She doesn't cringe in the face of difficult questions and doesn't soft-peddle anything. She always speaks without notes and has an encyclopedic grasp of Tanach and an incredible range of knowledge of textual sources. She is not young, but delivers her discourses with the intellectual energy of a twenty-year old. She realizes that the Jewish world is multi-colored and multi-dimensional; she acknowledges all levels, all backgrounds and all flavors of approaching God. She has a great sense of humor and her anecdotes are instructive and funny. I wish I could be one tenth of the teacher that TH is.

The shiur started out with a discussion of the typical heroines of the Tanach, whom Mrs. Heller called the "women of the tent." They are role models for their modesty, their kindness, their motherhood, their wifely support. In addition to this, as in the case of the Matriarchs, they are important to the history of the Jewish people because of the children they raised and their part in founding a nation.

Then Mrs. Heller went on to talk about a Chanukah heroine, Yehudit. Yehudit's story can be found
here. She is an odd heroine of Jewish history. She, like Yael before her, is famous, not for giving birth to a patriarch or king, or for her chessed, but rather for slicing off the head of an evil Greek officer and saving the Jewish people. Is Yehudit a role model? Hmm.

Like Yehudit, there are other great Jewish women, women who, given their druthers, would be "women of the tent." Women who wanted to have great Jewish marriages, raise great Jewish children, give back to klal Yisroel through their volunteerism and teaching and community involvement. Women like me. But God had other ideas for these women. And He sent them down a different path. And they can still be important to the Jewish people, but not in the usual way, not in the way of the women of the tent.

Mind you, at this point, I looked around the room, and based on what I saw and the questions some of the girls asked, I'm guessing that roughly 75% of the women there were women of the tent wannabes. The pain in the room was palpable. I felt it. This was a room full of the "unfortunates," the mizkeynim, the leftovers, the women struggling through shidduchim, divorces, widowhood, infertility, dating, not dating, etc. , and I realized, with a flash of reluctant self-awareness, that I was one of them. TH answered our questions with sensitivity and straightforwardness. She acknowledged that our paths were not going to be easy, not at all. And that there was still hope for the future, but that what was important was the here and now, what we were doing with our lives right this very minute. We had to live in the moment. We had the choice of reacting to our situations with anger (why is this happening to me?) or by rising to the challenge.

She talked about the middah known as kol (as in Hashem beyrach et Avraham bakol), the characteristic of spiritual flexibility (I found this fascinating). Spiritual flexibility means that no matter what life brings your way, you tried to be the best you could be. No matter which situation God places you in, you could be that person and you could rise to the occasion and still attain greatness. Esther was spiritually flexible. So was Jacob. So was Ruth. So was Yehudit. Could I be spiritually flexible? You know, I think I can.

And so, to hell with the women at the Bar Mitzvah. To hell with the fact that I am divorced, alone and childless. This won't be my situation forever, but I am still myself, a Bas Yisroel, a woman with something to contribute to my people. I don't know why God forced me down this painful path, but I am ready to meet the challenge, to learn from it, to grow in spite of it, right now, right here, in this moment.

No comments: