So I found out recently, since my Jewish education is never complete and always expanding, that it’s traditional for a husband to read Proverbs 31: 10-31 -- eishat chayil (Woman of Valor) — to his wife on Shabbat. Which sounded sweet and old-fashioned, and reminded me maybe just a tiny bit of this threadbare internet piece called “The Good Wife’s Guide”.
To be honest, once you read Eishat Chayil, you realize that’s not a particularly fair comparison. The Woman of Valor makes the Good Wife look like a slacker. However, for a couple of reasons, the Woman of Valor still gets a fair bit of side-eye in some circles. First, to a lot of women, she represents an unrealistic and unattainable standard of womanhood. And second, her value revolves around her status as a wife and mother, which not all women these days can relate to.
I have to admit, I myself used to do a fair amount of eye-rolling when I heard the words Woman of Valor. They sounded so old-fashioned. I mean, who ever uses the word “valor” in conversation? What does that even mean?
But the Hebrew phrase – eishat chayil – deserves a closer look. Sure, the word “chayil” can be translated as “valor”. But it can also mean warrior, or strength, or capable. And a Warrior Woman - a Capable Woman - a Strong Woman - projects a whole different image to the modern imagination.
It’s not realistic to take a text that was written over 2,000 years ago and compare its description of ideal womanhood with the lives of modern women. Nobody spins flax for a living anymore. But I think it is fair to look past those details and instead pay attention to the qualities of character they illustrate. We might not spin flax, but I know a lot of women (and men, for that matter — but that is a whole other article) who get up before dawn, feed everybody, make sure the kids get to school on time, then work a full day outside the home only to come home in the evening and make dinner, supervise homework, throw in a couple of loads of laundry, and stay up well past sunset making sure they finish everything that needs to get done. They do this day after day, even when it’s the last thing they feel like doing, because someone has to do it. And they often do it without recognition or thanks.
In my experience, Women of Valor aren't rare. Just last weekend at CBI's Welcoming the Stranger event, I met dozens of them. The Sisterhood board meeting last week was filled with them. Every time Shari leads a Saturday service, I think, Woman of Valor. When Gretchen chants Torah? Woman of Valor. Marsha, setting up meal trains for ill CBI members? Woman of Valor. Ruth compassionately saying goodbye to her dear friend, dying of cancer? Another Woman of Valor. Rabbi Epstein working so hard to pull together the MLK weekend symposium? Uber-Woman of Valor. And I could go on and on. We are so blessed to know so many of them.
So, after thinking about it, my perspective on Eishat Chayil has changed. I think it is a nice gesture, every Erev Shabbat, to take a few minutes and recognize the people in our lives who personify the qualities of a woman of valor -- strength; compassion; optimism; faith; industriousness. Recognizing the Eishat Chayil among us is sweet. It is maybe not so old-fashioned after all.
- Lisa Meng