Home Rabbi Gewirtz Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Blast from the Past

Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Blast from the Past

Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Blast from the Past

Operation Inspiration

Recently, someone shared a copy of advice for wives which was published in a Home Economics book in 1950. It had things like, “Plan ahead to have a nice dinner waiting on time. This is a way of showing him you’ve been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.” It suggests freshening up her make-up and being in a bright mood when he comes home.

It included other tips like making sure the house is clean and quiet when husband comes home from work, and being glad to see him. Some “don’ts” included, “Don’t complain if he’s late for dinner. Consider this minor compared to what he might have gone through during the day.” The bottom line of the piece was that the wife should try to make their home a place where the husband can “refresh his body and spirit.”

Needless to say, this advice from nearly 75 years ago aroused the ire of many. Women and even some men were outraged at this misogynistic approach to the home and marriage. What about the woman’s feelings? What about the hard work she does? It seemed such an ancient perspective.

To me, it seemed even more ancient than simply the 1950’s. It was reminiscent to me of the behavior of the righteous women in Egypt, through whose merit we were redeemed from the land where we’d been enslaved for hundreds of years.

The Gemara tells us the women would fetch pails of water into which Hashem sent small fish. They would cook these fish, then go to their husbands in the fields and feed them, wash them, anoint them, and soothe them with words. Many children were born as a result of this behavior and they were protected by Hashem’s Divine presence to the point that when they crossed the Reed Sea on the seventh day after leaving Egypt, these children were able to point and say, “This is my G-d!” because they recognized the Shechina.

Now, if we look at the actions of these women with 21st century eyes, we’d say they were oppressed, repressed, and mistreated. Were they not working hard too? Especially according to the commentaries that the women were given back-breaking labor in construction, this was an unfair burden to place on them, that they should have to minister to their husbands.

And yet, Chazal didn’t see things that way. For some reason, they saw this as righteousness of the highest order, greater than anything the men did (I know, no surprise there.) So, what could Chazal have seen millennia ago that we are missing today? And how does that relate to what the author of the Home Ec article understood in the 1950’s?

Let’s look at the perspective of an Israelite woman in Egypt. Her life is drudgery, hard work, and danger. Her husband is always gloomy and bitter, her children are at risk, and the future holds nothing for them but more of the same. Sure, there was a promise of redemption at some point, but it’s very hard to maintain that optimism when you’ve never seen freedom in your life. There was absolutely nothing she could do to change the situation.

Of course, that last line isn’t entirely true. In fact, there was a lot she could do, and the righteous women in Egypt did it. I’d venture to say not all the women behaved as described in the Gemara; only the very intelligent and strong ones. “Strong women acting like that?!” some might question, “You mean the subjugated women!” Not at all.

To focus on your own desires, wants, and even needs, doesn’t take strength. It’s natural, and may actually highlight your own weaknesses. One who cannot live with unfulfilled desires is one who is subdued by them. One who is master of his desires, however, can subjugate those desires and focus instead on others, which is a much nobler calling.

Of course, chayecha kodmin, your life takes precedence over others’, but that’s only when your life is actually at stake. When your life isn’t on the line, isn’t giving someone else what you wish you could have, a sign of your strength over your ego and of your love and concern for them?

At a Pesach meal, my daughter asked me to pass a certain dip. I silently passed my plate, onto which I had just spooned some dip, across the table to her. She didn’t realize that there was no more dip left, and that I gave her my portion because I knew she would enjoy it – which was more precious to me than my own enjoyment.

That is what the strong women in Mitzrayim realized, and I think what the author of the tips for a happy husband may have intended. We can all give life to others by putting their needs first and understanding that they may be going through difficult times. Though we may be as well, it’s better and more intelligent not to complain and burden others with our problems.

If we focus on eliminating theirs, we are showing that we are freer and more powerful than those who take whatever they want at the expense of others. It’s possible we may end up having our needs met also, since those we care for will often become more settled and able to see our pain too, but even if not, we are emulating the wisdom and righteousness of those who came before us and earned Hashem’s favor.

Truly, if we wish to move forward, we ought to take a few steps back and view things as they did in the olden days. We just may find they knew what they were talking about.


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