Sunday, July 14, 2013

In the Ohel - The Woman in the Tent

In Sefer Bereishis (Genesis) there is a narrative about three angels who come to visit Avrohom Avinu, our ultimate forefather, and Sarah Imeinu, the mother we all want to emulate. One of the pivotal lines spoken during that encounter is when Avrohom, asked about his wife’s whereabouts, replies, “behold! – in the tent”. Commentaries point out that it was a trait of extraordinary modesty which compelled Sarah to stay in her tent, leaving the serving of the guests to her husband. In fact, Avrohom’s statement about Sarah’s modesty laid the foundation for latter-generation Ruth to be allowed the great z’chus (merit) of becoming the ancestral mother of the Moshiach.*

Obviously, the Ohel Sarah – Sarah’s Tent – is both a physical structure and a state of mind; literal and figurative. By the same token, tz’nius – the modest privacy with which Sarah Imeinu surrounded herself – is both physical and mental, as well as societal, if I am right in thinking that this word describes the way we interact with society, the world around us.

No doubt it has not escaped the notice of the observant reader that in naming this blog, I chose to likewise place myself in the tent – and I’m trying to figure out what this really means to me.

Being a person who is naturally drawn to the limelight like a moth to the flame, I have had to resolve many internal conflicts on this topic. Furthermore, having come of age at a time and in a place where women were actively encouraged, even pressured, to break with as many gender “stereotypes” as possible, I have had to fight against some very formative conditioning as well. It has taken a good while, but I think I’m finally ready for the tent. There is a certain part of me that has always relished a measure of privacy, of being hidden and, yes, invisible, behind a shrubbery, or such. I am toying with the possibility that this might indeed be part of an innate sense of tz’nius – not reclusiveness, as some have tried to allege. (Don’t get the wrong idea, though – I work with people and I’m very outgoing and gregarious in my professional role.)

In many ways it can be a struggle to balance a normal, human need for acknowledgment with the kind of invisibility that Sarah Imeinu chose for herself. The very idea that a woman might spend decades of her life working for this or that cause, doing good for mankind, and then, at the very moment that the award ceremonies are about to begin, for her to step back and say, modestly, “aw, shucks, I don’t want any recognition” – it positively boggles my mind! I used to hear stories told of such women, but I never believed them – either the stories or the women. Then I met a couple of them in person – and I was awed. I saw that these women had reached a level of quiet, internal power that made them very admirable role models.

An irresistibly pretty tent, but perhaps eight 
doors are a few too many for real modesty?
(Image from shopnectar.com)
However, let us not forget that our ultimate First Family had a tent with four doors, open to the four winds, and Sarah “listened at the entrance of the tent” – she did not shut herself away completely from the world, she had her ear to the ground, she knew what was going on, and her intuition was faultless. Her great wisdom may have lain in knowing how to balance her modesty and her power, without compromising either. And now I’m going to say something very scary (at least I’m scaring myself!) – namely, that it may ultimately have been the very seclusion of the tent that gave Sarah some of her supreme visionary faculty, which was superior to that of her husband. In the privacy of the tent her mind was not cluttered with distractions; in the quiet of the tent she was able to hear the sound of Hashem’s voice.

So what does that mean for you and me? What does it mean for a woman in today’s world to dwell in her tent? The Jewish woman has never been confined to her tent the way women of numerous other cultures have been – and are, to this day! The Rambam (Maimonides) points out that a woman is not to be a prisoner in her own home. Historically, we have often been the bread winners, and as such, must have been out of the tent quite a bit. And yet, it seems that we must seek out an extra measure of modesty for ourselves if we want to aspire to be like Sarah Imeinu. I believe the difficulty for myself – and perhaps for other women – is not the modesty itself (which carries with it so many rewards both in this world and in the next), but rather the fear of losing oneself, of going forever unacknowledged and unencouraged; the fear of becoming a nobody. The tricky challenge is to remain true to our G’d-given personalities and talents, to cultivate whatever gifts Hashem has given us, but to do so “within the tent” - and still feel fulfilled. (A little bit like eating your cookie, and having it - and also not gain weight.)

Just as the wings of the moth will be singed by the flame, so it could be that a woman’s “spiritual wings”, that should ultimately take her on a sublime flight, might be crippled by too much exposure to the world. Because, resent this fact as I might (and I do!), some kind of irritating inner honesty forces me to recognize that most exposure in this world is just that – worldly, and therefore intrinsically antithetical to the spiritual heights we hope to scale.

A tent like this would be the perfect spot for a bit of blogging.
(Image from rajtentclub.com)
So, there we are.

Now, what does one do in one’s tent all day? Easy. One blogs.

Shalom Uv'racha!
Shulamit




*For a little extra credit, and with apologies to my readers for not knowing the specific sources: 
When Avrohom Avinu spoke these words about Sarah Imeinu, he was, in effect, paskening, or rendering a binding statement of Jewish law, regarding the parameters of proper behavior for a woman. And as he paskened on Earth, so it was paskened in Heaven. This Heavenly decision-making allowed for the ability of Ruth, the Moabite princess, to convert to Judaism. At a certain point, the Moabite people had been forbidden to convert, due to their appalling lack of hospitality, which had been demonstrated when the Jews in the Wilderness were hungry and thirsty, and the Moabites sat at home scratching themselves, rather than bringing out a little lemonade and cookies to their long-lost cousins.

However, once it had been established that a proper woman should be in the tent – not out and about, serving strange men – the Moabite women became exonerated, as it were, and permitted to convert to Judaism. Ruth was therefore able to become one of the most famous Jews-by-choice ever, marry the greatest spiritual leader of her times, and give birth to Oved, the grandfather of David Hamelech, the ancestor of the future Moshiach. (Ruth herself was another epitome of modesty, well suited for her exalted role in history.) Thus we can see how the Ge’ulah Sh’leimah, the ultimate Salvation of the world, is intimately connected with the modesty of the Jewish woman.

2 comments:

  1. A lovely blog - and I enjoy your style of writing! A sentence like "A little bit like eating your cookie, and having it - and also not gain weight" attests to your inventiveness.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind encouragement!

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