The verse in Mishlei states:
חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ וְאִוֶּלֶת בְּיָדֶיהָ תֶהֶרְסֶנּוּ:
The wisest of women-each one built her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her hands.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110) explains that this verse alludes to two women who play critical roles behind the scenes in Parshat Korach.
“The wisest of women” refers to the wife of Ohn ben Pelet. At the beginning of the Parsha (16:1) we read how Ohn is one of the named members in the band of Korach’s rebels. However when the story ends with punishment for all of those who rebelled against Moshe, Ohn’s name is noticeably absent. The Talmud in Sanhedrin explains that Ohn is not mentioned at the end of the story because he was saved due to his wife’s intervention. Ohn’s wife convinced her husband that he had nothing to gain from getting involved in the rebellion, and everything to lose. Ohn agreed with his wife but felt trapped because he had sworn allegiance to Korach. So Ohn’s wife did what she had to in order to save her husband: she got him drunk and put him to bed. Then she blocked the doorway so that no-one could bring him to the rebellion.
“A foolish one tears it down with her hands”: the Talmud explains that this refers to Korach’s wife. According to this tradition, she was the instigator of the entire rebellion. She goaded her husband into rebelling by suggesting that Moshe had overstepped his bounds, and he was taking honor and privileges that rightfully belonged to Korach.
The Talmud is teaching us that, oftentimes, the most influential person in the story/ in the family is the one who may be behind the scenes, yet is directing all of the events. And like the story behind the scenes in our Parsha, oftentimes this is a role taken by women. As Nia Vardalos said in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding “The man may be the head of the household. But the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she pleases.”
In the past few decades, the role of wife has changed dramatically, more so than the role of husband. More married women are working outside of the home than ever before. This fact is just one of many that make a woman’s role in today’s world complicated and challenging. Other factors that complicate everyone’s family life (for both women and men) include: technology, raising children in the 21st century, and seeking a balance between work and life, as well as a healthy synergy between one’s mind, body and soul.
Seeing a need for synagogues to engage and service the female half of our Orthodox communities, the Orthodox Union created its Women’s Initiative. The OU Women’s Initiative aims to create and promote women’s programming in the areas of Torah study, community leadership, spiritual, personal and professional growth, health and social well-being for women of all ages. One of its first programs was a competitive challenge grant to support innovative women’s programming concepts proposed by synagogues.
Close to 100 applications were submitted. I am proud to share with you that our shul was one of 16 synagogues to receive the grant. Our proposal, Eishet Chayil Initiative, was created and submitted by Mrs. Sara Frieberg, our Coordinator of Women’s Engagement. The idea is to convene a monthly forum for women to learn about necessary ingredients for being N’shei Chayi (“Women of Valor”): spiritual inspiration, mental health, physical health, leadership skills, and more. Some of the potential areas of focus include: spirituality, mindfulness and meditation, nutrition and fitness, management skills, time management, communication skills, parenting, conflict resolution, building self-confidence, and financial literacy. We hope that through this initiative women will feel encouraged and empowered to excel in all of their roles, thereby benefitting themselves, their families, and our community.
Mrs. Ohn and Mrs. Korach are two examples of many that we have within Jewish tradition of strong, talented, powerful women who have shaped our history. This remains as true today as it was back then. I hope that our Eishet Chayil Initiative is just the beginning of a conversation on this topic, and of opportunities we create to acknowledge and address the ways in which our shul can better serve women, and the ways in which women can provide their unique and indispensable contributions to our shul.