I vividly remember a Friday night dinner when I was a teenager visiting Jerusalem with my family. I was listening to the Greenberg family sing Eishet Chayil (A Woman of Valor) as their mother, who was singing along, smiled with joy. It was a dining room full of love and music. It was beautiful and I felt at home.
Several years later, about a month before my wedding, I purchased a cassette with that song on Side A. I remember giving it to my fiancé, Allan, saying “learn it” in my very directive style, so that one day I too could feel that joy. For the past 26 years, we have sung that song every Friday night. After a hectic week of juggling work deadlines and managing my overprogrammed 3 kids and a Friday afternoon of frantic cooking, I like that recognition of the Friday night prayer. I am not sure if it is appreciation that I seek, but this is my moment that helps me feel that it is all worth it. Hanging in my dining room are 2 pieces of artwork with the prayer – one is in Spanish, Allan’s mother tongue, and another is an artist’s rendition in the shape of a candle. Neither of us grew up in homes where we sang the prayer and yet every week it has become part of our ritual. Over the years, the prayer has lost its meaning for my family. It has become rote; they quickly sing the words skipping over the middle verses so that we can get to the meal faster. Often, I try to sneak in another verse, but someone is always quick to jump to the end. On the rare dinners where we are alone without guests (especially during the pandemic when it is cold outside and we need to eat indoors), I try to get my family to sing the entire song. Unfortunately, I am often unsuccessful.
Recently, Layah Lipsker, my Talmud teacher, shared the prayer with my class. She asked us to read it with the lens of women leadership. After 26 years, it took on a whole new meaning. While some of the women bemoaned the prayer, saying it was offensive to women, I read it differently, as a tribute to the modern female leader, breaking many of the stereotypes of traditional roles.
To me, the prayer is praising a woman who has a job outside the home AND takes care of her family and community AND nourishes her mind and soul. She is insightful and wise, adaptable, courageous, honest, creative, generous, committed, has vision and a positive outlook. And because of this that woman, and by extension me as the recipient of this blessing from my family, is respected as great leaders are. The prayer also clearly articulates who the woman of valor is not. She is not the 1950s definition of womanhood: “Grace is false and beauty is vain.”
While the women in my class suggested that the prayer should be modernized to appreciate the husband just as much as the wife, the reality is that women do more for their family and their homes. Last year, my former employer (Boston Consulting Group) published the findings of a survey of male and female consultants (who face the same travel and client responsibilities) and found that women are 1.9 times more likely than men to have responsibility for everyday household chores. More recently during the pandemic, the gender gap has grown even greater. Given that, shouldn’t we recognize those contributions?
This Eishet Chayil is a woman with a full life. As a Leadership coach I often have clients complete the Wheel of Life where they assess how they are doing at a given point in time on the various dimensions of their life. I see Eishet Chayil as aspirational. It is a worthy vision for a woman who embraces and delivers on all the varied parts of herself.
I often have clients do daily mantras to build self-confidence or create a change in their mindset. Eishet Chayil will become my weekly mantra. Both to remind me of my strength and my aspiration to become a better version of myself.
“Give her the fruit of her hands and she will be praised at the gates by her very own deeds.”