Eve was in the Garden of Eden. But, truth be told, it was getting a little boring. There were only so many trees to climb, horses to ride, and snakes to chat with.
One day, G-d appears to her and says, “Eve, you shall be alone no more. I am going to create for you a partner, a man called Adam.”
“Sounds interesting,” replies Eve, “tell me more.”
“He’ll be strong and handsome. He’ll be charming and witty. He’ll work hard in the field and hunt food in the forest. He will love and cherish you.”
“That sounds almost too good to be true, G-d,” says Eve, “there’s got to be a catch! What am I missing?”
“Well,” responds G-d, “the one little catch is that you will just have to make him believe that he was created first…”
In Parshat Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies and Avraham sends Eliezer to travel to his birthplace to find a bride for Yitzchak. He finds kind Rivkah and brings her back to Canaan. Upon her arrival, three miracles returned that had disappeared with the death of Sarah. These three miracles were present on account of Sarah’s three special mitzvot. She was careful in taking challah – the dough we remove and burn before baking – and so her dough was blessed with incredible flavour and texture. She fulfilled the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles, and miraculously her lights burned from one week to the next. And she was meticulous with the family purity laws, for which she merited to have the Shechina (Divine Presence) rest upon her tent.
Sarah bequeathed these three mitzvot not just to Rivkah, but to Jewish women through the generations. These seemingly random acts are now the three foundational mitzvot for women. Why these particular three?
If we look at each of these three mitzvot we find a common thread – there’s a separation factor that is involved in all three. Challah – we separate a piece of dough. Shabbat candles – we separate the Day of Rest from the six days of work. Family purity – we separate physically from our spouse. How did these three mitzvot all related to separation become the women’s mitzvot? What does separation have to do with women?
Let’s go back to the beginning, to the first woman, Eve. How was she created? Through an act of separation. She was separated from Adam. Woman by her very nature equals separation. Does that make us inferior? On the contrary, if you examine each of these mitzvot, the message of the Torah is that we separate the elevated from the mundane.
When we take a piece off of the dough, nowadays we just burn it. It seems to us like trash. But really, what are we meant to do with it? Back in Temple times, we would give that special portion to the holy cohanim who performed the service for us. We don’t have holy cohanim serving in the Temple anymore and so we burn it. But in truth, this piece of dough is the holiest of the entire loaf!
When we light Shabbat candles, we are separating ourselves and our families from our everyday crazy busy schedule and saying “Aah shabbos”. The activities we abstain from are not restrictions; they are tools to help us enjoy this holy day. Six days are mundane and we women separate one day of the week and sanctify it.
When we separate from our spouse physically, we are not turning our backs on them. We are dedicating time and space to focus on the emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the relationship. It’s a lot simpler to ‘kiss and make-up’ than to talk about the issue. When a couple is physically separated they have no choice but to tackle the issue head-on and figure it out as opposed to just brushing it under the rug. The separated time is our time for strengthening and renewing our relationship. In a certain way, that time is the holiest period of the month.
What is the Hebrew word for separate? Kadosh. We generally translate it as ‘holy,’ but our Sages explain that holiness means separation. That’s why at Havdallah, we bless G-d, who “separates between the holy and mundane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six workdays.” Woman was chosen to perform the act of separation, of elevation, of sanctification, because her entire existence was predicated on such a separation.
And so each morning we bless Hashem, “Who made me as His Will.” Women were created perfectly according to Hashem’s Will. Man needs perfection. When Adam was created, he had an extra piece hanging from his side. (Incidentally, men make a bracha thanking G-d for not making them androgynous like Adam was originally created). Later, Avraham was instructed to perfect Jewish males by removing the extra piece of foreskin they are born with. By contrast, women are created in an already elevated, perfected, sanctified state. And that is why we are entrusted with the acts of separation between the mundane and the holy.
Women are not required to do the same things men are obligated to do because they don’t need it like the men do. For example, men are obligated to wear a kippah so they know that G-d is always above them. Women naturally know there’s a Higher Being; we don’t need the constant reminder. When men need to maintain a kosher kitchen, they need to undergo a rigorous course of study called semicha. Women receive that tradition from their mothers and are automatically trusted in their own kitchens.
In Judaism, life doesn’t revolve around the synagogue; it revolves around the home. Children make choices whether to embrace or reject tradition based upon what they see and learn at home, not at shul. Women are “pre-ordained” to imbue their offspring with kedusha (sanctity) by impressing upon them the separation between “Israel and the nations.” We teach our children that while we must engage with the world, we must always remember that we are holy and separate. That’s the ultimate semicha – the task entrusted to us of safekeeping the tradition and passing it on from one generation to the next, being that link that connects mother to daughter. My siblings and I are all proud, committed Jews because our mother instilled a love of Hashem and Judaism in us; I hope I, in turn, can do the same for my kids.
Separation of the sexes is fundamental to traditional Judaism. The mechitzah is our reminder that men and women are completely different beings that have completely different roles to play on this earth. We women mustn’t be afraid to embrace our femininity. Let us utilize our gender-specific strengths and continue to perfect the world by separating the holy from the mundane, elevating it, and sanctifying it!