Though it is apparently well known to students of Jewish texts, I had never heard of this one until later in life: In collecting silver and gold to make the golden calf, the women refused to donate their earrings, nose rings, and other jewelry.
When I first heard it, I asked one or two others who essentially said, “Sure, I knew that one.” It took me a while and at least seven or eight books from different areas of my library to find some sources. Some mention what most assume is the underlying reason for their refusal.
(Somewhat sexist-ly) they assume that women, by their very nature are enamored of jewelry, and, naturally would not want to part with their personal collection. This couldn’t be the real reason, because other traditions tell us that they readily surrendered their jewelry as donations for the building of the Tabernacle.
The medieval Midrash Pirke deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 45, states a
more profound reason, namely, that they didn’t give because they recognized that these items would be used for a pagan purpose.
Some texts say that they were rewarded by the special rules for them on Rosh Chodesh, including not having to do any work. (How they got from point A to point B on that one, I am not certain.)
The Yemenite midrash Midrash Hagadol (Ki Tissa 32:2) goes further and says that because of this, they were allowed to enter the Land of Israel.
And it is this point that radically changes the entire image of the people about to begin a new life. Since they must have been 60 years old or more:
1. There were now bubbes and zaydes and sabas and savtas everywhere.
2. There were family members who could tell them in detail about their history and heritage: slavery in Egypt, the travails in the wilderness, and the revelation at Sinai, among other things. This is similar to our grandparents, the immigrants who came from Europe and North Africa, and the rest of the diaspora telling us what it was like “over there”.
3. And to put it in contemporary terms, they could do it:
a. Putting their grandchildren to bed
b. Without the kids having to worry about all the psychological baggage that comes with child/parent relations
c. They might even do it with cookies and milk.
4. The children would grow to know that there is something known as unconditional love.
5. The children would grow up knowing that Elders have a place in society and are not to be disrespected.
And, then, of course, the Elders had many people to talk to their own age, many topics of which are not appropriate for their children or grandchildren. They had a chevra of their own, because there is more to life that just grandchildren.