We have, perhaps, gotten used to the idea that women are absent from many of the pivotal stories of the Torah. Not so, however, with the story of the sin of the Golden Calf (chet haegel) or the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Both of these important events are inclusive of women.
In both cases, one has to pay attention to notice the verses which tell us how the women reacted to the requests to bring jewelry to fashion the golden calf, and for the building of the Mishkan. But midrash and commentary are more forthcoming about the valuable contribution of the women of Israel to both of these pivotal events.
So, where were the women? In the right place, it seems.
When the women were asked to contribute their jewelry to the creation of the golden calf (Exodus 32:2), they refused, forcing the men to volunteer their own jewelry. Aaron had hoped that asking the women for contributions would stop the creation of the calf, but it only served to delay it slightly. In contrast, when the men were asked to donate jewelry to the Mishkan, as a tikkun — a redemptive act — for their sin with the golden calf, the women joined in eagerly, bringing their gold and silver and their mirrors (Exodus 35:22, 38:8).
These mirrors, according to the sages, were used by the women in Egypt to beautify themselves in order to entice their husbands, so that the Jewish people would continue to multiply despite the hardships of slavery (Tanhuma Pikudei 9). These objects, on the one hand, used for physical purposes, were also spiritual objects, crucial for the perpetuation of the nation, and were considered valuable contributions to the Mishkan.
According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (chapter 45), the women’s refusal to participate in chet haegel resulted in their being rewarded with a holiday dedicated to them — Rosh Chodesh, the monthly celebration of the new moon. In the same way that the moon renews each month, women experience a monthly cycle. The moon is also foretold to be as big as the sun one day, according to an interpretation of the prophet Isaiah: “…the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun:” (30:26), So too, women and men will become equals.
This midrash takes us back to the sin of the Garden of Eden, where Eve sinned and dragged Adam down with her. The patriarchy was created as punishment (Genesis 3:12-15). Along the same lines, the midrash recounts that the moon was made smaller than the sun at the time of creation because of its unwillingness to share the spotlight equally (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit 1:8). But neither of these situations is ideal — when we return to a state of Eden, the moon will be enlarged and women will gain equal footing.
Rabbanit Penina Noibort points out that the giving of the Torah at Sinai was a rare window of opportunity to return to the state of Eden (Shabbat 146a). The men squandered this opportunity with a lack of faith, but the women held fast and corrected Chava’s sin. This is why they were rewarded with a holiday which symbolizes the ultimate redemption.
The nature of any process is that it is often hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Feminism has brought many positive changes into the general culture and into Judaism, but it is certainly a “two steps forward, one step back” transition. It is a constant struggle to balance our Jewish values with opposing values from secular culture. Add to that the opposition to Orthodox feminism from so many quarters, and that light seems miles away.
But Parshat Ki Tisa teaches us that women have tremendous faith and strength. Their influence on the men in their lives and on the next generation is felt even when it is barely acknowledged. The divine promise of equality is moving ever closer, and we look forward to the day when the moon shines as brightly as the sun.