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I stood, gazing fondly up at the Wall, a feeling of profound satisfaction blossoming inside me after the completion of my “heart work,” asking Hashem for the tools I felt I needed to better serve Him and pouring out all of my frustrations over life’s vagaries into His ever waiting ear. I was spent, wrung out from the power of my prayer, yet radiant with the knowledge that I had truly connected.

All of a sudden, my peaceful reverie was interrupted by the harsh sound of irate murmuring. A group of well-dressed, respectable looking women stood huddled together, clutching modesty shawls protectively around their bare shoulders. They wore matching scowls, as they whispered angrily to one another about “the unfairness of it all.” Trying not to eavesdrop, I couldn’t help but overhear snippets of their heated conversation. Words like “inequality” and “second-class citizens” bounced angrily around as they muttered their frustrations to one another. One blond, well-coifed woman pointed to the Kotel’s mechitza and said loudly: “The men have the majority of it, why do we only have a small portion of the Wall?”

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I should stay out of it, I thought. It wasn’t my business. I didn’t even know these women. They were entitled to think whatever they wanted to. “But they don’t understand,” a little voice inside of me whispered, “and you do. You had those questions once, remember? Help them understand.”

I had indeed clutched those very questions close to my heart for many years. I wondered about the seeming inequality of the way men serve Hashem in Yiddishkeit vs. the way women do. Why did we always have to take a backseat to them – in shul, at simchas, during the chagim? We had only three unique mitzvos, while they had the entire gamut of Torah at their fingertips. We could learn too, of course, but we didn’t get the schar limud that they did. How many times had I stood longingly on the sidelines, watching as the men danced joyously on Simchas Torah, wishing, somehow, that I could join in the festivities…

I can vividly recall one boy in my co-ed high school making the snarky comment: “In davening we say ‘shelo asani isha’ and ‘shelo asani aved,’ right? What I want to know is, why all the repetition?!” He laughed uproariously at his own joke and I cringed inwardly. Why indeed? Back then, I was known as a bit of a feminist. I even had a bumper sticker plastered to the back of my silver Jeep that proudly proclaimed, “A woman’s place is in control.” At least I’d had a bumper sticker that said that – until the boys in my class peeled it off and threw it away. Hmff.

So I understood where these women were coming from. I could identify with their pain and confusion, because, once upon a time, it had been my own.

Before I could hesitate or even waver in my decision, I found myself smiling broadly and approaching the tight-knit group. “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation…” I began. They looked at me coldly, smiling through tight lips. “I used to wonder the same things as you. Why do the men get all the attention, why do we have to stand in the back of the synagogue while they get front row seats?” Now they were listening.

“It doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

“No,” they responded, angrily, “it’s downright oppressive.” One of them chimed in, “Women should be allowed to serve equally.”

I nodded in sympathy and then abruptly switched topic.

“Let me ask you all a question. Which is more important to the body, the heart or the lungs?” They looked confused for a moment but one of them hesitantly answered, “Neither, obviously. We can’t live without both of them.”

“Exactly!” I said, triumphantly. “We sometimes make the mistake of wanting to be just like the men, but imagine what would happen if our heart suddenly said: ‘I don’t feel important enough in this body, all I do is pump blood all day long, it’s so unfulfilling. I wish I could be more like the lungs. They have the really important job here. They circulate air – the breath of life – to the entire body. From now on, I’m going to be just like them!’ And then our hearts stopped pumping blood and tried, instead, to breathe.  There would be utter chaos in our bodies!

“What we need to recognize is that we are essentially different than men, but equal to them, and because we are built differently, we have a different job description.”

One of the women was nodding uncertainly at me but the rest just looked more annoyed. “But why do they get all the glory? Why are the women always treated like second-class citizens if we’re supposedly equal to them?”

I took a deep breath and silently davened to Hashem to put the right words into my mouth as I tried again. “I hear what you’re saying, but let me ask you another question,” I said, reaching for a mashal by Rabbi Orlowek that I thought they might appreciate. “Who’s more important in film making, the actors or the directors?”

“Both,” they chirruped, in unison.

“Right, but who gets all the fame? The actors do! Their faces are out there, front and center, they get recognized wherever they go, they’re famous. The director, on the other hand, gets almost no recognition. It doesn’t seem fair, though, does it? Think about it. All an actor really does is convincingly parrot some lines that someone else has written for him, but a director has to understand everything about a film. He has to understand the sets, the cinematography, the costumes, the choreography and camera angles and everything else. He makes the whole show run! So why doesn’t he get as much fame? He’s always the quiet guy behind the scenes.

“Women, in Judaism,” I concluded, “are just like directors in a film. We are the unobtrusive ones who are really running the show. The Torah even attests to this. ‘Chachmas nashim bansa beisa’” I told them. “The wisdom of a woman builds her house, or, conversely, if she is foolish, destroys it.”

I gave them the example of On ben Pelet, whose astute wife used her wisdom to save her husband from the evil clutches of Korach’s followers and her counterpart, eishes Korach, whose arrogance brought her entire household down to the bowels of the earth. I told them the famous story of the righteous, but barren, couple who, after many childless years, sadly decided to divorce one another in the hopes of having children with different spouses. They both remarried wicked people. After a number of years, the once righteous man became wicked, just like his new wife, whereas the once wicked man became righteous under the influence of his virtuous eishes chayil.

The ladies looked at me in open wonderment and a few were nodding as I continued speaking.  “As far as being second-class citizens, just ask any Orthodox man who really runs the show in his home. He’ll tell you it’s his wife. In fact, my dad likes to quip ‘I always have the last words in our house – yes dear.’”

Most of them were smiling in earnest now. One lady still looked perturbed, though.

“But what about the divider in the middle of the synagogues? Why can’t they just split it down the middle? That would be more fair. Why do we have to sit in the back?”

“Oh, that. It’s simple. What’s the difference in architecture between churches and synagogues?” I asked them.

“Churches are usually bigger,” one of them ventured.

“Right,” I said. “Churches are generally larger, grander. Filled with massive, impressive statuary, colorful stained glass, loud pipe organs. Why? Because they are designed to impress people through the senses. Our humble little shuls, in contrast, are different. Even though there are some truly magnificent synagogues in the world, the majority are constructed much more simply than the average church. Why? Because our job in shul is not to be looking around at the pretty stained glass, lovely as it is, or to be tapping our feet in time to organ music. Our job is to be praying. Plain and simple. Focusing intently on the words and meaning in our siddurim, and men, quite frankly, cannot focus very well on praying if there are pretty ladies sitting right next to them in shul!”

A few of the women laughed and I went on. “The nice thing about being a woman, too, is that we can pray anywhere. We are, by nature, more connected to Hashem. Look at the order of creation. When Hashem created the world, He made the inanimate objects first, then the creeping creatures, the fish, the animals of higher intelligence, man and, finally, the apex of creation, woman. That’s why women say ‘sheasani kirtzono’ in davening each day. ‘That He fashioned us according to His Will.’ Because we are more finely attuned to His Will than men are. What higher praise could we ask for? We know intuitively what He wants from us without Him having to spell it out.”

The women gazed at me raptly, soaking in every word. Their anger had dissipated, evaporating in the cool breeze blowing through the courtyard of the Kotel. Now, finally, the stigma of “second-class citizen” was beginning to melt and their hearts were opening to the truth.

“Do you know why men have to pray in a minyan, a quorum of 10 men?” I asked, giving them one final nugget of information to chew on.  They looked at me expectantly.

“Because they’re making up for the sin of the spies, who slandered the land of Israel. There were 10 spies who brought back an evil report and, as restitution, G-d required a minimum of 10 men to gather three times daily to pray. Thousands of years ago, they got together for bad reasons, slander, and now, to make up for it, they have to get together for good reasons, to pray. The women, though, never believed the negative report of the spies. They stood steadfast in their belief of G-d while the men cried. Just as we stood steadfast in our belief during the sin of the golden calf. That’s why we are not required by Torah law to pray with 10 other women. Women naturally understand and accept the will of Hashem much more easily than men. That’s why we don’t need as many rules and strictures as they do. Men need that structure. The structure of obligatory prayer, three set times a day within a defined space, the structure of rigid learning schedules. The pomp and circumstance of leading the prayers. Women just don’t need it. If we did, G-d would have given it to us.

“That’s why we have smaller sections in shul than the men, too. Because we don’t need to be in synagogue to serve G-d. We can connect with Him whenever and wherever we want. The holy task of raising our children, the future of our nation, and running the chesed epicenters of our households connects us constantly to Him. Our jobs are just as important as the men’s. Equal, but different.”

The women embraced me, one lady elegantly blotting away an errant tear with her handkerchief. “Thank you for explaining all of this to us. We knew there must be more to it than it seemed.” The group chorused her emotion, as each one heartily thanked me for taking the time to speak with them.

I left the Kotel that night on a natural high, floating homewards on the wings of wisdom I had shared with those women, whose names I did not know, but who each share a portion of the infinite mantel of nshei chayil everywhere, the beloved guardians of Hashem’s treasured people.

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