D’var Torah given by Ilana Bernstein for Sisterhood Shabbat honoring Lisa Plavin

D’var Torah given by Ilana Bernstein, Rabbi and Lisa Plavin’s daughter, for the occasion of Sisterhood honoring Lisa on Sisterhood Shabbat, January 16, 2016.
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Shabbat Shalom. I was so pleased when I was asked to speak this Shabbat. I believe it was nearly 25 years ago when I last stood here and delivered a d’var torah, at my bat mitzvah. My bat mitzvah parasha is Ki Teizei. I was one of the lucky ones to have a pretty interesting parasha with seventy-four of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot described in it. Ki Teitzei concludes with the obligation to remember “what Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt.”

The exodus from Egypt referred to in this mitzvah, is the where the story begins in this week’s parasha – Parashat Bo, also a pretty interesting one!  I’m lucky again.

The parasha begins with the last three of the Ten Plagues that befell Egypt: a swarm of locusts devoured all the crops and greenery; a thick, darkness enveloped the land; and all the firstborn of Egypt are killed at the stroke of midnight of the 15th of the month of Nissan.

The death of the firstborn finally breaks Pharaoh’s resistance, who finally lets us go. The parasha continues by describing what we observe today during the Passover holiday.

It is well known in my family that this week’s parasha was my grandfather’s bar mitvah parasha. I have fond memories of my grandfather leading the seder with my father singing the story as it is retold in the haggadah. I can hear him now….

.עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה

We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm.

At the end of that phrase in the Haggadah we are reminded of the commandment to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds or spends extra time in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy.

Indeed, my grandfather and father are praiseworthy.

I found it interesting that is was specifically commanded of the MEN to have an active role in this preparation to leave Egypt. There is an obvious absence of women. What was their role in preparing to leave Egypt?

At the beginning of the book of Exodus women were very present: Miriam and Yocheved, the midwives, Shifra and Puah, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Where did they go when everyone was ready to leave Egypt?

As I read this week’s parsha in more detail and read several commentaries, I came upon a common question. Why is there such detailed instruction given to prepare to leave? Why couldn’t it just say pack your bags and get out of dodge?

It is said that the slaves had lost their ability to use their imagination, and conjure independent thought, they had a slave mentality with absolute submission to the will of their task-masters.

These detailed instructions were given to the men.

Perhaps,the women never lost their independence of thought, and always had foresight, even under threat of death.

Their actions are similar to those of the woman praised in the book of Proverbs, the eishet chayil.

The achievements of the eishet chayil are the focus of the Women’s League theme for this year.

“Nat’ah karem” is a phrase from this beloved prayer, sung on Friday night before reciting Kiddush. This prayer is re-envisioned by Women’s League with appreciation for the hard-working, generous, family-oriented woman, who “plants a vineyard by her own labors”

This sisterhood has chosen to honor my mother, who epitomizes the Eishet Chayil. The honoree is chosen for her productivity, independence, creativity, and her orientation to a hopeful future. Couldn’t have said it better myself….Well, I will try to, at least….

I speak on behalf of myself, my two older sisters and our collective spouses and your seven grandchildren, Mom, to repeat what we learned in this week’s parasha, the eishet chayil is an enduring model for women past and present.

The lessons that you have taught us become apparent everyday as we grow and learn to be parents ourselves. You have taught us to take initiative…..yes, it’s your fault we are all so busy. As we learn in this week’s parasha as it begins with the words

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה

And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Go to Pharaoh;

Hashem is telling Moshe to encounter Pharoa directly, approach the problem head-on and deal with it.

Find the need, find the solution, and get others involved in doing mitzvoth every day. Uh oh, I leaked my mother’s secret.

Also in Parshat Bo we get the mitzva to have a calendar that starts with Nisan, the month in which Passover is celebrated.  Mom’s work in the shul has brought a stronger, more joyful sense of the Jewish calendar with all the annual events she’s created.

Without her, BSBI wouldn’t have a community-wide Pesach Seder or a Mishloach Manot project which raised so much money for the congregation.

I’d like to focus our attention for a moment on what it means to be a Jewish woman.

The first woman in the torah is named Chavah or Eve, and is referred to as an eizer kenegdo. This title can be translated in one of two ways—either “a helpmate to him” or “a helpmate against him.”

In a relationship, there are times when a wife is most helpful by being supportive and alongside her spouse, and there are times when the help that is needed requires going against the desires and position of her spouse. The goal is to know when each action is appropriate.

We see this two way partnership demonstrated clearly in my father and my mother.

My mother is basically my father’s “secret sauce”, for sermon writing and knowing when to call people who would like to hear from the Rabbi.

Not to mention with these attributes my mother invented systems in the synagogue that required deep understanding of the families it serves, for example the Nichum Aveilim meal delivery program for families in mourning.

The word in Hebrew for home, bayit, is spelled, Beit, Yud, Taf. The yud stands between the letters that form the word bat, daughter. The yud, the smallest of all the Hebrew letters, represents the seed and yet it is housed within the bat, the daughter.

The seeds that my mother has sewn in this community have reaped a plentiful crop.

There is a statement in the Talmud Yoma that says “Beito zu ishto,”, a man’s home is his wife. It is not that his house is his wife or that his wife represents the house, but that his literal home is housed within his wife, on a spiritual and emotional level.

The sages say that a role model of a good woman is one who is osah retzon ba’alah—a Hebrew phrase that has a few different layers of translation. The first is: “she does the will of her husband.” But in Hebrew, the verb osah can be translated either as “to do” or “to make.”

This brings us back the meaning of eizer kenegdo, the way woman were described at the beginning of creation. Is a woman a helpmate for him, or opposite him? When we translate osah as “to do” or “to make,” she is opposite him.

According to Rashi, the true meaning of this expression is that when a woman is using her potential in the proper way, she is able to connect to her spouse and help him reach his potential. Through her ability to develop, she can take his ideas, his talents, his potential, bring them to out in him.

This my mother’s style – she is a eizer kenegdo, a soulmate to my father.

When I need advice, the first person I will always call is my mother.

I know my father feels the same way. My mother’s wisdom, caring soul and deep understanding of life and our potential is a blessing to us, to the community and to future generations.

I can’t think of a better woman to epitomize the achievements of an eishet chayil and therefore deserves to be honored by the Sisterhood.