Exchanging Supermom for Everywoman

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by: Shimona Tzukernik
About a year ago I spoke to a group of women in Pittsburgh.  The topic was, “Will the Real Jewish Woman Please Stand Up?”  The energy was already upbeat and intimate by the time I made reference to the famous text, “Woman of Strength” which Jews customarily sing at the Friday night meal.  Before I could work my way into the point I intended to make, a woman blurted out something to the effect of, “I hatethat song.”  I turned to her inviting her to elaborate.
“Well…She’s just so…perfect!  I feel like a complete failure every Friday night.  I mean, do you know anyone like her?”  Laughter all round.
I love when that happens – a real, visceral response to the topic at hand (especially when it resonates with my ownself’s inner passion, hesitancy or conflict around a particular idea.)  How many times had I balked at the words?!  Using the Hebrew letters as a springboard it is a veritable Alphabet-Soup of Perfection.  I won’t overwhelm you with all the details but how’s this for starters?
·         Alef – She’s an Eishet Chayil, a “strong” woman.  The word chayilconnotes the power of war.  She’s a warrior.  And a spiritual one too, with all the attributes needed to carry out any task at hand.  Friday night rolls round, we haven’t even gotten past verse one and I’m up against “Jewish Tiger Mom!”
·         Beit – Batach bah lev ba’alah, her husband’s heart trusts in her.  Hmm.  I can count on one hand (okay, two fingers) the number of girlfriends whose husbands’ are at peace with their wives’ take on life and what’s best for them.  Verse two and I’m dealing with not only a powerhouse but someone who’s wise and gentle enough to inspire confidence in her mate!
·         Gimmel – Gemalthu tov, she imparts goodness and kindness to him, never evil.  Who is this gal?
In short, a brief read-through of the song reveals that Kosher Tiger Mom has a loving, trusting husband; she’s an entrepreneur and successful business woman; she’s industrious, charitable, wise, empathic and intuitive.  To boot she’s well groomed (read manicures, facials and Sacks Fifth Av if not Vera Wang) and even has the time and cash to buy gorgeous bedroom linens in mindful attention to her sex life.
Is it any wonder the second phrase, in breathless pursuit of the words Eishet Chayil, asks “Who can find (her)?”  She is not me!  All of which leaves me with the question of how to read and apply King Solomon’s song to my life – along with the implications it has for my role not only as wife but as daughter to my mother and mother to my own children.
It seems to me that Eishet Chayil is “Everywoman,” an archetype of us all.  No, I’m not just looking for a backdoor escape from my perfectionism, a way to avoid the reflections of my flaws which I encounter on a daily basis.   I ask myself whether she represents an attainable goal.  Certainly in a utopian era we may each come to embody the Eishet Chayil described by King Solomon but in the here-and-now of life-as-we-know-it, I’ve yet to meet the woman who lives up to the persona he portrays.  Rather than take the text as a description of Supermom, it seems to me, it serves to connect us with the universal image of wife and mother.  After all, the passage has been interpreted as a metaphor for the Shechina, the Sabbath, the Torah and the soul.  Doesn’t it make sense that the acrostic, spanning all twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, alludes not to one woman’s all-encompassing virtues (Supermom) but to our collective identity (Everywoman)?
Just before my marriage, a spiritual midwife told me, “King Solomon says, ‘The wisdom of a woman builds her home.’  The literal translation though states, ‘The wisdom of women (plural) builds her home (singular.)  You will build your home on the wisdom of many women.  Pay attention to how they live and what they have to say.”  How right she was.  I have enriched myself and my home through the collective wisdom and experience of the thousands of women I’ve merited to connect with.  I carry them within me and am personally empowered by who they are.  As Eishet Chayil is sung each Friday night, it affords me some brief moments of contemplation to rejoin with them and also to be eased by the knowledge that our physical and spiritual interconnectedness mitigates my own flaws, enabling me to bring their lights into my home.
By extension, I have access to the larger, cosmic Everywoman, namely the energies and insights of the women who have come before me all the way back to Sarah.  (In fact, one reading of Eishet Chayil is as the eulogy Abraham said for Sarah before he buried her.)  It may be a span of thousands of years between me and my first mother but it’s not more than around 175 generations.  That’s not an impossible divide.  I want some of the wisdom and joy of the women between the two of us.  I now know how far from the truth my youthful stereotype of the shtetel Bubby – naïve, somewhat simple, lacking emotional subtlety – is.  Today I’d love to have her over for brunch and glean her insights and tools on how to handle my life.  The same goes for all the women throughout those interceding generations each of who has her own shining letter from the Alphabet-Soup of Perfection to impart to me.  As their daughter and grand-daughter I am bound with their point of perfection.  Thereby, at some level, despite the fact that I’m no Supermom, Eishet Chayil is in my home each Friday night.  More so I even carry her, the collective “Everywoman”, within my own being.
In this way, I gain access to a dimension of myself that is way beyond my highest personal aspirations for if the totality of who I can be is purely a result of my own endeavors; I will be very small indeed.  Rather, it is in surrendering to my imperfections and humbly admitting the bigness of Eishet Chayil that I open the window to the full expanse of who I am.
But to me, the collective gestalt of Jewish womanhood embodied by Eishet Chayil allows us even more than access to this larger, truer self.  In addition to this priceless gift, she affords us the possibility to reconfigure our relationship with our mothers.  I know, easier said than done.  The most potent reaction I ever got to a presentation was a lecture called, “Moms, the Magic and the Madness.”  The audience – and yours truly – wasn’t quite sure whether to laugh or weep.  Our relationship with our mothers is incomparably multi-dimensional, complex, overlaid with love and with anger.  It’s a real big one to navigate but one which we are nonetheless expected to manage and even heal.
It’s not that we can disregard the relationship if it’s uncomfortable for us.  “Honor your father and mother” made it to fifth on the list of the Big Ten!  Yet for many, this instruction on how we ought to relate to our parents is something they find absurd.  I can hear the disdain: “My Mom hangs out at the gym all day and gossips non-stop.  She’s dishonest in business, self-centered – nay narcissistic – and materialistic.  She never had the courage to face her wounds so I get to be the beneficiary of herdysfunctional inheritance!  Yadda, yadda…”  Alright, this is Everymom we’re talking about.  But you get the idea.  How are we to honor and respect our Moms despite their often startling imperfections?
Ultimately the reason we honor them has nothing to do with their personal or moral stature.  G-d’s directive is rooted in the fact that at the moment of conception, our parents take on something of the Divine.  They become co-creators with G-d in bringing us into being.  That’s why honor of our parents is immutable.  It’s not about the gym or manicures, how they do or don’t pay taxes and show up in life.  It’s about the fact that in relation to usthey are G-dlike in a certain respect.  That’s the ground-zero of honoring our parents and until we get it most nothing else we say or hear will be of use to us in moving the relationship forward.
But this immutable point of greatness aside, each Friday night Eishet Chayil reminds us of two key ideas which can change the way we negotiate our very first relationship.  The first is that, as mentioned, none of us is perfect – andthat’s okay!  The second is that in some mysterious way we can, if we choose to, receive what we need through the collective Everywoman.  In this way, we learn to lower the bar on our mothers.  We don’t have to hold them to an impossible standard.  Whew!  In fact we can begin to accept our mother for who she is and learn to get our needs met elsewhere if she is not able to do so.  We can stop blaming our unhappiness on someone who would not – or more accurately could not – come to the table in the way we needed her to.  Eishet Chayil, Everywoman, becomes a reservoir of healing and nourishment for our being.
Through this forgiving of her for her imperfections, we become able to put down the aspects of our own emotional and mental inheritance we’d rather do without.  One of the first things we learn about our father Abraham is that he smashed his parents’ idols!  I am embarrassed to admit it but it was only well into my thirties that I realized I had to do the same.  I’d spent decades bowing to my folks’ false beliefs, accepting it as fact that I was doomed for time everlasting to live with the limitations those beliefs generated.  Then one day the teaching about Abraham took hold in my mind with a vigorous vitality.  I took an inventory of what I’d inherited.  In addition to the abundant goodness and wonder, it included beliefs about how much I was likely to earn, how to respond when angered, what the appropriate response to suffering is, who I am and a whole lot more.  I trust you get what I’m talking about.  How liberating to realize that I could systematically smash those idols – without betraying my parents!!  I was not being faithless to them in subscribing to different truths and happiness.
The catch in doing so is to disown the false beliefs yet remain in the relationship.  Abraham smashed Terach’s idols but he continued to live with him – for another seventy-two years.  Granted Terach came round to Abraham’s way of thinking but our first father would have managed to negotiate the relationship regardless.  I believe that is because connection with G-d was the singular driving force in his life and as such he was able to a) see his father’s flaws but b) not take them personally and c) not feel limited by them, thereby being able to d) detach with love so that he could e) actually help Terach.  He was able to not own another’s dysfunction and yet remain connected to the one he loved.
To accomplish this mode of conduct, we must discover a new mental set and learn to shift our reading of the events and relationships in our lives.  Most of our pain in relation to our parents (and pretty much everything else) has to do with our own perception.  We interpret things to mean what they are not.  As such, we tend to live in the rather unhappy space between the way things are and the way we think they should be.  We walk around confessing the sins of G-d and others in our life.  And of course, we know our mothers’ sins best of all!  To be whole with her, we must find that new mental set which allows us to let go of the expectations we have of her as well as of our interpretation of the interactions between us.  For me, Eishet Chayil enables me to at least begin to navigate this.  It teaches me that I am not perfect but that that’s okay – and the same goes for my Mom; that I no longer have to hold her to an impossible standard; and that I can be enriched by my universal family of sisters and mothered by generations of women whose sterling qualities are inestimable.  In other words, although I’m not Supermom I have access to the superlative perfection of Everywoman.  Turns out that Jewish-Tiger-Mom liberates me through the abundant truth that although none of us is perfect, we have access to a flawlessness that is way beyond pearls.

Written for, “More Precious than Pearls,” edited by Mark Pearlman.  Check out his site   Sinai Live

Transformation Through Self-Expression

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Sefirat Ha’omer, Part VII

By Shimona Tzukernik

The African image that most captured my imagination in school was the repeated theme of a body with a head at either end of the torso. It’s really a sculpture of a woman giving birth as the baby’s head emerges. In some ways, the two-headed torso is the exact opposite of the more Eastern image of a snake eating its tail. The latter prompts one to think about disappearing. The former is all about self-expression.

Whilst we all desire self-actualization and the ability or forum to express ourselves, on the whole we humans resist being the crowning infant. We want to be the top head, to come in first, have our name up in lights. Our sages advise us, “Better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox.” But seriously, how many people can you think of who pick up on that?

The “bottom end” of life is something we shun in our search for fame and importance. Our leaders position themselves as heads but are by far and wide the rattled ends not of a lion’s, but a fox’s tail. That aside, let’s not project. We needn’t look outward. We need just look at ourselves to find testimony to the predilection to take the lead no matter what, and at all costs. Whether in a personal relationship where we want to be the one dictating the rules, at work or at play, we’re consistently aiming to be the top head of the sculpture.

That’s sad. I don’t say it in a judgmental or abstractly philosophical way. I mean it for real. The orientation prevents us from becoming who we’re really meant to be. It also prevents us from fulfilling our true purpose in the word because, as we will see, it is precisely in the bottom head that our ultimate raison d’être and power lie.

The crowing head of an emerging infant epitomizes the last of the soul’s inner powers. In Hebrew, that ability of the soul is called Malchut which literally means “sovereignty.” It is the place that we first begin to reveal our inner selves to the world. Through giving expression to our self, we gain the opportunity to be a shining light. We can become leaders the moment we put ourselves out there. That’s why the sphere of Malchut is also associated with royalty and dignity. It connotes all the wonder that comes with the expression of our truest self.

Kabbalistically this soul power is associated with the bottom of the body, the very “crown” of the reproductive organs – the corona in the male and the labia in the female – and with the appearance of the head of the child.

In this light Malchut, or self-expression, embodies a contradiction. It is the lowest of the soul powers yet the birth point of an entirely new reality. This is only possible because its root is higher than any of the previous six core emotions or three minds. Its origin is the highest, most abstract dimension of the soul, our spiritual unconscious. That’s why the emergence of the baby’s head is called crowning. The top of its head breaking through the bottom of the mother’s body reflects her crown both in terms of the physical fontanel and so too the point where her consciousness is so high it ceases to function in the way we generally associate with regular awareness.

That’s the contradiction.

The newness that is born of self-expression is entirely dependent on what’s come before it. Self-expression brings us to the front door of why we’re here but cannot exist without all the other abilities that inform it. And although it manifests last, it precedes all the other abilities in terms of its spiritual source.

It is for this reason that our sages tell us that the soul power of royalty “has nothing of her own.” Like the moon who receives from the sun and illuminates the night, your ability to manifest in the world must first absorb the totality of who you. Only then can it shine outwards. Before you can be in the world in a powerful, dignified way, you’ll have to choose to open yourself to all of who you are, from the crown of your supra-conscious, through mindfulness and love and respect, all the way down to your ability to bond with another. You can reveal who you are to the world only by virtue of absorbing into yourself the other nine powers of your soul.

These nine powers need Malchut, self-expression, because they are essentially each only a part of a bigger whole. When you manage to communicate them to the world, you are synthesizing them and bringing them to actualization. In the process, you become whole and actualized because your true self is built from each of the previous abilities.

The soul powers associated with the left side of the tree of life – analysis, restraint or respect, and humility – flow downwards, guiding you to manifest and lead first and foremost on the basis of fear of heaven. In order to become the influencer and leader you are capable of being, you must first be open to receiving from the Supreme Leader, Gd. Only then, from a place of humility, is leadership of the sort that people will accept. Leadership that is built upon self-abnegation becomes powerful. It is by virtue of putting aside your ego and being willing to be the “bottom head” that your soul can ascend to its highest source.

Next comes the right axis of the tree – creative brainstorming or conceptualizing, love and ambition. They bring to self-actualization the expansive and embracing love that leadership needs in order to flourish. Without these embracing, inclusive and celebrating components, you cannot facilitate growth for others. So first comes awe, then love. When you are open to incorporating these qualities without an agenda as to “being first” or doing things one way or another then you become the kind of person others love to be around. You manifest as a leader with dignity who can inspire true renewal for others.

Finally comes the highest synthesis of all, that within the third and central column of the mystical map of the soul – the Tree of Life. It is an axis of which self-expression is itself a part. The abilities on this central branch are our supra-conscious, our ability to deeply internalize and intimately know things, our heart-empathic center and our ability to bond. Each of these needs the Malchut in order to become whole. And with the marriage of the upper and lower dimensions of your being, you are able to fully manifest who you are in potential.

It is a merging akin to that of man and woman. Just as a woman receives from her husband thereby giving birth to the child, so too your ability to convey who you are to the world now gives birth to a new reality. Think of turning the sculpture upside down. The infant becomes the crown of the mother, herself birthing a new child. Counter-intuitively, self-expression happens through putting one’s self aside. When you do that, you can give birth to a new reality both for your soul and for the world.

What you give birth to are what Kabbalah calls the “garments of the soul,” namely thought, speech and action. Now whereas we have relatively little control over our inner makeup, we have all the control in the world – and all the accountability – in mastering our “outsides.” Each of us is expected to mentally focus only on those concepts that Gd approves of. Our speech is required to be refined and holy. So too our actions.

You don’t choose to be born a person who is innately gifted in love or awe. You’re born expansive or contractive, more intellectually or emotionally inclined. Maybe you’re a rationalist or a mystic. These orientations are a result of our inner soul structure. That’s Gd given and each of us must utilize our gifts and attempt to minimize our weaknesses. But you don’t really get to choose whether to be that way or not. Yes, it’s possible to change your personality. But it’s highly improbable.

Where you do have the freedom of choice is in how you’re going to put that all out there in the world. At any given moment you can decide to think one thing or another. You can say a kind or cutting word. You can act from ego or non-ego. Thought, speech and action are called “garments” for precisely that reason. You can take them off or put them on at will. Here, in the arena of your soul garments, your “outsides,” get to exercise free choice.

This is what Malchut gives birth to – the core, the essence of why we’re here. It’s not really our inner being that’s the goal. We’re here to help Gd out and bring redemption. That’s done through refining the matter of the universe which is in turn accomplished through the commandments. We fulfill them through thought, speech and action. So it is in the garments of the soul and through self-expression that we accomplish our ultimate purpose.

We’re culturally trained to think otherwise: The “lowly commandments” are “petty details” that pale in comparison with being in the flow! But that’s just not true. Living a meaningful life is not so much about self-actualization as it is about helping Gd out, on His terms. Mistakenly, we focus on the glory of being on top, being spiritual and enlightened. We dismiss being empty, receiving, doing small acts of kindness that change the world bottom-up.

How mistaken.

It’s in the place we resist that we touch our purpose. Sure we want to be the first head and never the baby at the bottom. But right there, in the “lowest” dimension of the soul, we gain access to its highest point. More importantly, it’s through this “lowest” of soul powers that we get done what we’re here to do in the first place. Jews do not eschew the mundane. We celebrate matter and even – or rather particularly – the lowest dimensions of who we are.

I got to thinking about this some years back when one of my soul sisters celebrated her daughter’s bat mitzvah. She asked us to think about which woman in Jewish history we most admire and aspire to be like, or who had most influenced our course in life. I thought about it a lot.

As I mentally scanned the women of the Bible and Talmud, I felt humbled by how far away I am from what they embody. I was searching for the person who on the one hand stood for something beyond me but on the other was someone I could relate to in an empirical kind of way. I came to the party still undecided. As I sat at the table with all the beautiful women and their breathtaking daughters, all of us sharing our hopes and points of reference with ancient women who called to us across time, I was struck by how wondrous the “ordinary” is. How many women throughout thousands of years had sat as we were, sharing and trying to come closer to what Gd wants of us? I felt such an affinity with them. And in that moment, I felt that my personal aspiration was to be like Bilhah and Zilpah, the two half-sisters of Rachel and Leah, wives of Jacob.

These two women are also mothers of our people but not generally referred to as such. I was taken by the sense of how much they were willing to put aside an agenda, to simply receive. Thereby they became the mothers of six tribes. They are tribes that are hidden until the coming of Mashiach. I think those tribes are like their mothers, silent and non-egotistic, willing to wait and receive before giving birth to a new age.

Of course I want to be like Sarah and Esther and Miriam and Deborah and…the list goes on and on. It feels a little uncomfortable to admit it being that I’m so far from what they embody. But I’m certain that one of my biggest stumbling blocks is that I need to be more like Bilhah and Zilpah. I need to take in their lesson before I can approach something higher. The first step is to stop insisting on being at the forefront. I want to be willing to be the one given birth to. Then I’ll become a mother.

This is the intent of the words of King David. He tells us, “This is the gate to Gd, the righteous shall enter through it.”1 Self-expression is that gate. First comes the surrendering of ego, the willingness to simply receive, then comes the synthesizing of all the building blocks, and finally you get to cross the threshold of Gd’s gate.


1. Pslam 118:20

This article was originally posted on www.thejewishwoman.org