Exchanging Supermom for Everywoman

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 Love

Sefirat Haomer, Part I

By: Shimona Tzukernik

It’s a memory I’ll never forget. Maybe I was eleven. As part of a group, we were taken to an orphanage. To call it bare would be an understatement. My memories are fuzzy but the leitmotif was of concrete. In an open area outside the building, children milled around without speaking. There were no toys and nothing of color.

Off-center lay a toddler on the ground. No blanket, no sibling, no adult. He had a cut on his ear and flies bumped into each other prying for blood. He was so deeply alone in the world, I felt it almost a violation to pick him up.

Years later, I would think of him. With all the love in the world, why do so many of us go through life bereft of, or yearning for, it? What is so compelling about love that we’d give our all to get it? And yet, what makes us afraid of giving – or even receiving – it?

Imagine pooling the full range of human emotion into one pot and then boiling away the excess, releasing all the subtleties and intersecting points and overlays into the atmosphere. We’d come down to seven core ways to feel. Seven base elements of how to emotionally experience the world and give expression to that. And if we further boiled those ingredients, we’d arrive at one essential ability – love.

Love and oneness are bound together. Love is the one point from which all other feelings spring. In Hebrew the numerical value for love, ahava, is thirteen. So too is the value of one, echad. So love and oneness are bound together. When we say, “G‑d is One,” we’re also saying, “G‑d is Love.”

We yearn deeply for love because it connects us to G‑d, to others, to creation. Love is the cosmic glue which reassures us that the apparent multiplicity of creation is just that – apparent. It brings to consciousness the truth that despite the bits and pieces, we are all part of a greater whole that is defined by goodness. In this sense, our yearning to love and be loved is an outgrowth of the even deeper longing to belong to the world, to experience the underlying oneness of reality.

That explains why we fear the absence of love. To be unloved, or rejected, or neglected is to be outcast from that pool of Oneness. It’s not so much the immediate pain of the rejection that hurts as the sense of being alone in the universe that is most painful. It’s been said that neglect is the worst form of abuse. Children who are neglected have a more difficult time healing than even those who were physically or sexually abused. Because at least in the latter, however horrific the experience, there is a relating – albeit distorted and immoral – to another.

Neglect is the worst form of abuse. Neglect, by contrast, communicates, “You don’t exist. At least not in my world.” And if there’s even one place where we are not truly present, then at an essential level we don’t exist at all.1 Without love, we become isolated beings randomly bumping through life. We slide into the head space that says, “The world exists independently of G‑d. Thus all things are existentially detached. I am alone.”

It is precisely this delusion that we are born to negate. We come into a world of plurality and our souls’ mission is to peel the façade, pull back the curtain of cosmic amnesia, and reveal that all is One. In this sense, love lies at the core of purpose.

That’s also why we’re afraid to give and receive it. In all arenas of life, we tend to recoil from the most important things because at least then, we can say, “I haven’t gone there yet.” Regardless of whether it’s procrastinating before sitting down to write an essay, taking on jobs that form a comfortable partition between us and what we’re really supposed to be doing, avoiding resolving a conflict that lies at the heart of our lives and the like, we are creating smokescreens that protect us from potential failure. Sure, we complain about not having the time or head space to really tackle what matters most. But that’s a ruse. Deep down, avoiding our key tasks cuts us the psychic slack of being able to tell ourselves that we haven’t yet undertaken the mission so there’s still hope.

If we want a shot at robust loving relationships, we need to understand that our yearning for connection can take on one of two faces. The first is holy and generates true bonding. The latter looks like connection but brings only separation and pain in its wake. The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers presents two such instances:

A love that is dependent on something – when the thing comes to an end, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything will never cease. Which is a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one which is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.

The stories that are being alluded to here are Biblical.

Amnon and Tamar were half siblings of royal lineage. “Amnon lusted to the point of illness for his sister Tamar…He overpowered her and violated her.”2 He acted out of selfish desire even at the expense of another person’s most intimate life. His own craving allowed him to lose sight of Tamar as a whole person and see her as a mere object whose purpose was to satisfy him. “Afterward, Amnon despised her with a great hatred. His hatred was even greater than the love he had felt for her.”3

The second story is also about a prince. Jonathon was heir to the throne of his father Saul. David, also born of royal lineage, was the paragon of “underdog.” Rejected throughout his youth, he was nonetheless to rise in stature, ultimately assuming the throne. The two became great friends. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. Saul, perceiving the radical David as a threat to not only his own position but Judaism as a whole, attempted to have him killed. One would expect Jonathan to be filled with the same animosity. Yet counter intuitively he was the one who stood by his friend, saving his life and even compromising his own relationship with his father. In direct contrast to Amnon, Jonathan acted out of selflessness even at his own expense.

In the case of Amnon and Tamar the love, being based on something, disappeared once Amnon got what he wanted. At a deeper level, because it was founded on an external criterion, it was not real to begin with. Certainly Amnon turned on Tamar largely as a projection of his own self-hatred and shame over the despicable act. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. But he also hated her because the “love” was not love!

What he felt was really the need to feed his own ego. His hunger for connection wasn’t about wanting to bond with another. Quite the contrary, he translated a craving for existential unity into one for physical pleasure.

We all do it at some level, albeit far removed from Amnon’s conduct. Instead of taking the time and being prepared to do the soul-work entailed in setting aside the ego – the figment that we exist independently – we settle for surface quick-fixes that momentarily assuage our deep existential yearnings. Such an interaction can never truly fill our need. True love is about discovering the unity that constitutes existence. Rape is about separation. The interaction itself cries out, “I am alone and you are alone. There is no center, no G‑d and no meaning.”

Apropos David and Jonathan by contrast, we find the exact opposite: a relationship born of all the ingredients for rivalry, hatred and separation became one of supra-rational love and connection. That is the most satisfying love of all. When we overcome conflict in a relationship, we mirror something of the love between these two friends. This love proclaims, “We have triumphed over the appearance of separation. Despite all that the world would seem to say, love and oneness pervade reality. We are part of that. More so, we are the catalysts who make it possible to know that truth!” When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Even more so, we actually hasten its coming.

All that we’ve said that applies with regard to humanistic love and our interpersonal relationships has an application to love of G‑d. Maimonides tells us that we are to love and serve G‑d independently of what we might hope to gain or lose from that. Put heaven and hell aside, for service of G‑d is not about the reward or punishment. It’s not even about becoming an enlightened, refined human being!

When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Sometimes we’re called upon to do things that run counter to what we think would enhance our spiritual wellbeing. We’re required to put aside the texts, the prayer book, interrupt the meditation for example, and go out and help a person in need. Regardless of the situation, Maimonides prompts us to let it all go and enter into a relationship with G‑d that is like white light. In that glow, we are not motivated by the colors of the rainbow but by the simple, undifferentiated, pure desire to be one with our Creator.

It may seem like a goal that is beyond our reach but the mystics teach us that through loving others, we will come to love G‑d. A story is told about a Rabbi who asked the Chassidic Rebbe Reb Avraham of Stretyn to give him the means to be G‑d fearing.

“I hear your spiritual remedies bring results,” he said.

Reb Avraham responded, “I don’t have a remedy for fear of Heaven but I do for love of G‑d.”

“Fine,” said the Rabbi. “Isn’t love greater than fear?”

“The remedy for love of heaven,” said the Rebbe, “is love of one’s fellow. When you attain this, you will have attained the love of Heaven.”

Why so? It all comes down to the same point. Our purpose is to love to the point that we discover unity. If we can do that even in the context of human relationships within this physical world that hides G‑d, we have certainly arrived at Divine love too.

Each of us holds an infinite wellspring of love to give and all the ability to receive and take it in. We can generate the kind of connections with others that we crave, both human and Divine. We need only to have the courage to delay gratification and go for the deep, real version. That kind of love expands the universe, allowing us to feel its infinite vastness. It also collapses reality into one indivisible point that contains the whole and where all of us are imbued with the pleasure and glow of life as it’s meant to be.


1. This explains why our sages say that embarrassing someone is akin to murder. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that at most it obliterates the recipient of the shame from the inflictor’s perspective? However, if I think so little of you as to nullify your value by embarrassing you, I’m saying you don’t exist for me. And if you don’t exist in my world, your presence in the universe as a whole is not only compromised – somewhere it is negated entirely.

2. Shmuel ll, 13:2;14

3. Shmuel ll, 13:15-16

This article was origionally posted on www.thejewishwoman.org