The Big Guns, the Jewish Women
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, who passed away last month,used to share the following powerful story (reprinted from the Family First article by Rabbi Menachem Nissel):
“World War I was raging in Eastern Europe, extracting a terrible toll on the Jewish population. The Chofetz Chaim felt that special measures were needed.
“On a designated day, the Chofetz Chaim requested that the men should leave the main shul of each town and let the women take over. He wanted to unleash to power of the ‘big guns’ of prayer, the nashim tsidkanios, the righteous women.*
“Rav Moshe’s father, Rav Yitzchok Meir ztz”l, was a young boy at the time, living in the city of Brisk. He was eager to see what the women would do when the men left. So he snuck (ironically) into the women’s section to watch the women in the main shul below.
“It was an extraordinarily awe-inspiring sight. The women came in, some holding babies, others holding children. One of them opened up the Holy Ark. The shul erupted as they all started screaming and crying to Hashem–in Yiddish. No siddurim. No books of Psalms. Nobody ‘leading a service.’ Each woman formulated her own prayers in her own words, pleading with her creator in her mother tongue.
“They were doing what was natural for them. Doing what they had seen their mothers and grandmothers do with a glorious legacy that goes back to the tears of the Matriarchs.”
When the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, leaving behind 210 years of slavery and suffering, Moses and the Jewish people sang “תִּפֹּל עֲלֵיהֶם אֵימָתָה וָפַחַד” [fear and awe of her fell upon [the nations]]. The nations all around were terrified and in awe of the Jews!
But last week Rabbanit Yemima asked a question. אימתה in the verse meaning “fear of her.”
Fear of her!?
The Zohar explains that, like the Jewish women who prayed in blood-drenched World War I Europe several millennia later, the Jewish women left Egypt holding their babies. Holding their children.
And when the nations beheld the unbelievable sight of these former slaves holding their newborn babies and children born under the painful yoke of Egyptian slavery, the nations of the world felt awe not for the Jewish men, but rather for the Jewish women who had been so strong, so full of faith and determination that they had insisted on becoming pregnant and having babies despite the Shoah that was Egyptian slavery, despite the concentration camp that had been their home for 2 centuries.
The mighty, mind-blowing faith of Jewish women at the darkest moments of Jewish history–from Egyptian slavery to war-torn Europe.
In whose merit, to this day, Am Yisrael Chai.
*You might wonder, as I did, why women were only invited to pray in the main shul on such a rare occasion, if we are the gender that actually prays better and more powerfully. Rabbi Shapiro explains that when women pray on their own, that is closer to the original, primal, true way that Jews used to connect with Hashem. After the sin with the Midyanite woman, Jewish men lost this ability, and now can only pray effectively inside a shul.