International Women’s Day is a good time to celebrate what religious Jewish women have achieved, and at the same time think about the next steps in women’s overall fulfillment and happiness. Writing from Israel, I know Religious Zionist women who are accomplished judges, members of Knesset, activists, journalists and of course, growing numbers of female Torah scholars. These talented women are succeeding at work in addition to being actively involved mothers, wives and daughters, with all of the challenges that come along with family life. Then there is the common expectation for women to volunteer their time in their local schools and communities. All together, the expectations placed on women (often by ourselves) can be overwhelming. International Women’s Day is a good day to consider the pressure many women feel to keep juggling all of these roles, sometimes at the cost of their own well-being.
Giving to others is a significant Jewish value, often identified with women. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudei, highlights the unique trait of volunteering associated with the women of Israel. The Torah emphasizes the women’s enthusiasm for generous giving to build the mishkan when it states: “The men came with the women.” (Shemot 35:22) Several biblical commentaries explain that the men came to donate at the women’s urging (as opposed to the episode of the golden calf where the midrash teaches that the men wanted to donate but the women refused). Chesed and tzedaka are central aspects of Judaism and part of what makes Jewish communities so special. But while we strive to do good, we should also take time to check on ourselves, to see not only what we have to give, but also what we might need.
Jewish sources also teach us to take time out to care for ourselves, our physical bodies. The book of Devarim commands us to “guard our souls well,” understood as referring to taking care of our physical bodies. In one rabbinic story, Hillel hazaken was asked by his students after class where he was going, and he replied “to perform a mitzvah.” When further pressed, Hillel told them he was going to the bathhouse, teaching that it is important to care for our bodies, since we were created in the image of God. Maimonides discusses the importance of caring for our bodies in Hilchot Deot, where he writes, “maintaining a healthy and sound body is among the ways of God,” and gives guidelines on how to eat and drink in moderation and sleep enough. For women who observe niddah, preparing for the mikveh can provide a natural opportunity to relax, pamper oneself and re-focus on the relationship with your spouse.
As women, we want to follow in the footsteps of the biblical women who donated to the mishkan as well as model giving for our children. Giving to others cannot be at the expense of our own needs; we need to be self aware enough to say no when we are overstretched, do away with feeling inadequate or guilty if we cannot extend to other, and make sure we maintain the time to care for our own well-being. While we care for others and the community-at-large, we have to make sure that we provide self care and nurturing – be it through exercise, spending time with friends, insisting on healthy food or just resting. International Women’s Day is a good time for us to check in with ourselves and the women we know, to help find balance between doing for others and doing for ourselves. As Hillel famously also said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”