This week’s parsha poem, Eshet Chayil: 5777, is not actually about the parsha, but the 22-line passage from the Book of Proverbs, known as Eshet Chayil or Woman of Valor. In many Jewish homes, including my own, families sing Eshet Chayil on Friday night just before chanting the kiddush. It is, essentially, a list of all the daily tasks a wife and mother performs on behalf of her husband and children and the rewards to which she is entitled for her devotions. At first look, Eshet Chayil can be seen as a lovely way for a family to regularly praise and thank a wife/mother for her never ending efforts to ensure the family’s physical and emotional well-being.
But, a more critical reading might lead one to conclude that the underlying theme is patronizing to women, even insulting, inasmuch as it assumes of the wife/mother a kind of perfection that is unattainable. About the only thing that the Superwoman described in Eshet Chayil can’t do, is fly faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Moreover, it presupposes that to be an eshet chayil, a woman must be a wife and mother. But what of women who are single, widowed, choose not to have children or are unable to have children? What of a woman who is gay? And of the perfection expected of the eshet chayil; why is there no similar expectation of her husband? In fact, one of the benefits her husband gets from the diligent labors of his valorous wife is recognition from the elders of the land; though he’s done nothing to warrant such honor. As for the eshet chayil, the elders extend no appreciation to her.
It’s probably not for me, or any man, to pontificate whether Eshet Chayil is an anti-feminist text. But, no one could blame the eshet chayil were she to change the locks while her husband was off partying with the elders of the land. What I can say, though, is the ancient words are not at all reflective of the reality of life in the Silverman home. So, to remedy this, I’ve written a personal treatment of Eshet Chayil that better captures our family dynamic. I did try to preserve the spirit of the original; specifically, to describe various qualities of a valorous woman and how such a woman shall be rewarded.
I hope the poem resonates with you, but it’s necessarily limited; inasmuch as it’s rooted in my own experience. And I truly believe that a comprehensive, modern-day list of the qualities that make a woman valorous, is so extensive and diverse that it would take a dozen poems to capture them all.
A note about style. The original is written in acrostic form, each line beginning with one of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. I rejected this form because, writing in English, I’d eventually have to face Q and X, which any poet will tell you are are acrostic-killers.
Eshet Chayil: 5777
A woman of valor, who can find,
rarer than precious pearls?
Perhaps she’s driving carpool.
Or cooking for Shabbat.
Her children are her greatest pride,
the center of her life.
Her husband’s lost without her.
Lost in deep confusion.
Her days are filled with endless tasks,
but no task overwhelms.
And though she tires from her work,
she does not show how tired.
She cooks their meals every day,
but no one cooks for her.
Sometimes all she really wants,
is just to take a nap.
Her husband doesn’t always know,
the things he ought to do.
She picks his clothes up off the floor,
as if he is a child.
A household must be managed,
but she is not the maid!
One day she hopes they’ll understand.
Her efforts come from love.
Clothed in grace and blue jeans,
with joy she meets each day.
She plants a garden in the yard.
She loves the color green.
Her words are words of wisdom,
on which her friends rely.
Her husband doesn’t listen,
though it would do him good.
But her patience has no boundaries.
She knows that he means well.
She only sees the best in him
and helps him in his need.
They all expect perfection.
She expects it of herself.
But perfection’s found in God alone.
And, yet, she still aspires.
Her husband receives praises,
from the elders of the land.
They do not even see her,
as if she isn’t there.
And though she is resentful,
and though she wants her due.
She knows the time will surely come
when the elders are her girls.
The woman of valor has earned her praise.
Her deeds worth more than pearls.
Let her husband drive the carpool.
Let the elders serve her cholent.