Ladies First

Ladies First

Even in this day and age, most women graciously accept the traditional"ladies first" rule, whether it's getting off a sinking ship or going through a ballroom doorway. Commonly perceived as a concession to the weaker sex by the stronger, the rule is actually founded upon a very different rationale, at least in the Jewish tradition.

When G-d instructed Moses to prepare the people of Israel to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai some 3,313 years ago, He said: "Speak to the house of Jacob, and tell the sons of Israel" (Exodus 19:3). The "house of Jacob," our sages explain, are the women; "the sons of Israel," the men. In other words, speak first with the ladies.

Up until that point, the rule was "men first". Adam, as we all know, was created before Eve. Noah and his sons entered the ark first, followed by their wives -- at least that's the order they're listed in Genesis 7:13 (a "sinking ship" situation in the reverse, if you will). When Jacob traveled with his family, the males rode up front and the womenfolk behind them (Genesis 31:17) while Esau placed the women before the men (ibid. 36:6); the sages make note of this difference and see it as an indication of Jacob's moral superiority over his hedonistic brother.

So why did G-d give the Torah first to the women? The Midrash offers several explanations. For one thing, women are more religious than men (turns out that certain things haven't changed in all those centuries); get them to agree to accept the Torah, and the men will fall in line, too (another thing that hasn't changed). According to Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea, it's the other way around--the women are the rebellious ones, so they have to be won over first: "G-d said to Himself: When I created the world, I commanded Adam first, and only then Eve was commanded, with the result that she transgressed and upset the world. If I do not now call upon the women first, they will nullify the Torah."

Chassidic teaching delves deeper and finds the explanation in the essence of manliness and womanliness. Man derives from the "line of light" (kav) that penetrates the vacuum (makom panui) formed by G-d in which to create the world. But it turns out the that the makom panui is not an absolute "vacuum" -- a residue of divine light remained behind, forming an invisible ether of G-dliness that pervades and underlies our existence. It is from this "residue" that the female component of creation derives.

So man is an actor, a conqueror; his role in creation is to banish the earthly darkness and bring down light from the heavens. Woman is a nurturer, relating to what is rather than what must be done, finding G-dliness within the world rather than importing it from without.

Both are integral to the Creator's plan: our mission in life is to bring G-d into the world (the male role) and to make the world a home for G-d (the woman's specialty); to vanquish darkness (male), and to uncover the light implicit within the darkness (female).

For the first twenty-four centuries of history, humanity had its hands full battling darkness. So the male component dominated. But then came the day when G-d, yearning for the home He desired when He made the world, prepared to reveal Himself on a mountaintop in the Sinai Desert and transmit to His chosen people a Torah outlining the plans for His home's construction. Man will still have to do battle, but all his battles will henceforth be founded upon the principle that, underneath it all, the world is a G-dly place.

Time to have a word with the ladies, said G-d to Moses. 

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