Exodus 18 – 20
Anshei and Eishet Chayil: Resourceful Men and Women
Parshat Yitro is not a particularly long parsha. It’s three small chapters, but it only really has two major themes to it. The first is the set-up and delivery of Moses’ father-in-law’s advice as to how to govern. (see Parshat Yitro 2012) The second part is the set-up and delivery of the Ten Commandments episode.
I want us to take a look at the first part of this story this week. In it we are told that Yitro advises Moses that what he needs to do more that just be the representative of the people before G-d, bringing all their issues before Him. Moses needs to also delegate and deputize people under him to help establish law and order. We read the following statement being made to him:
“Moreover you shall select from all the people
men of valor who fear G-d,
men of truth who hate gain.
And you shall place over them
leaders of thousands,
leaders of hundreds,
leaders of fifties
and leaders of tens.”
| Ve’atah techezeh mikol-ha’am
| anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim
| anshei emet son’ei vatza
| vesamta alehem
| sarei alafim
| sarei me’ot
| sarei chamishim
| vesarei asarot.
Moses is told that he needs to establish a chain of command under him. Leaders are appointed over certain sectors of the population. Some leaders only in charge of as little as ten people, then there are people above them that supervise a larger population of say fifty, another to supervise one hundred, and then authorities continue in like fashion until they represent thousands of people as magistrates. At the top of this leadership was Moses as a final office holder in this structure of appellate courts. But Moses function would be to advocate for them, not just before G-d but “mul Elohim / against G-d.” Thats what it means by he shall bring their cases unto G-d. He represents them as an advocate for the people. (Exodus 18:19)
There are two sets of qualities mandated for the people who are to be judges and magistrates under Moses. First is for them to be “anshei-chayil yir’ei Elohim / men of valor who fear G-d.” Second is for them to be “anshei emet son’ei vatza / men of truth who hate gain.”
The second of the qualities hardly needs explaining when we are talking about appointing judges and authorities. They should be men who are honest, people who hate “vatza / profit.” People who are not concerned with amassing money. Most often this term vatza comes with more than just a connotation of greed, but the idea that one gains profit from dishonest dealings. In 1 Samuel 8:3 we see this shown to be on the level of bribe taking. Instead these judges should be honest men, who can’t be bought off.
In this same vein as this it should make sense for us to understand the term “anshei-chayil / men of valor,” to mean men who aren’t afraid of doing what is right. Men who can’t be intimidated or bought through bribes or blackmail.
Normally when we think of the word chayil we think of someone being brave, like a soldier. This is very fitting because this word variant can be used to describe people as individual fighters (chayal, soldier; chayalim, soldiers), but also a unit of men called a chayil can also mean an army (see Isaiah 36:2, 2 Kings 18:17). Earlier in this book of Exodus we even explicitly see the forces of Pharoah that got destroyed in the sea called “l’chol chayil Paroh / the whole army of Pharoah.” (see Exodus 14:28)
If we think along these lines we should understand that a person that is called to be a leader needs to be a valiant and fearless person, not necessarily that he is combative. We are talking about a brave man who is not afraid to fight the good fight. This is what it means in essence to be a “ben chayil,” or as we would say a mighty man. (see 1 Samuel 14:52, also used in the plural “bnei chayil / men of valor” in Deut. 3:18). It is their bravery and strength that we are considering when we used this term. We are describing their character more than categorizing their profession.
The fact is that in order for one to be able to resist the pressure of bribes or intimidation that is often levied against those in authority one needs to be a very brave person. One must to be fearless. But surely it’s not their combative nature that is sought here. I can say this with some certainty because when most of us religious people think of the term chayil we don’t think of bnei chayil. No instead we think of an “eishet chayil / a woman of valor.” (see Proverbs 31:10, Proverbs 12:4) And no one wants a combative woman, don’t just take my words for it, the scriptures even attest to this, “Do not give you strength (chaylecha) unto women, nor your ways which obliterates kings.” (Proverbs 31:3) No offense to women soldiers, but the ideal of a womanhood is not to be warring brute. I don’t think it is any different for us men though.
I say the ideal character for a woman, because the way that most of us know the term chayil is through one of the aforementioned examples of the term Eishet Chayil where it is a virtue. Every Shabbat evening in religious homes it is the custom for the family to gather around the table and for all to sing from Proverbs 31 before Kiddush. The family praises the wife and mother of the house as a women of valor (eishet chayil). It is reinforced into us since we are young boys to find this type of woman, and for girls to aspire to be this type of person, “A woman of valor who can find? For her price is above rubies. The heart of her husband does safely trust in her, and he has no lack of abundance.” (Proverbs 31:10-11) A matriarch of a family should be a woman of valor, virtue, strength and substance. In the Eishet Chayil we praise the ideal woman.
Now as we think back to our parsha, and we try applying this type of characteristic to men, that they should be anshei chayil – men of valor – we find that our teacher Rashi also stresses this point of substance. His commentary understands the text as follows:
“Men of substance: (anshei chayil)
wealthy men, [or the bountiful]
one that does not flatter
or show favoritism.”
אנשי חיל: |
שאין צריכין להחניף |
ולהכיר פנים: |
Rashi to Exodus 18:21
Now I must admit that Rashi’s interpretation rubs me the wrong way. I whole-heartedly disagree with his understanding, I don’t think that the rich are any more better suited to govern others. Nor do I necessarily believe that the wealthy are less likely to show favoritism and partiality. That is not how it appears to me, especially in this day and age where the wealthy corporate voices have taken over politics. Especially in a country like America, where it is notorious for people who are major business owners to get special tax incentives and no-bid contracts merely for having financial clout and social connections.
So why does Rashi make this point at all? It is because the word chayil does actually mean substance. And in some cases it means more than just substance of character, it also means to be of monetary substance. During the blessing of the tribes we read of Moses blessing Levi this way, “Hashem Bless his substance (chai’lo) and accept the work of his hands.” (Deut. 33:11) There are several places where chayil clearly means riches (see Isaiah 8:4, 30:6; Genesis 34:29)
Now the reason that Rashi says this is not because he is following some conservative political doctrine that says that people who are bigger money makers show through their wealth that they are wise enough to be in-charge. He is not asking us to ascribe to some type of libertarian view that government should be run like a business and people good at finance should be allowed to be larger decision makers in our society.
His reason is revealed in his commentary for the words “hating monetary gain.” Rashi says therein that a judge should hate to have their own property in litigation. They are not frivolous litigants or quick to sue a person. Or as others understand it, not just that they are not in legal and financial dispute but that they should not owe money to anyone. They should be above reproach financially and be independently wealthy. One is more prone to be honest if they don’t need to gain anything by swaying justice one way or the other.
And sadly for me that is one reason I believe that his point doesn’t necessarily fit our current society. Today the wealthy often placed themselves in charge in order to advocate the gain of their own upper-class. They often come out of the corporate lobbying world prior to holding public office and go right back into it when they leave office. More often these people, because of their familiarity, become crooked as they are just not brave enough to stand up to pressure of their peers or colleagues. They are rarely people whose nature is to hate dishonest gain, people who are already satisfied with their existent wealth. The corruption in our culture tells us this is not true for us today.
I do not believe that to be among the anshei chayil (men of valor) means to be a rich man any more than it I believe that eishet chayil means a “rich woman.” Men and women of wealth are not any more capable than people of modest means. In fact we have one notorious eishet chayil mentioned in the scriptures that was not rich at all, she was a penniless widow that needed to be redeemed by Leverite marriage; Ruth, the grandmother of King David! Notice in Ruth 3:11, of her it is said, “…for all the men of the gate of my people do know that you are a virtuous woman (eishet chayil).”
However it must be said that this word does give us the connotation as a term that can be applied to a certain quality of person, a person that does show great capability. In Genesis 47:6 when Pharoah gives the land of Goshen to Joseph and his family to settle he tells him, “…and if you know of any capable men (anshei chayil) among them, then put them in charge of my livestock.”
And this is most likely what this term “anshei chayil” means. It means men of great capability, of exceptional leadership qualities.
No I don’t believe anshie chayil means rich men any more than eishet chayil means a rich woman. Most certainly I can’t deny that if we use the example of the text of the Eishet Chayil as a comparison, I cannot say with certainty that it cannot be suggested to mean “woman of substance;” meaning that finding a well-off bride is a catch as good as finding rubies. In the biblical era the giving of a dowry was common. It may seem odd to us today that people would pay men to marry their daughters. However we must also understand that women did not have the rights of owning property or making a living outside of the home. Marrying off your daughters was an interesting dance of trying to find the best person to not just be a provider for her but to also take on the inheritable property of the family. Sure, sometimes a man could make out well by marrying a prominent bride, but I don’t think this is what it means.
True, if we look at the Eishet Chayil text in Proverbs 31:10-31 we do see that this woman brings great gains for the husband and the family as a whole. Though if we carefully consider it we find all this is kind of striking because of all we think we know about how generally patriarchal ancient Hebrew society was. It is not the picture of a woman who is too fragile to work, or a lady that is too inept to be in involved in business. She does bring financial gain and prosperity to the home, but in this praise of women of virtue we find a description of a very empowered and capable type of woman. Her contribution of wealth and success is not incidental, it’s not just through happenstance like inheritance. She is said to seek out fabrics and fibers to work into cloth. (v. 13) She is competent at imports and purchasing. (v. 14) She not just feeds the family day and night (v. 15), but she also invests in land and farms it with her own hands (v. 16). She clothes her own family, and cares for the needy of the community. (v. 19-22) She not only makes garments for her family but she also fabricates them and other merchandise to sell for profit. (v. 18; 24) She is not just a passive contributor to her family, she is praiseworthy because of the work of her hands and she reaps the benefits of the fruits of her labor (v. 31) She is so good at business that her husband is said to sit at the gates with the elders of the land, instead of engaging in work he is hearing cases of law and studying Torah in the public square with the rest of the men of status. (v. 23) She is not just a woman of resources, she is resourceful.
If we consider this description of the Eishet Chayil it should not necessarily sound weird to us, especially those of us of haredi backgrounds. Even thought gender roles are notoriously strict in the ultra-orthodox world we still see that this description of an Eishet Chayil actually is quite appropriate for haredim, more so than even for the secular. Quite frankly, it is actually quite common in the haredi world for many men to not seek out a typical profession. Often times when a man marries it is common for the family to not just give seforim (holy books) as gifts but also its quite customary for the family of some brides to subsidize the income for the couple so that the husband can continue to study in a kollel – a yeshiva, a Torah academy for married men. Fervently religious people encourage the husband to get the best Torah learning he can so that he can help raise children knowledgable in it. It is common for the wife to take on work or business in order to help keep the family afloat, in addition to her caring for their daily needs of them all. Even in the “old-world way” women are not just gentle little creatures that mostly sit on their virtues, they are depended on to be strong and resourceful pillars of the home. A mother is nothing if not resourceful. An eishet chayil is very resourceful and capable woman.
Likewise, in the same line of thinking I believe that anshei chayil is better understood to mean capable and resourceful men. It does not just mean brave or valiant men, nor does it just mean that men called to leadership should be people of virtue and substance. I believe it does means one should be bold. But I don’t believe that it has to mean that people need to be wealthy to be in governance, as Rashi suggests. I do believe that it means that these leaders should be people who instead do well for themselves, but primarily because they are resourceful people.
We need to place more capable and resourceful people in leadership. In the defense of the underprivileged and the disadvantaged (like women). More often than not, it is these people which have struggled hardships and societal setbacks, these people are most resourceful in this life. Honestly, most of us can’t think of a person more resourceful than our own sweet mothers who always did what it took for us to get by. This is something that men can learn a lot from their female counterparts about.
In an ideal world we would have more women that strive to be an eishet chayil so that we can have more men learn to also be among the anshei chayil.
- Parshat Yitro (2012) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)
- Parshat Shoftim (2011) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)