Today was time once again for one of my favorite annual classroom rituals – watching the shift in my students’ expressions as I offer my approach to Shelo Asani Isha: the boys’ from confident to indignant; the girls ever more gleeful as they realize where my explanation is headed.
We find ourselves in this position right around this time every year, as our 6th Grade Tefillah Seminar reaches Birchot Hashachar. This year I asked them to pair up and choose, collaboratively, one Beracha which they find particularly relevant, one which they find less relevant, and one that just plain confuses them. Whatever you think about the Beracha, Shelo Asani Isha is bound to make it onto anyone’s Confused list, and my students were no exception.
In the end, though, it is always the boys who are left wanting for affirmation by the Beracha, not the girls. Of course the three-Beracha set which has Shelo Asani Isha at its end displays a progression of Mitzvot, from the seven that non-Jews are required to fulfill to the majority that each of the other two categories (servants and women) are asked of by the Torah. But I posed the following question to my young charges: what defining characteristic pervades all of the Mitzvot which women cannot do? Brit Millah. Tzitzit. Tefillin. Yarmulka. I suggested that the common theme is constant reminders of Hashem – head-to-toe, all the time. If you made a world, I asked, would you want your creations to need constant reminders that you had created them? You might rightfully expect this recognition to be a given. Yet men have an innate deficiency which requires them to be reminded constantly of Hashem’s presence. This further explain women’s Beracha of She’asani Kirtzono – women were made to feel Hashem’s presence in their lives without the need to be constantly tapped on the shoulder (and most other parts of our bodies) and reminded yet again that, yes, Hashem made the world.
A student challenged me with the concept of Mitzvot Asei She’hazman Gerama – why, specifically, would women be exempt from positive, time-bound Mitzvot more than from any other, on the basis of the principle just developed? I responded that that is just the point – the need for deadlines obfuscates the ideal of innately remembering and recognizing Hashem’s presence in our lives. Suppose I assigned a Paper, but gave no clear deadline – the implication would be that I trust the students to complete it even without a deadline, because the innate desire to complete the assignment would drive the student as much as (or more so than) a deadline’s having been imposed on them. The need to do Mitzvot at (or by) specific times is a tacit indictment of men’s unlikelihood of completing them otherwise. Women can be trusted to Daven at a time that is innately meaningful to them, at a moment that they truly desire to rekindle the relationship with Hashem. Men need a deadline because without one, that moment would likely never come.
In truth, although I did not say so this morning, this point can be arrived at via another route. In the progression of Mitzvot implied by the threesome of people mentioned in the Berachot, servants and women each have the same number of Mitzvot – all except Mitzvot Asei She’hazman Gerama! This being the case, there is no apparent reason to mention both people in our Berachot – that is, if the point is just to mention numbers of Mitzvot. But that is not (exclusively) the point. The exclusion from positive, time-bound Mitzvot by women may be quantitatively equal to that of servants, but qualitatively it is quite different. The exclusion for servants is based on practical considerations – they are in no position to fulfill these Mitzvot because they are in a permanent state of indebtedness to their employer, which employment supersedes their ability to do those very time-bound Mitzvot. For women, as we have defined the exclusion, these Mitzvot are not necessary in order to create the fundamental connection to Hashem which those Mitzvot would, for a man, create. The most immediately accessible nafka minah (practical difference) is that a male servant who was freed and then converted would be obligated in all of the Mitzvot, whereas a woman could never fully become obligated in them (although, in many cases, she can choose to accept them upon herself). This further explains why both categories – servants and women – need to be mentioned in the Berachot.
In any event, that is my p’shat on Shelo Asani Isha, unsatisfying as it tends to be for the boys – and, while we’re at it, our first window into my classroom. Welcome! : )