I “met” Rachel Held Evans through her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. In it, she chronicles the year of her life she spent trying to LITERALLY live out the passages of the Bible directed at women. She spent a month trying to BE the woman described in Proverbs 31. She ‘rose while it was still night’ (Proverbs 31:15a) and made herself a ‘purple garment’ to wear (verse 22). She taught me the Hebrew phrase for the Proverbs 31 woman: eshet chayil (e-shet hi-yil) – which is best translated, “valorous woman.”
During her year of literalism, Rachel found friendship with an orthodox rabbi’s wife, Ahava. In an email exchange, Ahava wrote to Rachel:
“Christians seem to think that because the Bible is inspired, all of it should be taken literally. Jews don’t do this. Even though we take the Torah literally (all 613 commandments!), the rest is seen differently, as a way of understanding our Creator, rather than direct commands. Take Proverbs 31, for example. I get called an eshet chayil (a valorous woman) all the time. Make your own challah instead of buying? Eshet chayil! Work to earn some extra money for the family? Eshet chayil!…Every week at the Shabbat table my husband sings the Proverbs 31 poem to me…he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and creativity.”
This was revolutionary for me. The Proverbs 31 woman was put on a pedestal as the ideal incarnation of the Christian woman/wife in my formative years. In all the mentions I had heard of Proverbs 31, no one had ever relayed that in Judaism, it is a song of praise memorized by men – not a list of expectations taught to women. Proverbs 31 takes small acts – most of which all on their own would not be considered valorous – and praises them.
I shared some of this with my husband and read parts of Rachel’s book out loud to him. Shortly thereafter he surprised me with a poem titled, “To My P31 Woman,” which included lines like:
An excellent wife, I have found her
Her worth is far above any jewelry (that I have never bought her)
She takes food from Plated
And makes exotic meals
She considers goods on Amazon
And clothes my children
She stretches out her hand to the sick
And listens to them, and cries with them, and cares for them
And sometimes gives them bus money
His words meant a great deal to me. They were proof he has seen my efforts to become a better cook with Plated (boxes of ready-to-prepare gourmet meals with fresh ingredients). He noticed that Amazon helps me keep lightbulbs lit and tissue boxes in tissue holders. He earned bonus points for knowing that our children’s clothes don’t magically appear! And even if no one else does, he sees how much I care about my patients. That is the point of Proverbs 31 – to see the valor in the day-to-day. (‘An excellent husband I have found him!’)
This is my grandmother with my grandfather.
Cancer made her a widow when she was only a little older than me. She raised four children on her own – on a history teacher’s salary. That is valorous. But there was a tenacious valor in the everydayness of heaping loads of laundry washed, brown bags of groceries paid for and put away, and dishes done (by hand). There was valor in fighting heavy lids while grading papers after saying good-night to four children.
About Proverbs 31, Rachel Held Evans wrote, “the structure and diction employed in the poem closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior.” I think of my grandmother as heroic, but I doubt she received much recognition for her warrior strength when she was in the thick of it – the day-to-day battle of life after loss. I can attest that now – her children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren), do rise up and call her blessed (Proverbs 31:28a). But I suspect, on an ordinary day 50-or-so years ago, it would have meant a great deal to her to hear:
“Eshet chayil! You are teaching your children about soldiering through the valley of the shadow of death. You are showing them that sometimes love looks like hard work – like getting up and doing it all again tomorrow. And every circle and slash of red ink on your students’ papers is important in your battle to teach them about our nation’s history. You are winning! They are learning! I see it – and the work you are doing is valorous.”
My now 95-year-old grandmother has had Alzheimer’s disease for the better part of a decade. My mother has assumed much of her day-to-day care and she is doing it with valor. She leads the march north, south, east and west to Grandma Freda’s doctor, dental, eye, hair, and hearing-aid appointments. Every day my grandmother’s disease tries to rob her of her dignity – and every patiently repeated reply to every endlessly repeated question is my mother fighting to help her hold on to it.
My mom is also resolutely guarding my grandmother’s joy in the moment. She takes her to restaurants and out for ice cream and to see Lake Michigan (regardless of the season) because she knows that my grandma’s happiness in those moments is a small victory over the thief that will steal her memory of it.
Valor is not an absence of fear. No – valor is bravely answering every late night ring of the phone knowing it might be the call that signals the fight is over.
Eshet chayil, Momma! Even though you will not win the war against this disease, you are defending Grandma’s joy and dignity with valor. Eshet chayil!
I see many patients like my grandmother in the ER. They come in with increased confusion, decreased responsiveness, weight loss and failure to thrive. They are often accompanied by concerned adult children doing the hard praise-less work of meals and bathing. I tell them, “You are doing a good job of caring for your father. He is lucky to have you.” They usually deflect the recognition with things like, “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” or “I’m the lucky one to have had him for a father.” But more often than not – their eyes are moist when they say, “Thank you.”
- When the goal of gently ushering someone from this life has been accomplished, fellow mourners will usually praise the caregivers’ service. But the the meals prepared, letters opened and bills paid today are an act of valor.
- A retiring nurse will always be praised for her 20+ years of service, but her compassionate care of a difficult patient today is an act of valor.
- A single mom will often be praised when her child graduates from high school or college or does something great – but her devotion to help with homework today (on top of everything else) is an act of valor.
Every day we all witness acts that take guts and determination. We bear witness to true grit. We see people do simple tasks with moxie. Proverbs 31 is about praising those everyday acts of valor.
Rachel Held Evans (woman of valor that she is) started using the words, “eshet chayil” to commend the women around her. And it caught on. Her friends and readers started using it to cheer, praise and affirm one another. Rachel writes, “Never before had I considered how many acts of raw bravery occur every day in the lives of women…the woman described in Proverbs 31 is not some ideal that exists out there; she is present in each one of us when we do even the smallest things with valor.”
There is a common saying:
Strong women: may we know them, may we raise them, may we be them.
Women of valor: May we know them, may we praise them, may we be them, may we raise them!
May you praise the acts of valor you see – and encourage the women of valor you know. And should you choose to share this article, please do so with some words of praise for the valorous women in your life. #eshetchayil!
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