During my formative years, I heard more than a few sermons that put the Proverbs 31 woman on a pedestal as the ideal Christian wife/mother. But none of them relayed that in Judaism, this scripture it is a song of praise memorized by men – not a list of expectations taught to women. The Hebrew phrase for the P31 woman, eshet chayil (e-shet hi-yil) , is best translated, “valorous woman.” This ancient poem takes everyday acts and praises them as valorous.
Shortly after learning this, my husband surprised me with a poem titled, “To my P31 Woman,” which was long and included lines like:
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 effort to modernize (and personalize) this section of ancient scripture meant a great deal to me. His words were proof he knew 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.
This is my now 95-year-old grandmother with my late grandfather.
Cancer made her a widow when she about my age. She raised four children on her own – on a history teacher’s salary. Now 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 goodnight 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 her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren do ‘rise up and call her blessed’ (Proverbs 31:28). 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, Mom! 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 mother. She is lucky to have you.” They usually deflect the recognition with things like, “I’m the lucky one to have had her as a mother.” But more often than not – their eyes shine when they say thank you.
- When the goal of gently ushering someone from this life has been accomplished, fellow mourners will usually praise a caregiver’s service. But 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!