Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Shelo Asani Isha
(Painting by Yefim Rudminsky)
Baruch Hashem, my third daughter (and seventh child) was born erev Shabbos Nachamu – may she grow to Torah, chuppa, umaasim tovim amid happiness & good health; needless to say, we are ecstatic! This event brought about the usual referendum on gender, just as the prior births in our family. With balance of power, room sharing and other concerns in mind, some of my children wanted a boy and others wanted a girl. My eldest daughter was disappointed (as the leader of the "I hope it's a boy" camp), but I had been rooting for a girl all along - something that the nurse at the hospital found surprising and unusual.
Perhaps the reason people might think that it's "unusual" for a religious man to want a baby girl has something to do with a stereotype that Judaism is male-centric, patriarchal, and chauvinistic. The commonly cited proof for this is the daily brocha of "Shelo Asani Isha" (Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, Master of the world, who did not create me a Woman). Obviously, this brocha sounds a bit shocking in contemporary society with our modern sensitivities, but I really think that things like this are easily misunderstood due to various preconceived notions.
This brocha is one of three such brochos in birchas hashachar which is to thank G-d for not creating us as something else: a slave, a gentile, or a woman.* The most common explanation given for this is that the brochos are based on thanking G-d for the mitzvos that He gave us as a method of connecting to Him. Thus, in appreciation of those mitzvos, Jewish free men thank G-d for giving them the maximum amount, as opposed to the gentile, slave, or woman - each of which have fewer mitzvos.
Now, there is nothing wrong with that approach, but it can be a little hard (for me) to relate to in those terms, so – although the change may be only slight – I understand it somewhat differently. When I analyze the three creations which are the subjects of these brochos, it appears to me that the central unifying theme between the gentile, slave, or woman is that they have fewer demands and lesser responsibilities.
Why then should I say a brocha for having additional responsibilities?
Responsibility can be a burden, and it is easy to fall prey to the trap of seeking a way out of responsibility. The responsibilities of the religious, free, Jewish male are indeed significant and limit our participation in many areas. Everything from grocery shopping to choice of profession comes with numerous limitations. A man is obligated to learn Torah in all "free time," must daven three times a day with a minyan, teach his children Torah, and provide his wife with whatever material & emotional support she needs. So the brochos reflect the escalating halachic responsibilities from gentile to slave to man. If we appreciate those responsibilities we can succeed in our role, which is why we say the brocha – to remind us of this. Whereas, should we seek to run from those responsibilities, failure is all but guaranteed.
To illustrate my point, I am reminded of the mini-scandal, a few years ago, when Tom Brokaw was lambasted for an insensitive remark during a morning news program. It seems that he was in his limo on the way to the station in the dark and very early morning, and passing unfortunate NY homeless people asleep in that predawn hour he couldn't help but reflect: "I saw the homeless people in the shelters and the park benches; You feel great sympathy for them, but you also envy the extra sleep that they're getting." In essence he was expressing a bit of the resentment that we may harbor towards responsibility. But this is something we must overcome; if we don't take responsibilities as important we won't fulfill them properly. When we are given responsibility we need to view that as a positive – as Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."
So, every morning, before I begin my day, I am to remember that these brochos are specifically for my responsibilities. If I shirk them, and don't fulfill my role, more than just my single note will be missing from the symphony. Although it can be perceived as a burden, it is a burden G-d gave me because He wants me to rise to the task. Ultimately, these brochos are not meant as a slight to gentiles, slaves, or women – they are about preparation for heavy lifting.
*I didn't want to get sidetracked, but as to why the brochos are worded in the negative rather than the positive, Chazal explain that this is due to "tov l'adam shelo nivra mishenivra – man would have been better off not born."