A Rabbinic Role Model for Loss and Leadership

By: Ruth Gopin

August 4, 2020

Responding to: Young Women of Faith Leading COVID-19 Response

A Rabbinic Role Model for Loss and Leadership

Bruriah, a second-century scholar, is quoted several times in the Talmud, the foundational text of Jewish law. She was sharp witted and often challenged her husband Rabbi Meir, a renowned Jewish scholar, and other Jewish sages of their generation. The story that strikes me most about her comes at a moment where she is comforting, not challenging, yet still clearly demonstrating profound leadership qualities.

It is related in a midrash, a commentary attached to a piece of biblical text. The text this story is attached to is notable in and of itself. It is from a Proverb that asks “A valiant woman, who can find?” and is part of a longer 22-verse hymn often recited in Jewish households on Friday night to welcome the Shechinah (the “Divine Presence” in the feminine form of Hebrew) and Sabbath Queen. In this midrash, Rabbi Meir and Bruriah’s two sons die on the same Shabbat afternoon. Bruriah calmly covers them with a sheet, and when Rabbi Meir returns from the study hall and asks where his sons are, she first gives him wine to make the blessing of Havdalah, a prayer to separate Shabbat from the weekdays, and dinner. Only then does she slowly reveal the tragedy that has occurred, through a parable about someone who came to lend her something and has now asked that it be returned. She uses this parable to comfort Rabbi Meir; the commentary relates, “When he saw both of them dead and laying upon the bed, he began to cry…at that time, she said to Rabbi Meir, ‘Rabbi, is this not what I told you—do I not need to return the deposit to its Owner?’ He said, ‘“The Lord has given and the Lord has taken; may the name of the Lord be blessed’” (Job 1:21).” Rabbi Chanina said, “With this thing, she consoled him and his mind became composed—that is why it states, ‘A valiant woman, who can find’” (Midrash Mishlei 31).

This story came to mind in response to a question raised by Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka during a Berkley Center webinar on “Young Women of Faith and Transformative Leadership in COVID-19 Response.” She challenged us, as women of faith, to think about how we can figure out the ministry of consoling those who are in grief at this time. I’ve been thinking about this challenge in the face of so much loss and trauma from COVID-19, systemic racism, and climate catastrophes. I observed Tisha B’Av during this period, an annual fast day of Jewish mourning. Once per year we sit with the grief and sorrow of thousands of years’ worth of loss. Then we move forward. To me, this has always felt like a powerful solution to the ever-present balancing act for many who have faced enormous loss and trauma, individually or as part of a group. It is a way to mourn, genuinely and fully, and to remember the scars that can never fully heal. But then to get up and do the work of healing as best we can. 

What is most striking to me about the story of Bruriah and her sons’ deaths are the many attributes she demonstrates in that awful afternoon: calm, comforting, and caring, but also smart and strong willed. She maintains her composure in the face of tragic loss and turns her mind towards how she can communicate the news to her husband in a way that will allow him to process the grief in a healthy way. It reminded me of modern female leaders who have taken the helm in confronting a global pandemic with visible success. Jacinda Ardern has led New Zealand to largely eradicate the coronavirus; Angela Merkel has led Germany to a far lower death rate than other Western European countries; and Tsai Ing-wen, the president of Taiwan, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the virus. And it does seem to be part of a larger trend: Countries with women in leadership have suffered six times fewer confirmed deaths from COVID-19 than countries with governments led by men. The sample size is small and correlation is not causation, but many have speculated about whether these high-profile examples of life-saving leadership will change the way we think about stereotypical leadership narratives. 

This came up during the June 30 webinar as well, with Naomi Woyengu pointing out that “in the traditional definition of leadership we are told to be strong, to be aggressive, and to be bold.” A better and newer definition of leadership would include “someone who's compassionate, someone who has empathy, someone who can connect well with people and provide that space of inclusivity.” Be it through the story of a woman of faith from the second century who demonstrated her compassion and resolve in the face of tragedy, or modern examples of strong female role models confronting the grief of the world today, I share the hope that this will prove to be a true turning point in our narrative of leadership.

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