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Wisdom of the Heart: The Jewish Mother

by Rabbi Eliezer Gurkow

  

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"And every wise hearted woman spun with her hands, and they brought spun material: blue, purple, and crimson wool, and linen..." -Exodus 22:25.

She was there for us at the very beginning, and she is there for us still. She was there at times of elation and was there in times of distress. She was there in times of hope and is still there in times of despair. She nurtured our faith under the Inquisition and our strength during the Pogroms. She held our hands in the gas chambers and holds our hands still. She, is our yiddishe mama – our Jewish mother.

The Matriarchs

I wasn't there when Ishmael threatened to take Isaac's life, but if I were, I don't think I could have stood up to him with the same determination that Sarah did.1 I wasn't there when Isaac proposed to bestow his blessing upon Esau, but if I were, I doubt I would find the courage to do what Rebecca did and insert Jacob as a substitute.2

And would I have equaled Rachel's sacrifice, when she selflessly forfeited her sacred right to be interred beside her husband in the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in Hebron? She chose to be buried in Bethlehem instead, for the sake of her children. When, more than a thousand years later, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, they passed through Bethlehem and paused at their mother's tomb to pray. Rachel, who had awaited this moment for centuries, stormed the gates of heaven and shed bitter tears. G-d granted her prayers and promised that the exile would end after seventy years. If not for Rachel's sacrifice, the Babylonian exile may not have ended so quickly; our nation may not have survived.3

Where did these Jewish mothers find the courage? I don't know because I'm not one of them, but ask your mother and I'm sure she'll gladly tell you. When a need arises, the Jewish mother simply responds.

Sarah didn't worry about standing up to the violent Ishmael; her son's safety was at stake. Had Ishmael accomplished then what his descendants have tried to accomplish since, we would not be here today. Rebecca didn't fear Esau's wrath, the future of her children was at stake. Had Jacob not received those blessings there may not have been a Jewish people today. Rachel's children were in need and she never hesitated. Her concern was not for herself, but for her children.

In Egypt

The future of their people was at stake. Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male newborns be put to death. At hearing this news, Jewish men despaired and refused to procreate, but their wives wouldn't hear of it. These women were by nature chaste and demure, but the future of their people was at risk. Contrary to their natures, they ventured out to the fields and seduced their working husbands homeward.

When they felt the pangs of labor, they returned to the fields, away from prying eyes and gave birth to their children. The mothers then returned home; leaving their infants behind and entrusting their survival to G-d. G-d nurtured these children lovingly and brought them home when they matured.

They believed with perfect faith that G-d would not abandon them. G-d had promised Jacob that his children would be redeemed from Egypt and the Jewish mothers fought to give G-d that chance.4

To ensure the success of his decree against Jewish children, Pharaoh instructed the Jewish midwives to commit infanticide. These midwives never even entertained the idea and saved countless lives at grave personal risk.5

When Amram, father of Moses, who despaired of having more children, he divorced his wife, Jocheved. He later remarried her at the urging of his six year old daughter, Miriam. Pharaoh's decree, Miriam challenged her father, threatened only the male newborns, divorce ensures the complete extinction of our nation. When Moses was born, it was Miriam who gave the people new hope, when she prophesied that the baby would grow up to become the redeemer of Israel.6

Footnotes

  • 1. Tosefta, Sotah, ch. 6. See also Rashi on Genesis 21:9-10. Ishmael taunted Isaac about the inheritance, claiming that as firstborn he was entitled to a double portion. When Isaac balked at the concubine's son claiming title of first born, Ishmael shot arrows his way. Our sages taught that Ishmael engaged in murder, idolatry and adultery. Sarah hastened to remove this negative influence from her son, Isaac.
  • 2. nesis 27:1-15. Rebecca risked not only her physical safety, but also her spiritual safety. When Jacob worried that Isaac might be upset if he discovered his duplicity, Rebecca, assured Jacob that she would assume whatever curse his father might bestow on him. Ibid, verse 13.
  • 3. Rashi on Genesis 28:7. Though Rashi mentions only that Jacob did this according to divine instruction, see Likutei Sichos v. XXX, p. 238, that Rachel demanded this as well. See also Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 82:10. For the general description of this story see Jeremiah 31:14 - 16 and Pesichte d'Eicha Rabsi, 24. What happened on the night of her wedding was another incredible demonstration of Rachel's piety. Rachel was meant to marry Jacob, but her father placed Leah under the canopy instead. Rachel and Jacob arranged a private code to protect themselves against precisely such duplicity, but Rachel, at the last moment, surrendered this code to her sister (Talmud, Megillah, 13b). She allowed the night of her dreams to become her worst nightmare, all to protect her sister's honor. (see Pesichte d'Eicha Rabsi, 24).
  • 4. See Rashi on Exodus 38:8. and Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 23:8.
  • 5. Exodus 1:16-21.
  • 6. Rashi on Exodus 2:1. See Talmud, Sotah 13a and Mechilta on Exodus 15:20.

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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Sarah
First Jewess, first of the four Jewish Matriarchs, wife of Abraham--the first Jew. Lived in Mesopotamia, and then Canaan, in the 19th century BCE.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Isaac
Second of the three Jewish Patriarchs, son of Abraham and Sarah. Lived in Canaan (Israel); b. 1712 BCE, d. 1532 BCE.
Esau
Rogue son of Patriarch Isaac and Matriarch Rebecca. Elder twin of Patriarch Jacob.
Rebecca
Second of the Jewish Matriarchs. Wife of the Patriarch Isaac, and father of Jacob. b. 1675 BCE, d. 1553 BCE.
Aaron
Brother of Moses. First High Priest of Israel and progenitor of all Kohanim (priests) until this very day. Died in the year 1272 b.c.e.
Rachel
Third of the four Jewish matriarchs. Daughter of Laban, favorite wife of Patriarch Jacob, and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Died while giving birth to Benjamin in 1557 BCE.
Ishmael
Son of the Patriarch Abraham and half-brother of Patriarch Isaac. Ancestor of many Arab tribes.
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Miriam
Older sister of Moses and Aaron, and a prophetess in her own right.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.