Category Archives: family life

Missing Our Mothers

Reading the stories of Genesis can make us miss our mothers – mothers who cradle us, cuddle us, and cry for us.

I exclude Sarah, who hardly even talks to Isaac. Rebecca ranks higher, however, loving Jacob enough to pass him off to Isaac as her first-born and then assuaging Jacob’s guilt over the deceit by assuring him (27:13), “Your curse be on me. Just do as I say.”

Imagine, then, Jacob’s shock when he hears of Rebecca’s death, miles away, and many years past the time he last laid eyes on her. Yet her death is never mentioned in Torah! We are to infer it, says the midrash, from a laconic reference (35:8) to the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah. “Why record the demise of this practically unknown woman?”  commentators ask, if not to allude to a parallel death in Jacob’s life, his mother’s, too painful for Torah to acknowledge directly.

Esau’s version of his mother runs much differently, of course, so my personal award for motherhood goes to Rachel. Her mothering, alas, ends tragically and prematurely. Her first son, Joseph, is enslaved by brothers who manufacture reports of his death. When, later, she bears Benjamin, she dies in childbirth. Plagued by infertility, Rachel has just two sons: one who disappears and one she never knows.

Jacob buries her on the spot and marks her resting place for all time (35:20).

What Rachel lacked in life she gets in death, however, for tradition makes us all the children of Rachel, our quintessential mother. Jeremiah (31:15) enlarges the love unspent on Joseph and Benjamin to include the exiles who will pass her grave on their way to Babylonian captivity. “A cry is heard in Ramah — Rachel weeping for her children,” he insists. She awaits their return we are told; and there she remains, crying for us as well, for we too are in a kind of exile.

Our exile is from the world we once knew as certain, safe and sound: an innocent America, unquestionably on the side of right; where we went to school, worked hard, settled down, and got ahead. We lived close to family; knew our neighbors names; got the same nightly TV news; trusted the government. We were optimistic.

The reality was seamier, we now know: fears of nuclear attack, racist and gender bias, and widespread sexual abuse that no one acknowledged. We can’t go home again to those times and shouldn’t really want to. But languishing in today’s realities can prove unsettling: knowing more about the world in real time can rob us of the certainty of even wanting to call this world “home.”

We work longer but are no happier. We have fewer long-term hopes and less certainty about them. The newer generations seem less likely to remain Jewish, join synagogues, and care about Israel. The earth itself is endangered; and we cannot manage to save it.

We are, as it were, in virtual exile from a world that seems less and less to be our own. Whereas once we thought expansively, now we hunker down in self-defense against hackers, bots, and trolls that feed us lies and know our every move. It would be nice to have a mother’s embrace, guaranteeing that all will turn out right.

As an exile in a world that puts up endless walls and warnings, I increasingly listen for Rachel. She reminds me of another motherly presence that knows my anxiety: the Shechinah, the side of God, the Talmud says, that accompanies us into exile. Together, they give me hope. Exile is not forever, they say; tomorrow is a new day; so is the day thereafter. When despair threatens, I sense Rachel’s tears from Ramah, but I hear also the promise that she will wait for my return, into a world of renewed promise and passion. I believe the day will dawn when Rachel welcomes me back home.

Having Children – Or Not

“I don’t know much about Judaism, Rabbi, but I know it shouldn’t needlessly hurt people.” So says a man to me many years ago. His words still haunt me.

He and his wife had been together for twenty years, but never had children. People treated them like Jewish failures.

Not having children is a personal matter — not something lightly launched as lunchtime conversation. So people attacked for childlessness just grin and bear it.

Some want children but cannot conceive or give birth, no matter what they do. Initial sadness becomes outright depression and despair, but social niceties prohibit frank disclosure, so they suffer silently lest the grief of infertility be aggravated by the stigma of infelicity.

Adoption is an option but not for the fainthearted. It is hard to conquer the fear that there is something wrong with you, and the adoption process is complicated, lengthy, uncertain, and expensive.

Then there are increasing numbers of people who decide not to have children — for many reasons which, again, are not the kind of thing you talk about when people give you glances suggesting you are not fully Jewish on that account.

Yes, having children is a mitzvah — usually. The Talmud argues that God created the world “to be inhabited,” so Jews should do their part to fill the world with inhabitants. But life is more complicated than any single rule about it. Especially when it comes to having children, individuals have to apply Talmudic calculus personally and, sometimes, painfully.

Case: a woman suffers from chronic depression. She wonders about becoming a mother.

Case: a man is sure he will make a bad parent. His wife concedes he is right, fears taking on sole parental responsibility herself, and suspects that having a child will destroy the marriage and the child as well.

Case: a couple decides that children are not right for them. They are good people who make a point of serving the world in other ways.

The judgmentalism encountered by childlessness can be devastating. “I put on armor, says one Jewish woman, “just to steel myself against what people are thinking.” Another says, “I was relieved to pass my childbearing years, so that I would no longer have to go through the agonizing feeling every day that I ought to ‘rectify’ what I knew was the right decision.”

Exacerbating this latent judgmentalism are the subtle institutional announcements that children are the only ones who matter. Synagogue budgets go overwhelmingly for religious schools and “tot-shabbats.” We send teenagers to Israel, but not ourselves. We favor kiddie-holidays like Chanukah; and dilute Seders to the Four Questions. Official programs and grants support Jewish parents; but not Jewish adults with no children to be Jewish for. Are Jewish homes just for Jewish kids, who grow up just to make Jewish homes for their own kids, and so on, and so on, and so on?

Fortunately, the synagogue reading this week offers a corrective. It announces, “These are the children of Aaron and Moses,” but then names just those of Aaron, leading the Talmud to say (San 19b), “Aaron’s sons are reckoned as belonging also to Moses, because Moses taught them Torah. From this we learn that if you teach other people’s children Torah, it is as if you had borne them yourself.” Maimonides writes, “If you teach people a single thing that raises their level of understanding, it is as if you bore them. That is why Scripture calls the disciples of prophets `sons of prophets.'”

People who want children should have them if they can and if it is the right thing to do. But many can’t; many shouldn’t; many don’t. People who can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t are not on that account second-class Jews.

Going childless is hard enough in a society where everyone is “supposed” to have them. We should be careful not to make it harder still, because Judaism shouldn’t needlessly hurt people, should it?