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Bechukotai Mothers Day

05/16/2018 05:09:56 PM


Rabbi Jennifer Jaech

If you were the director of a Jewish religious school,
Would you hold a session on Mother’s Day?  (Show of hands)
Many of the synagogues around us close on Mother’s Day–
And not only the Reform synagogues.

Temple Israel never has, as far as I know.
Although some have expressed displeasure at that decision over the years.   
But although we did not close for mother’s day,
We did do “Mother’s Day” things in class.

Often, teachers had their students
Make Mother’s Day cards in Hebrew:
Yom Ima Sameach!
And the Brotherhood had a Mother’s Day brunch.
Because Mother’s Day is too big to simply ignore.

At the risk of stating the obvious,
Mother’s Day is not a Jewish holiday, (that’s why we kept our school open)

But the idea of celebrating fertility IS Jewish.
It has deep roots in our tradition.

In the story of the first humans in the Torah,
God’s very first command to them is:  P’ru ur’vu פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ
“Be Fruitful and Multiply.”

Even today, in traditional Judaism,
It is considered a mitzvah to have children, at least two, a son and a daughter –but ideally, even more than that.
Interestingly, the mitzvah is only incumbent on men.[1]   
Traditional Jewish law allows a husband
To divorce his wife if she is infertile.
Fertility in the Bible is a sign of God’s favor.
God blesses Abraham with the promise
“I will make you exceedingly fertile,”[2]
That his descendants would be as numerous
As the stars in the heaven[3]
And the sand on the seashore.[4]

There are many stories of infertile women
Who, through divine intervention, become pregnant.
Fertility is a blessing.

Likewise, in our Torah potion, Bechukotai, fertility is a blessing promised to the Israelites if they keep the terms of their covenant:
God says to the Israelites
That their land would be fertile (v. 3-5)

And God promises, “I will look with favor upon you, and make you fertile, and multiply you.”[5]

And the Torah portion says that the reverse will happen
If the Israelites do NOT keep their covenant:
Wild beasts would roam the land and consume the children.
The land would become infertile,
Resulting in a famine so severe,
That mothers would have to resort to eating their children.[6]
For a mother, this is unimaginable. 

So in our the Torah portion,
Motherhood is held out as both a blessing, and a curse.
I think the same can apply to Mother’s Day itself.
Mother’s Day can be a blessing or a curse. 

Mother’s Day is a blessing
For those who had strong, good relationships with their mothers. 

Mother’s Day can feel like a curse
For those still grieving the loss of a mother,  or for those living with the trauma of mothers who abuse or neglect them now, or in the past.

On Mother’s Day, 
Some celebrate the blessing of their children; others mourn the loss of children who have died, or live with the pain of estrangement from their children.

And for those who wish to have children and cannot,
Mother’s Day can feel like a painful rebuke.
I think it’s time to re-think Mother’s Day.
Rather than celebrate “Mothers,”
I think we should celebrate the nurturing instinct
That is the foundation of an ideal parent.

Let’s celebrate our ability to nurture ourselves
So that we can recover from past trauma
And overcome present suffering.

Let’s resolve to nourish our talents so they bear fruit – Because really, the commandment to “be fruitful” can mean far more than mere procreation.

And on Mother’s Day,
Let’s celebrate our ability to nurture others. 
Our willingness to extend a hand to those in need,
So that we can multiply the goodness we bring into the world.

[1] Yevamot 6:6, and later codes

[2] Genesis 17: 6

[3] Genesis 15: 5 and 22: 17

[4] Genesis 22:17

[5] Leviticus 26: 9

[6] Ibid, v. 29

Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780