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The Art of Subtlety
by Simon Jacobson

Stereotypes abound about the classic “Jewish Mother:” A nag, a yenta, overprotective and overbearing, one who is often getting involved in her children's lives long after they have grown up, intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering, and engendering enormous guilt in her children through the endless suffering she professes to undertake for their sakes. The cause for all our problems.

Remember the one about the three Jewish mothers in Miami Beach comparing notes how their sons celebrated their respective 80th birthdays. First Jewish mothers says: “My Barry’le. He flew down the entire family for a week to Miami just to spend time with his dear mother for her birthday. Tell me is that not a boy for you?” Mother # 2: “Ahh, that’s nuting. My Wolfie, you know what he did? He took us all for a safari in Africa. That’s what he did for my 80th birthday.” Finally mother #3 looks at the other two, and waves dismissingly with her hand: “You both have nice boys. But you want to hear what s son is, look at my Sydney. My little boy is a high-powered lawyer in New York, who makes who knows how much money. My Sydney goes to therapy three times a week, pays ich veis vifel – top dollar they say – and he talks about nothing else but me! Now, that’s a ziskeit [sweetheart] for you,” she kvels.

And then of course there is the Jewish mother-in-law…

Where all these images came from I don’t know. Some attribute the demonizing of the Jewish mother to feminist anthropologist Margaret Mead, who persuaded the American Jewish Committee to fund research at Columbia University on the European shtetl. Interviews with 128 European-born Jews who had immigrated to the United States demonstrated a range of different family experiences. But the anthropologists who wrote up the study and published it in the 1950s, in frequently cited books and articles, placed a “nagging, whining and malingering” mother at the center of the shtetl family. They reported that these mothers gave their children unshakable love but anchored it in "boundless suffering." They retold this folktale: “A young man begs his mother for her heart, which his betrothed has demanded as a gift; having torn it out of his mother's proffered breast, he races away with it; and as he stumbles, the heart falls to the ground, and he hears it question protectively, 'Did you hurt yourself, my son?’”

Regardless of its root, this stereotype like all stereotypes is based on myth and is as far as it gets from the true nature of the quintessential Jewish mother.

If you want an accurate description of a true Jewish mother – the first matriarch in history – read the story of our mother Sarah.

A “mother” is not a trivial title. The Talmud (Berachot 16b) makes it clear that only four women can be called matriarchs, and Sarah is the first of them.

Many virtuous attributes are identified with the immortal Jewish mother Sarah:

Purity
Piety
Beauty
Modesty
Wisdom
Courage
Inspiring
Role model
Spiritual
Visionary
Princess

Above all, she was seamless. The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion captures the consistency of Sarah’s life: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Why is the word “years” repeated three times? To teach us “that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: when she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old in piety. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old in beauty” (Rashi from Midrash Bereishit Rabba 58:1).

What made this first Jewish matriarch tick? How did she maintain her integrity through all the ups and downs of her and Abraham’s life – and there were many: from the brink of death in Ur Kasdim through Lech Lecho, from the battles to the abduction by Pharaoh and Avimelech, from the challenges at home with Ishmael to the anguish of childlessness most of her life – Sarah never wavered from her innocence, piety and commitment.

The secret of the Jewish mother can be found in the Aishet Chayil – in the final chapter of book of Proverbs (Mishlei), which we lovingly recite and sing every Friday night. This hymn, which corresponds to the twenty-two letters of the alef beit (the Hebrew alphabet) was said about the Matriarch Sarah, from aleph to tav (Midrash Tehillim 112:1).

Without entering into an analysis of each verse, their underlying theme is one of transcendence. True virtue and dedication is invisible at the moment, but its impact becomes obvious with time.

A mother is – and therefore builds – life’s foundation. A foundation holds up the entire structure, but is undetectable to the eye. At the time a true mother’s counsel may not always be appreciated. When trouble brewed at home threatening her son Isaac, Sarah, not Abraham, insisted on a course of action that distressed her devout husband and he is reluctant to comply with, until G-d intervenes and tells Abraham “Whatever Sarah your wife says you shall listen” (Genesis 21:12).

And why? Because “Isaac shall be called your seed.” Sarah understood, with the intuitive knowledge that comes from the innermost depths of the soul that only a mother can understand, what is right for the future. Sarah was able to transcend the momentary discomfort of the present and build an everlasting future, which can be appreciated only over the years.

What is most remarkable is the fact that the more times passes the greater we can appreciate Sarah’s contributions.

The Jewish people today exist due to Sarah’s selfless dedication and wisdom in ensuring Isaac’s physical and spiritual welfare. Had she not insisted or had Abraham prevailed, all of history would have changed!

How many people can claim the same?

Her candle does not go out at night. Even when the sun sets and hope may seem lost, even when no one can see through the darkness, the mother’s flame is never extinguished. She watches over her child and her family. Who can ever measure the countless hours a mother spends silently caring and praying for her family; the innumerable little messages she gives her child through life? She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Strength and honor are her clothing, she smiles at the future. Things are not always, or perhaps never, clear in the present. But the mother’s strength and honor look ahead and beyond, and then return to infuse the life today with the wisdom and smile of tomorrow. She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the lesson of kindness is on her tongue.

Charm is deceptive and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears G-d shall be praised. We identify beauty today with externals. The cosmetic and garment industry. Inner beauty is not quite as appreciated. The true mother is beautiful within and without. She is beautiful and she transcends beauty. She is a princess (as the name Sarah implies, “sar”) – first a princess to Abraham and her nation (“sarai” with a yud, my princess), then a princess to the world (“Sarah” with a heh - Berachot 13a).

No wonder that Isaac recognized his wife’s beauty when he compared her to his mother. And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother. He brought her to the tent, and behold, she was Sarah his mother; i.e., she became the likeness of Sarah his mother, for as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was bound to the tent. When Sarah died, these things ceased, and when Rebecca arrived, they resumed (Rashi from Midrash Bereishit Rabba 60:16).

Many people today may look for a spouse that is everything but their mother (I suspect because of the stereotypes above). Isaac, however, was blessed with a true Yiddishe Mamme – someone who you want to emulate in every way.

Is their a greater tribute than that?

Indeed, being associated with Sarah was such a blessing that even “the letter yud of Sarai, which was removed from her name, stood and cried for many years until Yehoshua (Joshua) ben Nun came and G-d added it to his name” (Sanhedrin 107a). The letter yud flew before the throne of the Holy One, and said, "Master of the Universe, ‘have You taken me out of the name of the righteous Sarah because I am the smallest of the letters?’ The Holy One replied, ‘in the past you were at the end of a woman's name, now I shall place you at the beginning of a man's name: Yehoshua" (Bereishit Rabbah 47:1).

Sarah’s impact was so far reaching that even one letter from her name gave Joshua the power to lead the Jewish people into the Promised Land.

These are the attributes of the first Jewish Matriarch, Sarah, and those of every true Jewish mother.

A true Yiddishe mamme is one of the most powerful and complex figures in life. She serves as a pillar of unwavering strength, while remaining mostly invisible. Think of the love and confidence that a mother instills in her newborn child as she cradles him. As a mother’s loving eyes meets the eyes of her child, what message is being conveyed? Is there a more powerful image of nurturing, yet one that is so understated?

Many indispensable lessons can be gleaned from Sarah the mother. Especially today – coined by some as the dysfunctional age, with families in crisis, marriage in disarray, and so many of us in search of a mother (and father) – it would be wise to study Sarah’s life and dedication. She was, after all, a success story…

Practically speaking, one of the legacies Sarah left us, actually three legacies, are the three virtues manifest in her tent: A candle burned from one Sabbath eve to the next, a blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was bound to the tent. They represent the three pillars upon which every healthy home should be built:

1) Lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles, every Friday before sunset – ushering in the sanctity of Shabbat into the home and world, illuminating the environment with holy and spiritual light.

2) Kosher – eating refined food. We assume what we consume.

3) Family Purity – ensuring the sanctity of intimacy (see Zohar 1:102b).

Sarah teaches us how every good wife and mother can transform her home and family with these three bedrocks, and thereby infuse all our lives with deeper meaning.

Never underestimate the power of the Jewish mother – the Yiddishe mamme – as she subtly builds an eternal edifice. She brings, in her own silent way, gentle warmth into the home, whispering prayers and blessings as she waves her hands and covers her eyes during candle lighting; she quietly instills tender love in her “dough;” she elevates the inner spirit of her home through a heightened state of sublime sensuality and intimacy, driven by subtlety, modesty and sanctity.

 

 


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