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Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers, and to all the people who have mothers, and to all the people who have ever had mothers.
I want to tell you a story about a classmate in my chaplaincy class. He’s a young man from Korea. He and his wife have three young daughters—9, 6 and 2. The oldest daughter sounds a lot like I did at her age: she started talking about her birthday, which was last week, back in January, she was so excited. She kept asking when it would be, whether she would get the in-line skates she wanted, would there be special foods…over and over. You know how that can be. And then her younger sister, whose birthday is in a couple of months, started to imitate her sister, as younger sisters do. Over and over. Most of these inquiries were directed at their dad, within earshot of their mom. Finally one day Mom noted to Dad, “I remember how hard and how long that day was and how painful it was to push these girls out. I think their birthdays should really be Mother’s Day! I worked so hard that day!”
She was right—all the effort mothers put in just to bring us into this world is pretty awesome, but the birthdays seem to belong to the children. So we mothers get today. And even that is a relatively new invention. The first American Mother’s Day was initiated to honor the work of Anna Jarvis’ mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis. Ann was a peace activist, who, during the Civil War, tended wounded soldiers from both sides. She also created Mothers’ Day Work Clubs to work on public health issues. After years of lobbying states and the federal government, the second Sunday in May became a national holiday, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1914. It was only later that Hallmark and florists stepped in, breaking Anna Jarvis’ heart.
As you all know, most mothers do so much more than push the babies out or buy them in-line skates. So I thought we would look at biblical mothers to see what our sacred texts set out to teach us. Although there are a number to choose from, I became entranced by Rebekah’s story—Rebekah, wife of Isaac, mother of Esau and Jacob.
Let’s review her story: Abraham’s servant is sent off to the old country to find a wife for his son Isaac. The servant meets Rebekah at the well, and not only does she offer him water, but she waters all of his camels. He goes to meet her family, makes the marriage offer, and she agrees eagerly to leave her land to go marry a man she has never met. You might recall that her brother Laban seemed a little greedy, as did her parents, so she might have been more than ready to get away from them.
She and Isaac seem to have a happy marriage, indeed we learn “va’ye’e’haveha” – and he loved her. Then we learn that
Gen. 25:21 Isaac pleaded with God on Rebekah’s behalf, because she was barren; and Godresponded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. 22But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, [if they do this] why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Holy One, 23and Godanswered her,
“Two nations are in your womb,
Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;
One people shall be mightier than the other,
And the older shall serve the younger.”
These three verses are quite intense: she, like her mother in law Sarah before her, struggled with infertility. When the pregnancy that was the answer to her husband’s prayers came, it was excruciating. Her mother-in-law was gone, her mother absent, no sisters, aunts, around. She may have been alone in terms of woman’s companionship and shared wisdom about pregnancy. So she took it upon herself to go inquire of God. Imagine, in that culture, where women were not part of the decisionmakers, deciding to go to inquire of God. What we Jews call chutzpah.
How many of you prayed when you were pregnant, sought answers from God?
And God responds to her! How amazing is that!?
But the response is not so encouraging: besides having twins, with all the physical challenges of that, they will become of different nations, and one will be stronger and the older will serve the younger! What to do with this message? But she’s heard this directly from God.
How many of us have felt we know exactly who are children are when they are born, or very young? This one will be like Uncle Joe, this one like Grandma? We know.
And so the children are born and twins who could not have been less alike. Esau was an outdoorsy kind of guy, a hunter, while Jacob is described as an ish tam, who stayed in the camp. The phrase “ish tam” could mean that he was simple, or mild-mannered and quiet, or that he was a person of wholeness, even spiritual perfection. Isaac preferred Esau, while Jacob was his mother’s favorite.
Favorites in a family are very common—not necessarily productive or healthy, but common. The Smothers Brothers build a successful career out of the complaint that “Mom always liked you best” because so many of us could relate to it.
Rebekah knew what was supposed to happen in the family—after all, God had told her—and she believed that it was her responsibility to make it happen. She knew which of them was to serve the other, which one was to be the next leader of the family. She knew what their destiny would be.
We often believe that we know what’s best for our children; whether we heard it from God when we were pregnant, or we just know. We see the direction our children should take, and we try to guide them. They don’t always listen, do they? And sometimes we’re right and sometimes, not so much.
Rebekah did what she could to move the word of God along—I imagine because she believed that she was supposed to partner with God. It started between the brothers—Jacob bought his older brother’s birthright for a bowl of soup. It was as though the prophecy was unfolding naturally—the older relinquished his birthright easily, and it was sought by the younger. Everything was on track.
It wasn’t until years later, when Isaac was old and blind—apparently blind physically, spiritually and emotionally, started the movement toward giving Esau his blessing. At that moment, Rebekah knew she had to leap into action. I think because of the powerlessness of women in that time, she resorted to trickery and motherly persuasion. Jacob’s only objection to her plan was that if he were caught, he would receive his father’s curse rather than his blessing, he was not otherwise concerned about usurping his brother. She told him that the curse would be upon her, not upon him, if it came. She was willing to risk everything because she believed she knew what was best for her children and her people.
How many of us have taken major risks, stopped at nothing to help our children succeed, find their destiny, be safe?
Then we reach the poignant scene between Isaac and Jacob, disguised as Esau, with Rebekah probably listening from outside the tent. Did Isaac realize his wife’s working behind the scenes? He could feel that something was amiss—the voice sounded wrong for Esau: “Which one of my sons are you?” he asks. Then he asks, “How did you succeed so quickly” in killing the game, butchering it and cooking up the stew. Upon Isaac’s response that God had granted him fortune, Isaac demanded physical proof, “Come closer, my son, so I can prove you are Esau.” Was it because of the voice, the speed, or the mention of God? Nonethess, Jacob set aside his doubts and God’s prophecy had been fulfilled. But it was not over. The family was turned upside down in the aftermath.
How many families have suffered through distance and anger and pain because things did not go how we thought they should?
When Esau arrived with the stew his father had requested, after going to the trouble of hunting the proper game, rather than killing two goats from the herd, he learned his father had no blessing for him. He begged for a blessing, and received the one that remained: Isaac had nothing left to give. And so Esau plotted to kill his brother as soon as their father died. Hearing this, because mothers hear everything-don’t we?—Rebekah sent her beloved son off to safety, to live with her brother. To protect him, to save his life, to ensure his future, she had to give him up.
How many of us have let our beloved children go? Sometimes, never to see them again? The sons who went to Canada in the 60s… or died in Vietnam, or wwII or Afghanistan or Iraq…or cancer, an early heart attack, or a miscarriage, or car accident. Losing your child…the one you know was destined for greatness, or the one who was just the simple well meaning one, the ish tam, the loss was profound.
With Jacob gone, Rebekah was left with Esau and her old, blind husband. Both of them may have been quite angry at her: one for being thrown under the bus and the other for being tricked and disrupting the peace of his last years.
And then Esau went off and did the one thing he knew would drive his parents crazy: Rebekah had said, likely many times, “If Jacob takes a wife from among the local, Hittite women, “What good will life be to me?” So what did Esau do? He took a wife from among the Hittites. Esau went to visit his uncle Ishmael and married one of his local, native daughters. How is that for being in his mother’s face…?
How many of us have experienced that from our children—or done something like that to our mothers? Passive aggressive, or striking out independently or just trying to live their lives in ways that cause us pain? How many have made decisions we know they will rue? I remember staying with a boyfriend months and months longer than I would have had my mother not SO disapproved of him. If she had just let me become bored with him, it would have been over in weeks. But her fuss made me almost have to stay, to justify the rift we had. Anyone else ever been in a dynamic like that with your mother or your child?
But if we skip ahead twenty years, we reach the next meeting of the two brothers, the night after Jacob’s great wrestling match. As we know, the meeting went well—a short and sweet meeting, all acquiescence, gifts and civility, and brief. But Jacob’s worst fears are for naught: they embrace, weep, meet the family, and part in peace. But how did Esau come to place where he could embrace the brother he had wanted to kill? For someone whom the tradition teaches was not particularly self-reflective, this change is profound. What happened?
One of my teachers tells a beautiful midrash, or a story that fills in the spaces in the text, about Rebekah and Esau. Rabbi Finley tells a story of what could have happened back at home during the 20 years when the text focuses on Jacob and his burgeoning family; he teaches that Rebekah mothered Esau. She knew that, while having done what she believed she had to do in the interests of the greater good, she had to mend things with her older son. She knew she had to repair the damage she had caused.
But how did Esau reach a place where he transformed his desire for revenge into an embrace? For someone whom the tradition teaches was not particularly self-reflective, this change is profound. What happened?
One of my teachers tells a beautiful midrash, or a story that fills in the spaces in the text, about Rebecca and Esau. Rabbi Finley weaves a story of what could have happened back at home during the 20 years when the text focuses on Jacob and his burgeoning family: he teaches that Rebecca mothered Esau. She knew that, while having done what she believed she had to do in the interests of the greater good, she had to mend things with her older son. She knew she had to repair the damage she had caused.
So, the midrash teaches us, we can see the fruits of her efforts, as she spent those years quietly showing him that she did love him, that he was better off not being the head of the family, that he was fulfilling his own destiny. She gave him the love that he needed to heal. So that when he met Jacob again he had let go of his past anger, and could finally embrace his twin in love.
Few of us are or were perfect parents—I’m imagining I am not the only mother here who has made her share of mistakes. If we are lucky, we have to time to repair mistakes, we have the time to embrace, and talk, and mend, to forgive and love and maybe look the other way. We learn when to be quiet, when to speak, when to reach out and when to let them be.
I believe Rebekah, like most of us, did what she thought was right, and did the best she could. I believe that she dedicated herself to repair their relationship.
And I think that’s sometimes the best we can do. And it should be enough.
Happy Mother’s Day.
May the Holy One bless every mother with the love they give returned to them.
May their children appreciate the comforting, the prodding to be the best they can be, the nurturing, the teaching, the piles of laundry, the chauffeur service, the cooking, the cleaning, the nursing, the problem solving, and the advocate for their best interests that they have in their mother every day.
May our children use not just Mother’s Day but every day to be a time to reflect on the blessing they receive from the one who either gave them life or assured that they have a home and family who treasure them.
May we use this time as an opportunity to recommit ourselves to appreciation of the mothers we have.
For those whose mothers are no longer in this world, may we use this time to share the love they gave us with others, and take their teachings out into the world.