Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Mission of the Mother

As Parshat Toldos begins Rivka is having a difficult pregnancy, her children are fighting inside her. Rivka asks, Im Ken Lama Zeh Anochi, a phrase which can be translated in a number of meanings. But the most literal is, If So Why Am I? Commentaries tell us that Rivka had despaired of her life entirely. G-d then informs her that there are two quarelling nations inside her and that one will go on to oppress the other. How is this remotely reassuring to tell a worried pregnant woman that this state of affairs will continue on into their adulthood and to their descendants as well? It would seem that there could be little better formula for despair for a mother to know her children will hate and fight each other forever.

But let us first consider why was Rivka so upset? Was it merely because she had a difficult pregnancy? It doesn't seem that a difficult pregnancy would have driven her to such measures. Her question seems to suggest that the two children fighting inside her makes her existance.

Rivka had married Yitzchak and in doing so inherited the burden of expectations of the family of Avraham whom his father had blessed with the blessings G-d had given to him. The blessings had gone to Yitzchak rather than to his older brother by another mother who was wicked and undeserving of them. Rivka could recognize on her own and did, that her two children were fighting. What this meant to her however was that instead of producing another Yitzchak as Sarah had, whose place she had taken, she was producing one or more wicked children who were unfit to carry on the heritage of Avraham. Rather than being another Sarah, she was another Hagar.

G-d's message however told her differently. G-d emphasized that there were two nations both inside her womb and that would be born outside it and that one would prove superior. This meant that first her children were not fighting because they were both wicked and liked to fight, but because they represented two ways of life, only one of which could prevail. Her mission was not simply to bear children for Yitzchak but by her actions to choose which would prevail.

When Avraham had to choose the son who would carry on his legacy, it was Sarah who pushed him towards expelling Yishmael whom he had fondness for in favor of Yitzchak. This too would be Rivka's mission, to sway Yitzchak towards Yaakov over Esav whom he favored. Similarly Leah and Tamar would be forced to use extraordinary and sometimes deceptive measures to sway Yaakov and Yehuda to see that the future of the Jewish people would be born. Even down to King David's father and mother a similar event had to take place.

To this day while the father determines the blessings of tribal ancestry, e.g. to be a Kohen or a King, it is the mother that determines whether the child is fit or not fit to recieve for them the child of a non-Jewish mother remains non-Jewish while the child of a Jewish mother is Jewish regardless of the father. It is through her that the child's future comes about.


ruth2 said...

Very nice and interesting post, but it was a little confusing at the concluding paragraph. Does this mean the children born to a Jewish mother are superior to those who's fathers are Jewish?

That can be heartbreaking for those born to a non-jewish mother but a Jewish father. Does it mean they are inferior?

Lemon Lime Moon said...

No Ruth.
Historically, children born to non-israelitish mothers and Israelite fathers tended to go off the path religiously and actually to cause trouble for Israel (see tanakh for reference to this).
Some of this points to the mothers influence religiously on a child, but, we can also believe that there is also a bit of outside influence going on also.
At one point it is believed that who and who is not part of Israel was also determined through the father. This was probably long before the conclusion of tanakh.
And, with the information provided by tanakh , i.e. examples of children of gentile mothers going off the path, it was probably thought that those with a mother in the faith would stay in the faith and that those without should prove their faith by conversion.
I agree with you that it can be heartbreaking.
But you know, belief in God , following a path that leads to him is never easy in this present world.
They are not superior. They do have a *leg up* fair or not.
But, Ruth, in truth those who are Hashems people know it deep in their heart, whatever their parentage.
And nothing, nothing stops them from returning home to him.
Perhaps we could see it as a hard test. "How much do you want this?"
And perhaps those who must undergo conversion, or those who must return (baal tshuva) are in the end stronger by far than those who have their foot in the door already.

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