Friday, May 6, 2011

The Torah of Mother's Day

Dear Rivy,
In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to prepare a speech, a d’var Torah, about mothers and daughters in the Torah. I thought it was a good idea. I began my research in earnest but had quite a hard time finding material. Where did I go wrong?

I am not sure that you went wrong anywhere. I appreciate your experience and empathize with your consternation. I too have attempted such investigations. It is not simple to fashion a d’var Torah about mothers and daughters in the Torah, primarily because there is not much from which one might glean. When considering father and son relationships, there are a number of quite complex narratives from which we can garner timeless interpretations, meanings and inspiration. Without much strain to the brain we can tick those sets off quite swiftly, including Noah and his sons, Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Jacob, Jacob and Joseph, Saul and Jonathan, David and Absalom. Though a number of these relationships give us pause and are fraught with intense conflict, they are relationships nonetheless. Without a doubt, they mirror the intricate and oftentimes precariously complicated nature of the father-son bond.

When we turn to inventory mother-daughter connections, the list is disappointingly sparse. Our first task must be to identify mother-daughter pairs in the Torah. In this discussion, we are use a broad definition of Torah, including all twenty-four books of what we call the Tanach: the Torah, the Prophets and the writings. Some call these the Hebrew Scriptures.
At first glance we can quickly identify two visible mother-daughter duos; Leah and Dinah in Genesis, and Yocheved and Miriam in Exodus, the former receiving much less fanfare than the latter. A second more comprehensive page-turning, concordance-checking, CD-ROM-searching exploration yields nothing more. I hesitate to utter the words, but I think we are done. I invite you to prove me wrong I would rejoice with you. Keep in mind we are searching for a meaningful kind of mother-daughter citation not a flavorless reference in a genealogical begat list. Those are decidedly exceptional as well, what with the father-son genealogy by far outpacing the mother-daughter statistics.

Proceeding with our identified mothers and daughters, although limited, I wonder whether these scant twosomes may yet offer us a fertile patch of earth from which we can grow some big ideas about mothers and daughters and their relationships. What pearls of wisdom do these mothers impart upon their daughters? What gems preserved through the ages are recorded? This is where we get even a bit more discomfited. Upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that there is not a single word of dialogue between any mothers and daughters in the entire aforementioned twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scripture. Implausible as it may sound, it is true; not one word is exchanged in the entire Tanach between any mother and daughter.

Now what? Skip the mother-daughter d’var Torah? I think not. There are, after all, narratives that can mined for meaning. There may be no words exchanged between mothers and daughters, but there are deeds that can provide inspiration and insight. In spite of this discerned dearth of dialogue, I believe there is something to be learned. Concepts can be extracted from the little we do have in the texts. For example, Rebecca meets, waters and welcomes the servant of Abraham and his camels in Genesis, Chapter 24. Bedecked with gifted jewelry, she runs to her mother’s house to report on the arrival of the stranger. Though no words are directly exchanged we notice that here the beginning of a hint of a motif: Mother’s tent or Mother’s house. Later, Isaac is comforted after the death of his mother only when he brings Rebecca into what had been his mother’s tent.

In one of the five Megillot, the dreamy beloved of Song of Songs speaks to her adored suitor and tells him that she will bring him into her mother’s house. There the relationship will blossom Mother’s house again. Mother is the original comfort of intimacy and love. The run to Mother’s house is the eternal impulse for return. Mother’s house is a womblike shelter and security the place of primal warmth. The potential romance between Isaac and Rebecca is set in motion as she runs to her own mother’s house with news of the unfamiliar person who had been bursting with intentions which are then later ultimately realized as she enters the tent of Isaac’s mother. Mother’s love gives way to the promise of intimate love of the future. The Torah is suggesting a blueprint for mothers and daughters. Let’s understand that first place of tenderness and grow from there. Perhaps this sweet phenomenon of Mother’s house can help us to break down those tensions that sometimes build between mother and daughter.

One more incident where nary a word is spoken takes place by the banks of the Nile. Miriam, sister of baby Moshe, sets out to watch as the daughter of Pharaoh reaches for the Hebrew baby meant to be drowned. What to do? A nursemaid is needed. Again the dash to mother with no words recorded, but we can imagine the swift urgency with which they are delivered. Mother and daughter share an intense purpose: this baby must be saved and cared for by its Israelite mother. Perhaps no words need be spoken. There are understandings that transcend the spoken word. These two voiceless episodes speak to me deeply. I see these patterns played out with my own daughters, the silent knowing and understanding, the trusting intimacy of relationships and the comfort of eloquent trust. The D’var Torah of mothers and daughters is a talk that does not abound with examples but it certainly resounds with meaning, sometimes actions transcend words.