Loving Our Mothers

Loving Our Mothers

by Rabbi Vivian Mayer

My heart beat in urgency for my five year old son who clearly needed rescuing – my little dreamy luftmensch looking out the window, wanting to answer “Eggs” and not knowing that he was being called on at that very moment. I could intervene and call his name. “David!” was all I had to say. “She’s calling on you! It’s your turn!”

In those disproportionately long split seconds of inaction, I became aware of our Mother Rebecca. I recognized the urge inside of me as her urge. This same frantic beating in my chest must have been what drove her to push her mild mannered Jacob forward for fear that he would not succeed without her intervention. I suddenly understood her vigilant listening at the edge of conversations for the cues that her her uninitiated sheltered boy might be missing. The anxious desperation overwhelming me reflected the desperation that had compelled Rebecca to cross the lines of trust so that her Jacob would get what she knew he deserved.

As I recognized our mother Rebecca inside myself, I held my impulse under guard. I did not say, “David! She’s calling on you!” Instead, I watched the librarian decide that she would move on to the next person. I watched David’s attention return to the happenings of the room, his unrelenting hand-waving and lisping of “Eggs,” and his eventual recognition that the answer-fest had ended even though he hadn’t gotten to share.

It was a proud moment of mothering. I had successfully made space for my son and trusted in his own capacities. I had distinguished between my own anxiety and actual harm. Rebecca’s “appearance” would continue to guide me toward cultivating a specific type of self-restraint. But this successful restraint came with a tinge of bitterness. My ancient Mother had come to me as a negative model. ‘Do not do as I did,’ was her ultimate message. And though this worked well for my parenting, it was actually not so good for the relationship between me and my Jewish Mothers.

I found no solace in the characters of my other mothers either: blue-blooded Sarah, beating down her pregnant handmaid for imagining herself her equal. Disappointed Rachel, blaming her husband, “Give me children or I will die!” who, when she finally does give birth, names her son Joseph “Yosef li ben aher” meaning “let the Lord give me yet another son!” Each of these women had become a big “Do Not Enter!” sign: the Jewish Status Queen, the Jewish Manipulating Mother, the Jewish Frustrated Bitch. I had no compassion for how fiercely they had fought for their accomplishments and only a little compassion for their pain.

And yet, God help me, I knew each one of these mothers from the inside out. I could easily beat my breast in confession: “I have sought to control, I have blamed in bitterness, I have looked down on others, I have used my disappointment as a weapon, I have resented beauty and wished for it at the same time.” It became clear to me that if I was going to be forever on guard against my Mothers, I would be forever on guard against myself….

One day, I stood to say the Minchah afternoon prayer hoping for just a moment of stillness in the midst of an internal storm. I opened in usual form with the customary salutation, bowing low to position myself before “our God and God of our ancestors.” I named each mother and father with the phrase “God of” attached to their respective names, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel…. “

So did I stand on this particular afternoon, naming my ancestors one by one, each name giving shape to the God I was about to address. The words “Elohei Sarah, God of Sarah” arrested me, first in aversion, then in pain. The turmoil that I had been feeling in my heart that day found a mirror in Mother Sarah, bitch and princess, who had castigated the handmaid Hagar for encroaching on her domain after she herself had invited her in.

But this time, I did not condemn Sarah. Instead, I wondered what it must have been like for her to have her spiritual life so linked to that of the ever so tolerant Abraham. How was Sarah’s own relationship with God affected or defined by her husband’s utter devotion to God? I wondered. When poor Sarah had first offered her handmaid to Abraham as a surrogate mother, had she beheld herself through her husband’s noble eyes, imagining that she would be able to handle the challenge of the new relationship? Had she reached for her magnanimous heart only to be ambushed by her limitations?

A pin-hole of compassion opened.

The openness and generosity that I had been reaching for in my own life (and whose mark I was sorely missing) was based on the perfect vision and spiritual abilities of other people, not my own….

Recognizing my God and my people’s God as “God of Sarah” reminded me that my mother Sarah had never been banished from the Divine embrace of love and guidance. It was I myself who had banished her. Naming God through Mother Sarah brought Sarah back from across the line and into my heart.

Through the filter of God’s voice I discovered compassion for Sarah where I had felt none. And I discovered that in that deep source there was some compassion available for me, as well.