Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Role of the Mother

I am studying Shmuel with my students. We have almost completed learning Perek Bet, which focuses on the sins of Chafni and Pinchas. 

I pointed out to my students that in Perek Aleph, there is so much emphasis on Chana. We hear about Chana and the way that Peninah treats her, Chana in relation to Elkanah, Chana's desire for a child, Elkanah misjudging Chana and so forth. In Perek Bet, Chana speaks a beautiful prayer-poem asserting God's glory and rulership. We also hear that she would come every year and bring Shmuel a little coat that she had made for him.

I asked my students: When you contrast the story of Chofni, Pinchas and Eli as opposed to the story of Chana and Shmuel, what's missing?

The mother! my students immediately recognized. Where is Chofni and Pinchas' mother?

Where is she, indeed?

This brings to light a passage on the role of the mother as written about by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in "A Tribute to the Rebbetzin of Talne" which was published in Tradition Magazine, and republished in Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff's book The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one masorah, and only one masorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two masorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of tradition]- the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. "Thus shalt thou say to the House of Jacob [=the women] and tell the children of Israel [=the men]" [Exodus 19:3], "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father [mussar avikha], and forsake not the teaching of thy mother [torat imekha]" [Proverbs 1:8], counseled the old king. What is the difference between these two masorot, these two traditions? What is the distinction between mussar avikha and torat imekha? Let us explore what one learns from one's father and what one learns from one's mother. 
From one's father one learns how to read a text- the Bible or the Talmud, how to comprehend, how to analyze, how to conceptualize  how to classify, how to infer, how to apply, etc. One also learns what to do and what not to do, what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Father teaches son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one. That is why it is identified with musar, the biblical term for discipline. 
What is torat imekha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of a mother. Only by circumscription may I hope to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, they were monologues rather than a dialogue. She talked and I "happened" to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question. She spoke of inyana de-yoma [the affairs of the day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra [weekly Torah portion] every Friday night; I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned much from her. 
Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in living experience. She taught me that there is flavor, a scent, and a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.  
The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of musar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mother lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor. 
The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; the mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four-hour presence.  
~pages 183-184 in Volume 2
Many of the meforshim state that Chofni and Pinchas did not actually sin. In fact, they were entitled to portions of meat from the families; the problem was in their timing. They demanded these portions of meat too early, at an inappropriate time. According to this interpretation, they kept the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

This impairment on their part relates directly back to the absence of their mother. Where was she? Who is she? Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps she was emotionally distant. What is clear is that her sons suffered due to her lack of guidance. Although they learned the language of ritual, of offering the sacrifices, they did not understand the beauty in it. They did not appreciate the great privilege that they had. They knew the law, but not the joy with which they were to approach the keeping of the law.

In contrast to these boys, Shmuel always had the influence of his mother. This is made clear in the description of him- at all times, he is described as wearing that me'il, that beautiful coat that his mother made him. When he rises from the dead, he is still wearing that cloak. What Chana gave her son was not just a physical garment, but a way of life, a way of looking at the world. She gave her son part of the deep spiritual passion with which she was blessed. What she gave him ensured that he was protected and that he would not fall prey to the behavior that Chofni and Pinchas modeled.

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