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Home » Chukat, Education, Family Life

Chukat: The Yiddishe Mama

Submitted by on July 12, 2016 – 12:51 pmNo Comment | 3,132 views

Miriam’s Well

Shortly after the passing of Miriam, the preeminent Yiddishe Mama, the stone that accompanied our ancestors in the desert for forty years, from which water flowed miraculously, ceased its flow. The nation realized that the water had been provided in the merit of Miriam and although Moses and Aaron were able to restore the water, the water source would forever be known as the well of Miriam.[1]

Everything in the biblical narrative, including its stories, is instructive. To uncover the lesson behind this particular story one need only remember the symbolic role of water. The Talmud refers to Torah as food because the Torah is ingested by the mind like food is ingested by the stomach. The roll of water is to lubricate the body and to facilitate the distribution of the food’s nourishment throughout the body.

When viewed this way, the instruction to us is clear. The Yiddishe Mame has a particular role to play in Jewish life as does the father. The Torah tells us that the obligation to teach Torah to the child falls primarily to the father.[2] The father provides food for Torah thought directly to the child’s mind. The Yiddishe Mama nurtures a home environment and a culture of upbringing that extends the Torah to the child’s heart and facilitates the child’s ability to internalize it; allowing it to flow within the child like water is. Thus, Miriam, the preeminent Yiddishe Mama, provided the water.

The Yiddishe Mama Discrepancy

This explains a curious discrepancy in the Torah. Just before G-d gave the Torah at Sinai, He used the phrase, “So shall you say,” to guide the nation on how to prepare for the Torah. G-d used the very same phrase just after the Torah was given at Sinai to offer guidance on how to respond to receiving the Torah. With one discrepancy: Before the Torah was given, Moses was told to relay the guidance to the women; after the Torah was given, Moses was told to relay the guidance to the men.[3]

Our insight on water helps us understand this apparent discrepancy. The giving of the Torah in a child’s life represents the age of studying Torah. But before children are old enough to go to school, they need to absorb a love of Judaism at home. This is received primarily from the Yiddishe Mama, who is endowed with the patient grace necessary to nurture the absorption of our heritage with love. This is why G-d instructed the women, before Sinai, to teach the nation to receive the Torah with love.

Once the child is old enough to attend school, the father’s role begins in earnest. The father takes the lead in ensuring that the child’s learning environment is supportive, constructive and disciplined. The father reviews the material with child and helps with difficult homework questions. This is why G-d instructed the men, after Sinai, to teach the nation how to study the Torah with reverence.

It goes without saying that there are exceptions to most rules and in some houses the mother takes the lead role with education and the father takes the lead with nurturing a loving tone in the home. It is also true that most men and women overlap in both areas. But on the whole, the mother’s and father’s roles are laid out in distinctively in the Torah; the father teaches, the mother nurtures.

How To Nurture

The Torah teaches us that G-d dwells in the heart of the Jew just as much as He dwelled in the Temple. Thus, if we want to know how the Jewish women of old, under the guidance of their Yiddishe Mama, built families and homes, we need to consider their contributions to the building of the Tabernacle.

The Torah tells us that the women contributed to the building of the tabernacle before the men did. This is consistent with what we mentioned above about the order of Jewish life. The role of the Yiddishe Mama begins much earlier than the task of the Yiddishe father.  And what did they contribute?

Four Pieces of Jewelry
The Torah tells us that they contributed earrings, nosebands, rings and arm bands.[4] These four contributions tell us much about the parenting ingredients that build a Jewish home. In other words, the contributions the Yiddishe Mama made to the tabernacle, are similar to the contributions the Yiddishe Mama makes to the Jewish home and heart of her child.

The earing represents the importance of listening. A parent must listen carefully to a child from the youngest age to determine the child’s particular character. Each child must be raised in their particular way and a good parent devises unique parenting methods for each child.

Listening also teaches us a lot about ourselves because children reflect back to us what we model for them. If the child screams, it means we scream too much. If the child is rude, we were likely in their presence. It is difficult to remember each of our failings, but by listening to our children, we can pick up on our failings and correct them before they cause too much damage to our children.

The nose band represents the smell test. A parent must ensure that their child’s friends and interests pass the smell test. Children often want things that aren’t good for them. Because we love them, we want to indulge their every whim. But parents must remember their duty to raise responsible, spiritual and moral children. This entails passing everything through their smell test before giving their approval.

The ring is worn on the finger and it represents pointing the way. Parents cannot expect children to know good from bad. Despite their innocence, children aren’t selfless, moral and proper. Children, just like adults, are inherently interested in fun and indulgent pursuits. If we don’t show them the way, we can’t expect them to know it for themselves. We must point them in the right direction.

Finally, the arm band. Pointing the way is not enough. Guidance must often be reinforced with discipline. We need to put some steel into our instructions. Parents, especially today, are reluctant to be firm with children. We are afraid of abusing them and causing irreparable damage. This is why you often hear parents referring to their children as buddies. But children don’t need buddies. They need parents.

Firmness doesn’t mean cruelty. Firmness is rooted in love. If we love our children, we give them the gift of a moral and upstanding life. If we opt for friendship and to never risk the child’s ire by enforcing discipline, we don’t love the child; we love ourselves. We opt for the convenient path even if our children will suffer morally. To be sure we need to temper discipline with love. We need to tell them that we love them even as we discipline them. It isn’t an easy balance. It is tricky and often messy. But that doesn’t exempt the parent from their duty to raise an upstanding child.

If we want our children’s heart to be a tabernacle for G-d, we need to invest the ingredients that our Yiddishe Mama taught her generation to invest in G-d’s home. After all, we want our children to know us not only as their Mama, but as their Yiddishe Mama. We want to know that we gave them what they need to grow up as pAAroud, educated and resolute Jews.[5]

[1] See rashi on Numbers 20:2.

[2] Kiddushin 30b based on Deuteronomy 6:7.

[3] Exodus 19:3 and 20:18.

[4] Exodus 35:22.

[5][5] This essay is based on a talk the Lubavitcher Rebbe gave to counselors in camp in 1951 and a talk given by the former Rebbe to Jewish women in Riga 1934.

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