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Home » Family Life, Miscellaneous, Vayakhel

Vayakhel/Pekudei: The Jewish Mother

Submitted by on March 11, 2007 – 3:51 amNo Comment | 3,955 views


She was there at the very beginning and she is there for us still now. She was there at times of elation and was there in times of distress. She was there in times of hope and is still there in times of despair. She nurtured our faith under the Inquisition and our strength during the Pogroms. She held our hands in the gas chambers and holds our hands still. She, is our Yidishe Mama – Jewish Mother.

The Matriarchs

I wasn’t there when Ishmael threatened to take Isaac’s life, but if I were, I don’t think I could have stood up to him with the same determination that Sarah did. (1) I wasn’t there when Isaac proposed to bestow his blessing upon Esau, but if I were, I doubt I would find the courage to do what Rebekah did and insert Jacob as a substitute. (2)

Did you know that Rachel selflessly forfeited her sacred right to be interred beside her husband in the cave of the  Patriarchs and Matriarchs? She chose to be buried in Bethlehem for the sake of her children. When, more than a thousand years later, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, they passed through Bethlehem and paused at their mother’s tomb to pray.

Rachel, who had awaited this moment for centuries, stormed the gates of heaven and shed bitter tears.  G-d granted her prayers and promised that the exile would end after seventy years. If not for Rachel, the Babylonian exile may not have ended so quickly; our nation may not have survived. (3)

Where did these Jewish mothers find the courage? I don’t know because I’m not one of them, but ask your mother and I’m sure she’ll gladly tell you. When a need arises, the Jewish mother simply responds.

Sarah didn’t worry about standing up to the violent Ishmael; her son’s safety was at stake. Had Ishmael accomplished then, what his descendants have tried to accomplish since, we would not be here today. Rebeca didn’t fear Esau’s wrath, the future of her children was at stake. Had Jacob not received those blessings there may not have been a Jewish people today. Rachel’s children were in need and she never wavered. She worried not for herself, but for her children.

In Egypt

Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish male newborns be put to death. At hearing this news, Jewish men despaired and refused to procreate, but their wives wouldn’t hear of it. These women were, by nature, chaste and demure, but the future of their people was at stake. Contrary to their natures, they ventured out to the fields and enticed their working husbands. (4)

When they felt the pangs of labor, they returned to the fields, away from prying eyes and gave birth to their children. The mothers then returned home; leaving their infants behind and entrusting their survival to G-d. G-d nurtured these children lovingly and brought them home when they matured. (5)

To ensure the success of his decree against the Jewish children, Pharaoh instructed Jewish midwives to commit infanticide. But, the midwives never entertained the idea and saved countless lives at grave personal risk. (6)

Amram, father of Moses, who despaired of having more children, divorced his wife, Yocheved. He later remarried her at the urging of his six year old daughter, Miriam. Pharaoh’s decree, she argued, threatened only the male newborns, divorce ensures the complete extinction of our nation. When Moses was born, it was Miriam, who gave the people new hope, when she prophesied that the baby would grow up to become the redeemer of Israel. (7)

Imagine Yocheved’s anguish as she placed her son in a basket and cast him upon the Nile, entrusting his safety to G-d. Imagine Miriam’s dread as she watched the princess of Egypt collect the basket. Imagine her courage as she approached the princess audaciously and recommend her mother, Yocheved, as a wet nurse for the baby. (8)

What of Batya, the princess, who stretched out her arm to collect the little Jewish boy? Our sages taught that she had ventured out to the river to secretly convert to Judaism. Imagine her bravery as she returned to the palace, to the great Pharaoh’s home and secretly consorted with the Jews. She raised their future redeemer under her father’s nose. That is self-sacrifice par excellence! (9)

These are only the publicized cases. There are literally thousands of stories, liberally sprinkled throughout the course of Jewish history, of Jewish mothers, who selflessly sacrificed for the sake of their children with no regard to personal safety. (10)

In Catholic Spain, despite the threat of death at the hands of the Inquisition, Jewish mothers taught their daughters to light Shabbat candles. Jewish mothers in Nazi death camps continued to have children and, with their last breath, defied the final solution. Jewish mothers under Communist oppression raised their children to be proud Jews despite the hardships of Soviet discrimination and persecution.

What is the Source of Their strength?

It is their faith. From the very beginning, Jewish women believed in a personal and caring G-d. When  men despaired, the women believed and carried on. When the future seemed bleak, when events seemed at their worst, the women never lost hope. They never broke faith. They always believed that G-d would come through. If not immediately, then soon. If not for them, then for their children.

When G-d split the Reed Sea, Miriam, accompanied by the lyrical clinging of tambourines, led the women in an ode to G-d. Where did they find tambourines in the middle of a desert? They brought them along from Egypt in perfect faith that G-d would perform precisely such miracles. (11)

When Moses failed to return from Mount Sinai at the appointed time and men predicted that he wouldn’t come back, the women persisted in faith. When the men determined to build a golden calf, Jewish women refused to contribute their gold. (12)

When the spies returned from the holy land with a negative report the men broke down and cried. The women never broke faith with G-d. They rejected the negative report and refused to cry. (13)

This iron clad faith ferments the Jewish mother’s rock-like strength. Faith is the foundation of our religion. If Torah and Mitzvos are its building blocks then faith is its cornerstone.

Our mothers give us the foundation upon which we build. Foundations are not usually visible. They aren’t meant to be. They are concealed by the buildings atop them. But at times of emergency, when the building crumbles, the foundation can once again be glimpsed. Its rock solid surface cannot be shaken. The entire building can be rebuilt upon it.

Wise of Heart

This is why the Torah identifies the women who helped to build the tabernacle as “wise of heart.” Wisdom of heart pertains to immutable faith and insurmountable strength. Indeed, these were the builders of our tabernacle. These were the true founders of our nation. (14)

Moses did his part. Aaron did his. The rabbis, judges, teachers and priests all did their parts. Master builders constructed the tabernacle and gifted architects sketched its plans. But it would all have come to naught if not for the contribution of “wise” Jewish mothers. These “wise” women planted the seeds that blossomed into a nation. These “wise” women invested kernels of faith and reaped generations of fortitude.


  1. Tosefta, Sotah, ch. 6. See also Rashi on Genesis 21: 9-10. Ishmael taunted Isaac about the inheritance, claiming that as firstborn he was entitled to a double portion. When Isaac balked at the concubine’s son claiming title of first born, Ishmael shot arrows his way. Our sages taught that Ishmael engaged in murder, idolatry and adultery. Sarah hastened to remove this negative influence from her son, Isaac.
  2. Genesis 27: 1-15. Rebeka risked not only her physical safety, but also her spiritual safety. When Jacob worried that Isaac might be upset if he discovered his duplicity, Rebeka, assured Jacob that she would assume whatever curse his father might send his way. Ibid, verse 13.
  3. Rashi on Genesis 28: 7. Though Rashi suggests that Jacob did this according to divine instruction and Rachel didn’t express an opinion on this, see Likutei Sichos v. XXX, p. 238, that Rachel demanded this as well. See also Bereishit Rabba, 82: 10. For the general description of this story see Jeremiah 31:14 – 16 and Pesichte D’eicha Rabsi, 24.
  4. What happened on the night of her wedding was another incredible demonstration of Rachel’s piety. Rachel was meant to marry Jacob, but her father placed Leah under the canopy instead. Rachel and Jacob arranged a private code to protect themselves against precisely such duplicity, but Rachel, at the last moment, surrendered this code to her sister. (Megillah, 13b) Rachel also hid under the  marital bed and made all the proper sounds in Leah’s stead so that Jacob wouldn’t discover the ruse and shame her sister. She allowed the night of her dreams to become her worst nightmare, all to protect her sister’s honor. (Pesichte D’eicha Rabsi, 24.)
  5. They believed with perfect faith that G-d would not abandon them. G-d had promised Jacob that his children would be redeemed from Egypt and the Jewish mothers fought to give G-d that chance. See Rashi on Exodus 38: 8. and Shemot Rabbah 23: 8.
  6. Exodus 1: 16 – 2.
  7. Rashi on Exodus 2: 1. See Bab. Talmud, Sotah 13a and Mechilta on Exodus 15: 20.
  8. Exodus 2: 3-9.
  9. Bab. Talmud, Sotah 12b. That is why she was named Batya. Rather than Bat Paroh –  daughter of Pharaoh. She became, upon conversion, the daughter of G-d.
  10. The list of Jewish mothers who stood by their people in times of need includes heroines such as Esther, who forfeited her marriage to Mordechai for the sake of saving her people. (Bab. Talmud, Megilah, 13a, 13b and 15a.)Tamar, who was prepared to die at the stake so long as she would not shame the father of her children, Judah. (Bab. Talmud, Sotah 10b. See also Rashi on Genesis 38: 28.)

    The daughters of Lot. They were chaste and moral women. Despite living in the G-dless city, Sodom, the Torah testifies that never slept with a man out of wedlock. (Genesis 19: 8) When Sodom was destroyed they thought the whole of humanity had perished, themselves being the only survivors. Despite their revulsion to incest, they forced themselves to sleep with their father in an effort to rebuild and perpetuate humanity. (ibid. verses 31-38. See also Bereshit Rabba 49: 9)

    Ruth, who was a shy and modest woman. Brazen acts such as inserting herself into a strange man’s bed, especially the bed of her benefactor, was as repulsive to her as incest was to the daughters of Lot. Yet her mother in law, the prophetess Naomi, informed her that King David would be the product of this union. Ruth subjected herself to personal shame, mortification and even possible rejection by her benefactor, for the benefit of the Jewish people. (Ruth 3: 1 – 15. See also Channa Weisberg,  Crown of Creation, Mosaic Press,  Buffalo, NY, 1996, p. 91.) Ruth and Boaz did not actually have relations until they were properly married.

    Three generations later, Nizenet, mother of David would perform a similar task for the purpose of bringing David to the world. (Sefer Hatoda’ah, introduction to Shavuot).

    Channa, mother of seven sons, urged her children to surrender their lives rather than worship idolatry. After her seven sons were executed, Channa, the distraught mother, went mad. She threw herself from the roof in despair and fell to her tragic death. (Bab. Talmud, Gitin 57b, Eicha Rabba, 1: 50, where she appears by the name Miriam Bat Nachtom.)

  11. See Mechilta on Exodus 15: 20.
  12. See Midrash Tanchumah, Ki Tisa, 19. See also Bamidbar Rabbah, 21: 10.
  13. Bamidbar Rabbah, 21: 10.
  14. Exodus 35: 25. See also Shemot Rabbah 49: 1. The Torah also refers to the men as wise of heart and inspired  (Exodus 35: 25 and 36: 1 – 2), but the fact that the women are introduced ahead of the men is out of character for the Torah and deserves attention and explanation. Furthermore, the Torah specifies that the women outdid the men in their contribution to the tabernacle. (Exodus 35: 22.)Photo compliments of www.bbc.co.uk.

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