The Bible and Talmud give us only a glimpse of the role parental influences played in making our prophets, kings, and sages great.
But in Nod Shel Demaot (Flask of Tears), author Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines (1839-1915), head of an innovative yeshiva in Lithuania, writes about the important role mothers play in the lives of their children, including in the development of the Torah scholar.
The sources of his thesis include a verse from Yitro, in which we read that the Lord called to Moses and said, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel…. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation….” (19:3-6).
The midrash explains that “the house of Jacob” refers to women and “the children of Israel” to men. Both must be involved if we are to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” “Why the women?” asks the midrash: “Because they are the ones who can inspire their children to walk in the ways of Torah.”
Rav Reines also refers to King Solomon’s counsel — “My son, heed the discipline (musar) of your father, and do not forsake the instruction (Torah) of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8) — and analyzes a great talmudic sage. In Pirkei Avot, we read of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya: “Ashrei yoladeto; Happy is she who gave birth to him” — the only one of the five disciples of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai described whose mother is brought into the picture. What special role did she play in his life?
Rav Reines responds by relating a story in Bereshit Rabba 64:10 that tells of a time, not long after the Second Temple’s destruction when the Roman rulers decided to allow the Jewish people to rebuild the Temple. But when the Kutim, usually identified with the Samaritans, maligned the Jews to the Romans, accusing them of disloyalty, permission to rebuild was revoked.
The Jews gathered with violent rebellion in their hearts, clamoring to rebuild in defiance of Rome’s decree.
More responsible leaders, knowing this would end in disaster, sought out a wise and persuasive figure to quell the mutiny — Rabbi Yehoshua. The midrash says he used a fable: A lion had just devoured its prey, but a bone was stuck in its throat. The lion offered a reward to anyone who would remove the bone. The stork volunteered, thrust its long neck into the lion’s mouth and extracted the bone.
When the stork demanded his reward, the lion retorted, “Your reward is you can boast you thrust your head into a lion’s mouth and lived to tell the tale. Your survival is sufficient reward.” So, too, argued Rabbi Yehoshua, our survival is our reward. We must surrender the hope of rebuilding our Temple in the interests of our national survival and continuity. Rav Reines further adduces that this combination of insight and ability to calm explosive tempers was the result of his mother’s upbringing.
In our religion, we put much stress on the father’s role in teaching Torah to his children and we often underestimate the mother’s role — but our tradition tells us that mothers, at least as much as fathers, are essential if we are to create a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”