Parshat Vayishlach Is An Ode To A Mother’s Endless Love
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Shabbat Vayishlach

Parshat Vayishlach Is An Ode To A Mother’s Endless Love

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Reading Vayishlach should make us miss our mothers — mothers who cradled us, cuddled us, and cried for us.

I exclude Sarah, who hardly even talks to Isaac. Rebecca ranks higher, however, loving Jacob enough to pass him off to Isaac as her first-born and then assuaging Jacob’s guilt over the deceit by assuring him, “Your curse be on me. Just do as I say” [Genesis 27:13].

Imagine, then, Jacob’s shock when he hears of Rebecca’s death, miles away, and many years past the time he last laid eyes on her. Yet her death is never mentioned in the Torah! We are to infer it, says the Midrash, from this week’s laconic reference to the death of Rebecca’s nurse, Deborah [Gen. 35:8]. “Why record the demise of this practically unknown woman?” our commentators ask, if not to allude to a parallel death in Jacob’s life, his mother’s, too painful for the Torah to acknowledge directly.

Esau’s version of that same mother runs much differently, of course, and so my personal award for motherhood goes to Rachel.

Her mothering, alas, ends tragically and prematurely. Her first son, Joseph, is enslaved by his half-brothers who manufacture reports of his death. When, later, she bears Benjamin, she dies in childbirth. Plagued by infertility, Rachel has just two sons: one who disappears and one she never knows.

Jacob buries Rachel on the spot, marking her resting place for all time [Gen. 35:20].

What Rachel lacked in life she gets in death, however, for tradition makes us all the children of Rachel, our quintessential mother. Jeremiah enlarges her love of Joseph and Benjamin to include all the exiles who will pass her grave on their way to Babylonian captivity [Jer. 31:15]. “A cry is heard in Ramah — Rachel weeping for her children,” Jeremiah insists. She awaits their return ,we are told. And there she remains, crying for us as well, for we, too, are in a kind of exile.

Our exile is from the world we once knew as certain, safe and sound: an innocent America, unquestionably on the side of right, where we went to school, worked hard, settled down, and got ahead. We lived close to family; knew our neighbors’ names; got the same nightly TV news; trusted the government. We were optimistic.

The reality was seamier, we now know: fears of nuclear attack, racist and gender bias, and widespread sexual abuse that no one acknowledged. We can’t go home again to those times and shouldn’t really want to. But languishing in today’s realities can prove unsettling: knowing more about the world in real time can rob us of the certainty of even wanting to call this world “home.”

We work longer but are no happier. We have fewer long-term hopes and less certainty about them. The newer generations seem less likely to remain Jewish, join synagogues, and care about Israel. The earth itself is endangered and we cannot manage to save it.

We are, as it were, in virtual exile from a world that seems less and less to be our own. Whereas once we thought expansively, now we hunker down in self-defense against hackers, bots, and trolls that feed us lies and know our every move. It would be nice to have a mother’s embrace, guaranteeing that all will turn out right.

As an exile in a world that puts up endless walls and warnings, I increasingly listen for Rachel. She reminds me of another motherly presence that knows my anxiety: the Shechinah, the side of God, the Talmud says, that accompanies us into exile. Together, they give me hope.

Exile is not forever, they say: tomorrow is a new day. So is the day thereafter. When despair threatens, I sense Rachel’s tears from Ramah, but I hear also the promise that she will wait for my return, into a world of renewed promise and passion.

I believe the day will dawn when Rachel welcomes me back home.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:10 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 32:4-36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12
(Ashkenaz); Obadiah 1:1-21 (Sephard)
Havdalah: 5:11 p.m.

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