The Wisdom of Our Mothers

April 19, 2024 / 11 Nisan 5784

Last Saturday, gripped by the distressing news that Iran had launched a direct attack on Israel, I found myself making that painstaking call to my mother living in Israel. Skipping through the pleasantries, we jumped right into the heart of the conversation, Israel’s existential existence, and how my homebound mother was going to make it through another war, on another front, on another day. The call was short, but the message was clear, we’ve been through worse.

There’s a reason Israel’s national anthem is called “Hatikvah” I thought. The hope of two thousand years is much stronger than some surface-to-air guided weapons and drones, and my mother’s calm in the face of danger only epitomized the stereotype of the generation of elders who built the country with their sabra grit and relentless belief in Israel’s right to exist. Israeli Mothers 1 – Iran 0!

In this week’s Torah portion, Metzora, we continue to delve deeper into the complex rituals introduced in last week’s parashat Tazria and the related lessons on spiritual purification. The reading emphasizes the critical role of guidance and process in achieving renewal and redemption for the person plagued with metzora (Leviticus 14:2). Just as the priest orchestrates the afflicted’s return to the community, so too do the guiding figures in our lives help steer our personal journeys of growth and understanding.

While Pirke Avot, the “Ethics of Our Fathers,” has profoundly shaped Jewish life with its rich compilation of maxims from our sages, it’s important to acknowledge another, perhaps less codified, source of wisdom: the insights and teachings of our mothers. This unwritten “Wisdom of Our Mothers” encompasses their nurturing guidance, heartfelt advice, and the love infused in their everyday actions—elements just as vital to shaping our character and values.

The Torah portion teaches us about purification and reintegration into the community, reflecting the healing and educational roles mothers often play. They are our first teachers and the architects of the home environment. Their lessons are woven not through formal edicts but through lived experience and daily interaction, providing a foundation as crucial as that of any text.

Dr. Carol Gilligan, a pioneering psychologist in moral development, emphasized the voice of women and the ethics of care, arguing that care is a fundamental aspect of human life and moral judgment. Her research underscores the importance of the relational and interconnected approach that mothers frequently embody. Gilligan’s perspective underpins the narrative of our Torah portion, where healing and reintegration are not solitary but communal endeavors, facilitated by others.

The teachings of mothers are often lessons in empathy, resilience, and the interconnectedness of our actions. They show us that our individual choices impact those around us, echoing the ritualistic cleansing of the Metzora, which is not just about the individual’s purification but about restoring relationships within the community.

This wisdom highlights the vital role of the family unit in imparting values that resonate beyond the confines of home. As these values are passed down, they influence our circle of friends and, ultimately, the community at large. It is within this broader community context that we realize the full spectrum of teachings from both our fathers and mothers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader whose life was dedicated to justice and community, famously said, “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” His words resonate with the Jewish value of klal Yisrael, the collective responsibility and interconnectedness of all Jews, and underscore the profound impact of familial teachings on community welfare.

After the weekend, I circled back with my mother, seemingly unaffected by the dangers of 300+ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) destroyed on their way to and above Israel’s skies. It was during this call that my mother reminded me that learning from the past is important but dwelling on it is unhealthy. I was again reminded that people need to look forward, they need to see a future of possibility and hope. The pain of the past does not go away when we look forward. The memories of metzora do not disappear even after the affected rejoin the community.

As we reflect on Parashat Metzora and the “Wisdom of Our Mothers,” let us remember that our strongest communities are built on the foundations of both formal teachings and the profound, often unspoken wisdom passed through generations of nurturing. Although it’s not yet Mother’s Day, I’d say that making a call this weekend to say thank you to mom or to the matriarch who fills that role will probably be very much appreciated just because it’s not expected. Because we are…


Shabbat Shalom.