We have a recurring joke in our family. I prepare a lavish, beautiful, delicious meal for 25 people and my husband comes to the table and asks, “Isn’t the turkey sliced perfectly?” In his own (special) way, he is commenting on the fact that I coordinated, cooked and baked everything on my own, and his sole contribution to the evening was slicing the meat.
It’s a self-deprecating compliment. Sort of.
I enjoy and take pride in this accomplishment of preparing and hosting, but with the sense of responsibility also comes a perception of blame. If the turkey is dry or the roasted vegetables mushy, they are a reflection on my abilities. If the house is a mess or the children not dressed presentably, if there is not enough food or my cutlery is tarnished, I am judged on my ability to manage it all (or at least, I perceive it that way). Certainly no one holds my husband responsible for outfitting our girls or polishing the silver.
An article circulating on Facebook this week invited parents to bring their children into the synagogue sanctuary during prayers and encouraged synagogue attendees to be tolerant of the noise children make and to exhibit compassion, patience and support for the (mostly) mothers and (some) fathers who are trying to teach their children the appropriate behavior for synagogue services. As with any life-worthy lesson, the learning can only progress in stages, and the congregants must have faith (and again patience) that the parent is cognizant of her/his surroundings and is using her/his best judgement as to when it is time to remove the child from the sanctuary.
As a society, we are quick to judge the parent – and particularly the mother – for the child’s behavior, convinced that, in any given situation, we would behave differently. We would remove the child earlier or come equipped with appropriate distractions, or perhaps even, that our own children would never behave like that to begin with. We judge with our thoughts, with our glances or glares, with sneers and even with scolding, with comments to our friends both during and after services.
In this week’s parashah – Emor – we are told of the son of an Israelite woman who went out among the people and blasphemed by pronouncing the name of God. The Israelites did not know what consequence to impose upon this (unnamed) individual and so they brought him before Moses for clarification of the law. And then the text tells us:
The name of his mother was Shelomith the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.
So few women are mentioned in the Bible, and in this narrative, the main protagonist himself is not named. Why then did the Torah record the name and the lineage of the blasphemer’s mother? What are we meant to learn from Shelomith Bat Divri that she was worthy of being mentioned?
The rabbis and Rashi expounded various scenarios which unravel the inference of this man’s mother and elucidate the significance of the mother’s name. The biblical text relates that the blasphemer was also the son of an Egyptian man intimating for the rabbis that the blasphemer’s own lineage portended his questionable character. Some sources even suggest this particular Egyptian was the same man Moses killed for beating a Hebrew slave, further confirming the blasphemer’s poor genetic make-up.
The commentators differ as to whether the blasphemer’s mother willingly chose a non-Israelite as the father of her son or whether she consorted with men “professionally,” and thus became pregnant. In either case, the implication is that the mother’s poor choices resulted in a son who blasphemes the name of God.
Rashi explains that from the woman’s name, Shelomith Bat Divri, we hear echoes of the common greeting, “Shalom Alakh,” – Peace unto you – and that she was a “dabranit,” – a chatterbox. He goes so far as to say that she behaved immorally because she was willing to speak with everyone.
Why did Shelomith’s son blaspheme God? In the ancient and medieval male mind – because he did not learn from his mother how to hold his tongue.
Finally, Rashi asks why we are told that the blasphemer and his mother were from the tribe of Dan.
This tells us that a wicked person causes disgrace to himself, disgrace to his father and disgrace to his tribe.
But not to his mother?
I guess the mother cannot be both to blame for her children’s behavior and disgraced by it at the same time.
I struggled with this text and its interpretations for most of the week. Certainly, they reflect the thoughts and opinions of a time long ago, even as we still perceive the rumbles and reverberations today. We may know intellectually that blaming the mother is neither rational nor accurate, but as a society our instinctive deductions have not yet been reset.
Shelomith bat Divrei can also mean one who brings peace and who is the “daughter of my word.” Could the Torah not be showing us that despite her son’s antagonistic behavior and poor choice of language, that his mother was a peaceful woman, who followed God’s commands and provided her son with the appropriate guidance and example?
Could she not have been singled out and named to exemplify that sometimes, despite our best efforts at responsibility and education, our children’s behavior is not within our own control?
Can we welcome and own our responsibilities without also being the source of blame?
Another verse in this parashah tells us:
You shall not defile My holy Name, and I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you.
We are commanded here both not to desecrate the Name of God and to sanctify it. When we glare at a mother trying to quiet a noisy child in synagogue or sneer at her to remove the child, we are, in fact, desecrating God in the name of sanctifying Him. We may think we are helping to preserve the sanctity of a sacred space, when, by judging and humiliating another fallible human being, we are actually defiling God.
I choose to believe that the Torah has preserved the name of the blasphemer’s mother because she was an exceptional woman despite her son’s sins and because the text is reflecting a community who embraced this quiet, faithful woman whose child did not follow her example, yet its members supported her and helped her and honoured her by recording her name for posterity.
We desecrate God’s name when we judge, when we blame, and when we think we know better.
We sanctify God through the kindness, compassion and empathy we extend our fellow parents.
In honour of Shelomith, let us remember both to sanctify and not to defile. Let us help and support each other to transcend our responsibilities.
Without judgement. And without blame.