At the height of Covid, my oldest son, Joey (then 18 months), started vomiting uncontrollably. My husband and I rushed him to urgent care, where, due to Covid restrictions, I was the only one allowed into the hospital room with Joey. Because he was becoming dehydrated, the doctors hooked him up to a saline drip, and we waited. Thankfully, Joey turned out to be just fine. But at the time, the sight of my little boy crying and hooked up to all those tubes and instruments, with me unable to do anything for him, was excruciating. I was holding within me tremendous fear and anxiety on behalf of my child. However, I also recall taking some solace in the fact that I was just the latest in a long line of women forced to confront this inevitable feeling of maternal helplessness. In that moment, I felt somehow connected to all the other mothers out there who I knew intuitively understood just what I was experiencing. In that small way, I wasn’t alone.
This week’s torah portion, Chayei Sarah, directly follows the episode of the “Akeida”, where God orders Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Throughout the centuries, there have been countless studies devoted to the incomprehensible dedication shown by Abraham in his willingness to follow through on God’s command. We’re astonished that Abraham could put aside the compassion he obviously felt for his son and resignedly carry out the dreadful task he had been dealt.
We’re never told what Abraham’s wife, Sarah, knew of his plan that day. But if she had even an inkling of Abraham’s intentions…well, as a fellow mother, I can intuitively imagine the storm of anxiety and despair that would have been raging in her breaking heart. This boy, Isaac—for whom Sarah had prayed; whom Sarah had carried for nine months; whom all of Sarah’s hopes and dreams were bound up in—was in grave danger, and there was nothing his mother could do to protect him. Considering the heart-stopping anxiety Abraham and his family must have endured through this ordeal, it perhaps comes as little surprise when we learn, at the start of this week's subsequent torah passage, that Sarah has passed…
I’ve found myself thinking of Abraham, Isaac, and especially Sarah these past few weeks. In response to the horrific attacks of October 7, Israel’s political and military leadership are now battling with those who would do harm to their citizens and the Jewish world. And, like Abraham, many of these decisionmakers will be forced to put aside their natural compassion in order to carry out their horrible yet necessary task.
I must admit that, as a mother, I struggle with this. Just as I identify with Sarah when reading the “Akeida”, I can’t help but empathize with the fear, anxiety and agony innocent mothers in both Israel and Gaza are suffering through right now.
When I read the news article about an Israeli mother who heard her young son scream over the phone, “I'm too little, don’t take me!” before being kidnapped to Gaza, I cry. I can only imagine the anguish that comes with not knowing whether your terrified child is alive or dead, night after night. That mother’s pain must be unbearable—and I can almost feel it with her.
At the same time, I know life is hell right now for civilians in Gaza. I shudder to imagine a mother clinging to her children as bombs and rockets fall, knowing an unlucky twist of fate could render them collateral damage of a war that, for the innocents, is made no less horrific by virtue of being just. I’m just as gripped by these mothers’ pain, and weep for them, as well.
Amidst these feelings, I think back to Sarah, and of my own comparatively minor bouts of motherly dread. It all leads me to wonder if perhaps recognizing and giving voice to this shared, uniquely maternal flavor of angst may well be a fundamental responsibility of all mothers. If, maybe, we should always be striving to form a kinship of compassion with our fellow moms when they fear for the safety of their children—no matter where they might be situated in this dangerous world. At least then the innocent mothers will know that someone, somewhere is acknowledging and bringing attention to their anguish…that they are not, at least, suffering alone.
Cantor Lisa Peicott