Rabbi Leder's Shabbat Message - May 6, 2022

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This Shabbat immediately precedes one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Mother’s Day is part of the American Jewish landscape and it should be. Without Moses’ mother hiding him in the river he never would have survived to lead our people to freedom. Without his mother Rebecca’s help, Jacob would never have become the great patriarch that he was. And on and on it goes from Torah until now. Women have been, are and always will be the crucial difference in our people’s story. One thousand years from now, when historians write about American Judaism, I believe they will consider the full inclusion of women in reform and conservative Jewish life to be the most powerful, transformative, and positive change of all.   

People may say it’s a man’s world. But as Betsy likes to say, “Behind every successful man, is a woman rolling her eyes.” It’s funny, but it really is true that behind every man, in fact behind every human being, behind every one of us there was or is a perhaps flawed, but nevertheless great in her own way woman--our mother.

One of the things I have learned over the years by watching my own children is how each age brings its own special kind of wonder and appreciation. What amazes us about a five-year-old is different than what amazes us about a 15, 25 or 50-year-old child. I am learning these days that this is true not only of our children, but also of our parents. 
 
What amazed me about my mom when I was a boy was different than what amazed me about her when I was a young man with my own small children and is different than what amazes me about her now that she is 88. And this Shabbat seems a good day for me to tell her. 
 
Dear Mom,

My first glimpse of your true strength came watching each of our babies emerge from liquid darkness, entering the world in a painful, exquisite act of will. Those two, miraculous moments taught me so much about you and your love for me.

Some days I think of Betsy and me as heroes for raising two kids--then I remember that you and dad raised five. I took out my calculator and did a little figuring.  At 6 per day, for 2 1/2 years per child, you changed 27,375 diapers. You made at least 150 trips to the pediatrician, not to mention the dermatologists, allergists, and orthodontists. At three pairs per year per child for 18 years you bought over 300 pairs of shoes, not to mention skates, baseball spikes, snorkel flippers and ballet slippers. At even just two meals a day, six days a week per family member for each of the years any of us kids lived at home, you served 183,960 plates of food. That doesn’t even include all the school lunches you packed, or the years that our relatives who were fleeing the socialist takeover in Chile lived with us--making it 11 every day for breakfast and dinner.

No, you weren’t perfect. There were a lot of times I wished you were more like other moms. But now I look back at your life as a young parent and realize that the money wasn't there, that dad couldn't or wouldn’t be home much, that you drank five cups of coffee a day just to keep going, and that you did it all without help or complaint. I know you often suffered terrible, blinding headaches, that your mentally ill mother who died by suicide and your abusive father were of no help to you, and that your life was defined by putting your own wants aside.

I know your marriage was sometimes as cold as the Minnesota ice you scrapped off your windshield to make one more trip to the grocery store. I know you would have left him but for our sake didn’t. Raising our own children, I realize that tough as it is, the cooking, cleaning and schlepping was the easy part. The hard part is trying to raise children to be mensches. I’m not sure how you did it mom, but watching Betsy with Aaron and Hannah has given me a clue. 

You remember the time I played airplane pilot on your sewing machine in the basement and accidentally turned it into a mass of broken parts and tangled thread? Or when at 16 I mistook the accelerator for the brake and drove your car through the garage and into the kitchen? "He thought it was a drive-in restaurant," you joked with family and friends. You always forgave my awkwardness. You were my refuge from the pressures and agonies of a dad for whom excellent was just a little less than something to be proud of. Even now, I can come to you with my failures, my bruised ego, my skinned and scrapped self-image, and know I’m still your little boy, still worthy, still safe.
 
You know what else I loved about you when I was growing up mom? You always believed me, even when I was lying. Through getting arrested for shop lifting, getting kicked out of camp for smoking, rock and roll bands in the basement, failing algebra, fracturing Tommy Murphy's collar bone, having my heart broken at 22 by a woman I loved and three months later dating a woman poet 15 years older than I, (who you pointed out to me on more than one occasion did not shave her legs) and then getting engaged to Betsy on our second date, you always believed in my goodness. You believed I would somehow turn out right. Your faith in me demanded my own self-respect. Your trust made me want to do the right thing even when I wasn't. How does a son thank his mother for believing in him?

“If men had to give birth there would be no people,” you used to say. Maybe it’s true, women are so strong. You mom, are so strong. After so many years, in the most profound, heartbreaking and beautiful way, you became a mother again, but this time to dad, whose life contracted to a room on the second floor of a nursing home where he sat in a diaper and bib, as you gently fed him his pureed food. At 84, after enduring multiple surgeries, after learning to manage the money, the lawyers, the doctors, the house, the family, there you were, spoon in hand, a mother, on duty, without complaint.

Dad is gone now and you have embraced a new life. You gave up your car keys without being told.  You moved into assisted living before anyone said you should. You are strong, you are content and at peace, calm and filled with the love of 10 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren. “Dus, is nachas fin de kinderlach,” dad would say.
 
It's hard for a rabbi to have any pretty illusions about life. Which is all the more reason why I am writing you this letter. I know many whose mothers did not give them the love every child deserves. I have seen so many others lose their mothers this year and there's a certain ache in them that I know will never leave; so many for whom Kaddish is no longer a mere collection of words.
 
None of us gets to hold onto our mothers forever. How well I know it. So, my letter to you will be my message to the congregation this Shabbat of Mother's Day. A little reminder for every one of us, to thank God for a mother's love, for my kind, beautiful, loving Betsy, for every mother reading this right now, for mothers everywhere.

Mom, I think the truly lost and lonely in this nervous, unkind world of ours--the shattered and the hopeless among us--got that way because they never had what you managed to give every one of your children; the certainty, the warmth, the breath of unfailing love. Thank you, mom.  I love you.
 
Shabbat shalom and happy Mother's Day,

Steve