If you’re like me, you spent much of your childhood singing along to the beloved 1972 children’s album, “Free to Be You and Me.” Among many other important life lessons (it’s all right to cry! princesses don’t have to get married! watch out for cannibals!), I learned this phrase that always comes to mind around Mother’s Day:
“Mommies are people, people with children.”
In other words, mothers are complex, imperfect, fully-realized people with experiences and interests apart from their children. As obvious as it may seem, this was an important lesson for me to learn as a child, and one I still have difficulty remembering today. I am blessed to have a close and loving relationship with my mother, yet I sometimes catch myself holding her to impossible standards of perfection.
The lesson that mothers are people applies equally well to the Jewish people’s collective mothers, the Biblical matriarchs: Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. There is much to love about these women. Each of them surmounts many hardships to raise their children, support their husbands and faithfully serve God. They are often kind, insightful and strong. But they are also deeply flawed, in ways that can sometimes make them challenging to relate to, let alone love.
Take Sarah, for example. She bravely strikes out into the unknown with her husband, Abraham, leaving behind her home and family in exchange for God’s promise of a new land and a great legacy (a promise she has only heard about second-hand). She is a devoted wife, mother, and servant of God, tenaciously resisting the advances of foreign kings and compassionately caring for unexpected visitors.
Sadly, her compassion does not extend to her maidservant, Hagar. When Sarah is unable to conceive, Sarah offers Hagar to her husband as a surrogate, hoping that he can obtain an heir through her. This is troubling on its own, though less so in historical context, as surrogacy via handmaidens was an established practice in the Ancient Near East. More troubling is the fact that once Hagar conceives, Sarah seemingly turns on her, complaining to her husband that she is now lowered in Hagar’s esteem. Sarah then afflicts Hagar so harshly that Hagar runs away, returning only after an angel reassures her that she and her child will be the founders of a great nation. Years later, after both women have borne sons, Sarah sees the two boys playing together and panics. She orders Abraham to expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael, so that Sarah’s son, Isaac, will have no competition for his inheritance. Abraham reluctantly agrees, casting Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with only a waterskin and some bread to sustain them. Were it not for another act of angelic intervention and the miraculous appearance of a well, both Hagar and her son would certainly have died of thirst.
How are we to understand this story? One option is to do as the ancient rabbis did, waving aside the ugliness by insisting that Sarah is justified because all of her actions are in accordance with God’s plan. Looking through a more contemporary lens, we can recognize that God’s plan leaves Sarah (and Abraham) with very little agency. If we think of God’s behind-the-scenes machinations as analogous to the societal structures and mores that continue to restrict women’s choices today, we might find more sympathy for Sarah’s plight as a mother who is protecting her son the only way she knows how.
However we approach it, the story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us that all mothers, even the matriarchs, are just people, with all the contradiction and complexity that entails. Sarah’s courage and generosity do not excuse her cruelty to Hagar, but neither are they canceled out by it. We can abhor Sarah’s misdeeds while celebrating her virtues, and we can do the same for our own mothers. On this Mother’s Day, I encourage us to set aside any impossible standards we may harbor and embrace our mothers as the challengingly and gloriously messy human beings they are. They brought us into this world, and for that we owe them our gratitude and respect.
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Rabbi Abby Phelps teaches online and in person about the intersection of Jewish thought and contemporary ethical challenges and officiates life cycle events for Jewish and interfaith families in the greater Milwaukee area. She lives in Milwaukee with her partner, Cantor Richard Newman.