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On the Passing of a Jewish Mother

On the Passing of a Jewish Mother


On the plane from TLV to LAX, 05/23/2017

My mother has passed on. And her words—I can’t recall her words.

It’s true. Don’t ask a son for a biography of his mother. He never really left her womb.Don’t ask a son for a biography of his mother. He never really left her womb. How much can you see from inside a womb?

And in the sense that he did leave her womb, he never escaped her embrace.

He may have spent his entire life wriggling his way out of that embrace—but then he was preoccupied with the embrace, with his attempt to escape, with declaring his own identity. His mother, her life—what does he know? Her words—what can he recall?

A mother teaches a child his first words. In those years that molded my character until I left home, there was no voice that rang, sang, whispered, flowed and entered my ears as much as her voice. Words that penetrated my heart, the things I most value in life—they rest there to this day.

Yet I don’t recall any of those words.

My father—I can recite his words verbatim. “Don’t buy junk.” “You’ve got to set priorities in life.” “Keep asking questions; how else are you going to learn?” Indeed, he taught me many things.

I had another teacher, my grandmother. I can tell you the stories she told me in the words she used. I remember words. Words like “We have a tradition in our family. If you do something good, bury it under the ground, throw it out to the sea. When you will need it, or your children will need it, or your children’s children, it will come back to you.”

Close enough. I remember words.

But From my mother, I can’t tell you words. I didn’t hear words.from my mother, I can’t tell you words. I didn’t hear words.

There were three times I really got her upset, and she taught me good. I recall as vivid as the sun shining in my eyes the fire of her pounding heart, the burning tears upon her cheeks, the choking of her breath; and through her eyes, her deep, powerful eyes, I was drawn once again into her womb, where I was formed.

But within the heart, you do not hear the words that come from the heart. You hear a pulse, you feel it in all your being, and no room is left to hear the spoken words. Within the womb—that is the place where you and the words have yet to be born. There, you do not know of words. You know, you just know, as you know yourself.

I can tell you what she wanted from me. Maybe I can’t. At least, I can feel it inside me. An ache that won’t be assuaged.

I know she wanted me to be a mentsch. To put others before myself.

She loved Torah. As an adolescent, she would just read Tanach aloud—that’s all she knew—to her younger sister and to her niece whose mother had traveled afar, both of whom she cared for, and who both shared her bed.

She loved all things Jewish. But she didn’t want to see a religion that tore people apart.

To her, being Jewish meant loving people. Knowing G‑d meant loving people. Learning wisdom, studying Torah—if it it did not mean loving people and caring for them more than you care about yourself, in what way could it be called wisdom?

I know she wanted me to value all that is beautiful.

Beauty is a tree that G‑d planted and nurtured for a hundred years.

Beauty is the play of children in a park, giggling with one another, learning to make room for one another.

Beauty is a symphony composed centuries ago, and while so many other symphonies have been forgotten, this one is still beautiful for us, perhaps yet more beautiful. Because its beauty is true, and truth lives at all times and places—which is why there is no truth that is not beautiful, and why real beauty is always true.

Beauty and truth. All my life I have pursued them as one. Because my mother taught me so.

What remains is that irresolution we call guilt. What remains is that irresolution we call guilt.Unfinished business. Because no son can live up to the expectations of a Jewish mother. Not on his own. Not in her lifetime.

But life doesn’t end.

In the last years of my mother’s illness, she was physically incapable of expressing her love or affection, of providing encouragement or rebuke. Or guidance.

But now she is liberated from the confines of a physical body. Now, as all the holy tzaddikim teach, she is able to assist her son in ways that she never could have done before. Now, all that she has asked of me becomes possible. I must do it. And she will help.

How do you draw a mother’s spirit within you? With love. As the Zohar says, one love tugs along with it another love, and a spirit is drawn only through love.

There is love like fire; there is love like a flowing stream.

Love like fire consumes you until it has nothing left to burn. And then it waits until you have the power to love once again. Such is the love between two lovers that become one.

Not so the love of a flowing stream. It trickles along in its quiet way, nurturing all it passes. Until it meets an obstacle, and then it swells and grows, until, with awesome power, it surges through dense mud and heavy rock in a fury. And yet, a little further downstream, it is quiet again. Such is the love of brothers and sisters.

There is love as one who sees beauty and all his being is pulled in towards that beauty. But he will never arrive. He perceives, but he does not grasp.

The love a son has for his mother is none of these. For none of these grasp the one that is loved, and none of these is held in an eternal clasp within her love.

How do you know that you grasp a thing? Because it moves with your grasp, all of it.

So that when a child cries, a mother moves, all of her. And in the mother’s pain, in her desires, in her joy and in her deepest aspirations, all the child is held for every moment of his life. He can never leave that embrace. Even as he runs from it, he only finds himself trapped deeper within its maze. Indeed, he is still within the womb.

So, I surrender. Mother, I want to say those words I was meant to say many times before, as I was running to escape your embrace. Mom, I love you. May I have the wisdom to allow the best of you entry within me.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Gitel Chana Levin NEW HAVEN July 9, 2017

May H-shem comfort you with the beautiful memories of her. You don't have to recall words when she instilled the essence. Reply

M. Diane Flushing, NY October 23, 2017

It warms the heart to read this tribute to your mother again, Rabbi. I read it out loud and slowly this time. It is soulful. Full of soul. I suppose that must be your soul and the soul of your mother. Reply

A Brooklyn October 23, 2017

Even after all this time, I have to say again, this wonderful article changed my life, in relation to my own mother. And even with all others. Much more understanding and forgiveness. thank you, Tzvi. Reply

Zaneta Garratt Anderslöv July 26, 2017

this was beautifully written , so sorry for your loss-recently my beloved husband died and I somehow found solice in reading your lovely words. Reply

Barbara July 26, 2017

Dear Rabbi Freeman,
I wrote before but you have my deepest sympathy. I have forwarded what you wrote to friends. What you wrote was amazing. Touching many souls. I do believe she will continue to guide you, and you will continue to bless her. My deepest sympathy.
Barbara Reply

Barbara Somach Vallejo, California July 25, 2017

Dear Rabbi Freeman,
You are your mother's son. You are a mensch in the truest sense of the word. I will never in my life forget your kindness to me when my husband was ill and then my only child not expected to live. You were present in my life. Emailing me continually with great love and compassion. Not just for a short time but continually for several years. Your mothers son. You walked down the road with me. The Love of G-d made manifest on this earth. I wish I knew where to write you more, not in such a limited space. You are G-d's gift. Your mother's son. You hold a place in my heart and in my prayers.
Baruch HaShem,
Every blessing,
Barbara Somach Reply

Antonia R. Fong Wauconda, IL July 23, 2017

Add a comment...Dear Rabbi Freeman, thank you for sharing your feelings about your dear beloved mother and I am so sorry for your lost. Sincerely, Toni Reply

Mary Georgia July 19, 2017

Beautiful. Poetic, tinged with wistful sadness and life's wisdom that only comes from learning and the new normal, after living, loving and surrendering the souls of those we love, back to the Creator. Reply

LRut Ca. July 18, 2017

Thank you Rabbi for your words, flowing through you from HaShem. This comes from a mother whose child is fallen astray from the way of our Fathers. You show me I've done so much of what you described your Jewish mum has done. Therefore all that is left for me is to wait b' hatikvah. I shall wait
Shalom Reply

Martin Little Southend, UK July 18, 2017

Dear Rabbi Freeman, Thank you for your beautiful words, which express so well the feelings any of us who have endured loss will know. My Mum passed away 2 years ago but I know she is with me every day. I'm sure your Mother is very proud of you. Peace, dear Sir... Reply

SIDNEY SCHULTZ west vancouver July 18, 2017

Thank you Rabbi Tzvi
Should we have or have had the time to tell one's parent what we feel about them..
Well, for my Father, no. For my Mother yes.
To my precious Mother I said " children will love their Mother, but do respect or care about them. To my Mother, I am honoured to be Her child and humbly grateful for that"
For what I did not say to my Father, will also remember with pain.
Thank you Rabbi Tzvi . Reply

Chaya Mushka July 16, 2017

BS"D BDE. Dear Rabbi Freeman, May you be comforted with the mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.
Thank you for sharing your soul and heart with us. Please take comfort and strength within our hearts. May HaShem give you what He knows you need. Reply

Anonymous Chicago July 16, 2017

This is intensely beautiful. Talk about the merging of beauty and truth... G-d gave us such a beautiful gift called "relationship" and the mother-son relationship is possibly one of the most moving of them all. THANK YOU. Reply

Latrall Simon Florida July 16, 2017

Thank You Rabbi, I to lost my mother 3 years ago. I still have her with me, I hear her sing, and see her smile in my heart. Sorry for your lost. Reply

CK Tucson July 14, 2017

When my son was a toddler he did not seem to want to cuddle very much. I thought I would address it with him to make sure that I was being a good mother. He was at that age where he could string a sentence together, and I asked him don't you want to sit and cuddle with me? He replied "I did not come for you, I came for dad". He then began to run off to play, and I could not believe my ears, so I called him back. He came back and I asked him "what did you just say to me?", and he then spoke to me in a very slow and clear tone, as if he wanted to make sure I understood so I would not call him back again, and he said very clearly to me "I did not come for you, I came for dad". I then thanked him for telling me and he smiled and pounced off to go play. Perhaps, you also did not come to this planet for your mom, but for your dad. Knowing this early in my sons life helped me greatly to understand his relationship towards me, and I am hoping that perhaps this will give you comfort as well. Reply

Anonymous July 17, 2017
in response to CK:

That is so very deep. Reply

Bob And Barbara Van Wagner July 20, 2017
in response to CK:

Every child is unique. I'm from a big family from big families. There are some who are close to their moms (and that's the predominate case) and some who are closer to their dads, and they can be quite heartless at times. More of that guy-to-guy plain talk, which can seem harsh, and is harsh when used with a woman, which is something to be learned. But we are still: very compassionate, just not able to walk causally into china shops. Not that you are a china shop! But that high sensitivity is far more innate to women. Reply

Janet Groom-Carroll Bournemouth July 14, 2017

On the passing of a Jewish mother I am so sorry for your loss. May you live to one hundred and twenty and thank you for sharing your thoughts in this way. Reply

Korina Nadel July 14, 2017

Beautifully written. Pure poetry. Reply

Dina Leah Maine & Albuquerque July 13, 2017

My Deepest Sympathies! I wrote a message when gave us the news of your mother's passing.
I also still have a print out of an article you wrote about a visit to your mother when she was ill. It gave me much chizuk as your words do here. My mother has vascular dementia. She can no longer speak, either. When I told her I love her, all she could was cry. My sister was supposed to care for her, but stuck mom in a memory facility with Alzheimer's patients. My family has been very Reform & she's only Jew there. So, I have a mezuzah from our Chabad rabbi, & on my next visit I plan to put on her doorpost. I'm sure seeing it will bring tears again. It's the least I can do for her. At least, the staff is good to her.

I'm a women & mother. I can say that children never leave a mother's womb. You may not remember her words, but your neshama does, & they are expressed in your beautiful writing. This piece, which is more like poetry than an article, most likely came from your mother's neshama to yours. Reply

Gila Ocala, Florida July 13, 2017

How my heart aches for you. Being a mother I can tell you that love for your child knows no boundaries. Love survives... even through the thin veil of the departed. She will always be there for you and your family. Love transcends and triumphs...Love of G-d, love for parents, children, family, friends, and life. Love is the light all of us carry. Shalom. Reply

Rivka Ormond Beach July 13, 2017

As a mother who has a son in Olam HaEmes, I find your article especially beautiful and touching. May you feel the closeness of your mother's neshama deeply and may we merit moshiach now! Reply

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