The Hand That Rocks The Cradle

Rosh HaShanah1 is a day of judgment and prayer, and also a day when prayers are answered. Our Sages relate that2Sarah, Rachel and Chanah were all granted children on Rosh HaShanah.” Each of these three great women was possessed by an ardent desire: to bring a Jewish child into the world. With dedicated determination, they turned to G‑d in sincere prayer that they be granted this privilege.

A mother’s joy is not merely in giving birth to a child, but in raising him and nurturing his growth. The three women mentioned above exemplify how a Jewish mother should devote herself to her children’s development from infancy to adulthood.

For education is a commitment that begins from the cradle — and indeed from conception.3 This concept, which has been popularized by secular culture only recently, has been the intellectual and actual heritage of Jewish mothers since ancient times.

First Impressions

In generations past, our grandmothers used to fondly affix Biblical verses to the cradles of their infants, so that their first sight in this world would be the holy letters of the Torah.4 The lullabies with which they sang their little ones to sleep were homely Yiddish verses in praise of “Toireh, di beste sechoireh” (“Torah, the choicest merchandise”), which was described in rhyme as being sweeter even than the toddler’s familiar delicacies such as “rozhinkes mit mandlen” (“raisins and almonds “).5

Looking back for earlier precedents, we find that when Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai enumerated the exalted qualities of his greatest disciples, he surprisingly praised R. Yehoshua ben Chananyah with the words,6 “Happy is she who bore him.” This was of course a praise, not of R. Yehoshua himself, but of his mother, for in fact he owed his greatness to her. From his earliest infancy she would carry his cradle to the local House of Study, so that from the very beginning his ears would be sensitized to the harmonies hidden in the words of the Torah.7 And it was those crucial first impressions which quietly laid the unseen but deep foundations for his future greatness.

Growing Out Of The Cradle

As infants grow into toddlers, their education begins to separate out into different paths. The wisest of men counseled,8 “Educate a child according to his way; even when he grows older, he will not depart from it.” Every child has “his way,” a unique tendency and nature of his own. A wise mother, observing how each of her budding twigs reaches out and unfolds and grows towards the light in its own individual way, refrains from pruning and pushing and imposing a uniform style on them all. Respecting their uniqueness, she cultivates their individual gifts.9

This was the attitude of our Matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel. Their sons, Yitzchak and Yosef, were very different, both in their spiritual personalities and in the missions they were assigned in the world at large.

Yitzchak: A Life of Tranquility

The uniqueness of Sarah’s vision for Yitzchak’s growth can be seen by comparison with the approach of her husband. Avraham Avinu, in his gentle compliance, would have been satisfied with Yishmael as G‑d’s gift of a son in his old age:10 “If only Yishmael might live before You.” Sarah, however, continued to pray for a child born of her own flesh and blood, whom she would raise to be the progenitor of the Jewish people. As G‑d Himself later told Avraham,11 “in Yitzchak will your children be called”: only from him would the Jewish people descend.

Later on, once Yitzchak was born, she continuously strove to safeguard his Jewish upbringing, demanding that Yishmael be removed from his company:12 “Drive away this maidservant and her son.” Though Avraham was troubled by Sarah’s unexpected sternness,13 G‑d vindicated her approach:14 “Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice.” It was thus her uncompromising dedication to her son’s Jewish upbringing that resulted in his courageous willingness to offer up his life as a sacrifice to G‑d in the test of the Akeidah,15 the Binding of Yitzchak.

His mother’s early training continued to guide Yitzchak throughout his later life, too, as16 “a perfect sacrifice,” a man whose entire life was an offering to G‑d. As such, he never left the Holy Land17 — “the land that G‑d’s eyes rest upon from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.”18 Now the Holy Land is the first to receive G‑d’s blessings, and through it they flow to other lands.19 As a result, Yitzchak was so wealthy that people would say, “Rather the waste of Yitzchak’s mules than the silver and gold of [King] Avimelech.”20 His life was thus not only free of the discomforts of exile which his father Avraham and his son Yaakov experienced, but also singularly free of material worry. Yet in all this environment of prosperity, he lived his life in unswerving fear of G‑d. This was reflected in his digging of wells in search of subterranean springs,21 a physical activity which parallels the spiritual labor of digging into one’s core, and revealing one’s inner G‑dly essence.22

Yosef: A Life of Struggle

Rachel raised her son Yosef in an utterly different environment. He was born in Charan,23 “the target of G‑d’s fury in the world,” in the deceitful household of his maternal grandfather, Lavan. Nevertheless, his mother’s dedication to his upbringing empowered him to withstand the challenges of a life of struggle.

Unlike his paternal grandfather, Yitzchak, Yosef lived in Eretz Yisrael only up to the age of seventeen, when he was sold by his brothers. Thereafter, he spent his entire adult life in Egypt,24 “the depravity of the earth.”25 He was forced to suffer for years as a slave and prisoner. Even when he rose to the station of viceroy, his duties occupied most of his time, keeping him from direct involvement in spiritual pursuits. And even then, he was still subject to the final authority of Pharaoh:26 “I will make the throne higher than you.”

Yet despite his most unpromising environment, Yosef lived a life of such integrity that he is remembered as Yosef HaTzaddik — thanks to the early training which his mother invested in him.

A Jew for All Seasons

There are times in the life of every Jew, child or adult, which parallel the two utterly different conditions of life represented by Yitzchak and Yosef.

From Yitzchak we can learn how his material prosperity never cooled his ardent devotion to G‑d. On the contrary, the courage and submission which he demonstrated at the Akeidah remained with him for the rest of his life.

From Yosef we can learn how material obstacles did not dampen his spirits. On the contrary, his suffering in fact led to his future role as viceroy of Egypt. There are times when we, too, can likewise take heart and be encouraged to stand firm until events take a turn for the better. Though we remain subject to the law of “Pharaoh”, to the limitations of our environment, we can still utilize it for the service of G‑d.

Toiling Toward The Redemption

The third great woman who was granted a child on Rosh HaShanah was Chanah. Exultant with gratitude to G‑d after the birth of her son Shmuel, she uttered a prophecy27 which alludes to the tribulations that the Jews would suffer in exile, and to the ultimate coming of Mashiach.28 Just as her name derives from the Hebrew word chein (“grace” or “charm”), a quality that transcends the finite categories of human reason, so too her prophecy speaks of the transcendent spiritual revelations of the era of Mashiach.

Like Chanah, we too, despite the difficulties of exile, can attain a higher plane of spiritual endeavor, by concentrated toil in our Torah study. As the Zohar explains,29 exile need not be experienced in terms of physical hardship, but rather through exerting one’s energies in the “toil of the Torah.” And indeed, this endeavor brings the long-promised Redemption one step closer.

Rachel’s Children Return

When Mashiach finally arrives in the imminent worldwide Redemption, we will be led back to Eretz Yisrael by way of Rachel’s tomb, just as our forefathers passed by it on their way to exile in Babylonia.30 Then, on their way into exile, it was the soul of Rachel which interceded for them and gave them encouragement. And, in the future Redemption, as we emerge out of exile, it will again be Rachel who will encourage us, and take pride in the fact that all her children are coming home.

Moreover, as G‑d’s children are gathered in from the Diaspora, so too, with their return, G‑d Himself will return (so to speak) from the exile of His Divine Presence.31 He will guide every Jew32 “by the hand” out of exile, and lead him home — to a Holy Land complete in all its boundaries as specified by the Torah, as part of a Jewish people complete in the definition of its national identity, and complete in its uncompromising observance of the entire Torah.33