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By Chaya Shuchat

Mother's Day is not exactly a prominent date on the Jewish calendar. After all, since the commandment to "Honor Your Father and Mother" is an every day obligation, there is little need to dedicate one particular day solely to honor one’s mother.


Yet, if you are looking for such a festivity, the day designated would have to be Rosh Hashanah. Surprisingly, one of the lesser-known, but no less central themes of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a celebration of motherhood.  The Torah reading of the first day of Rosh Hashanah depicts the story of Sarah's conception and the subsequent birth of her son, our forefather Yitzchok. Along the same lines, the Haftorah of that day revolves around Chana's fervent plea for a child, and the triumphant granting of her prayer with the birth of the prophet Shmuel.


            Why Rosh Hashanah, you may ask? For a token day of tribute to mother, couldn't we have chosen a convenient, obscure day in middle of say, May? Why must a central part of the High Holiday service—the Torah and Haftorah readings themselves—be devoted to the theme of motherhood? True, the Midrash tells us, Sarah, Chana and another long-barren Matriarch, Rachel, all had their prayers for a child granted on Rosh Hashanah[1]. But the Rosh Hashanah setting is not merely incidental. These events are noted and given prominent play each year because of their profound relationship to the overall theme of Rosh Hashanah.


            On Rosh Hashanah, we ready ourselves for the year to come. In a spiritual sense, Rosh Hashanah serves literally as the "head"—the source of all the spiritual energy that we will expend over the course of the year. Every aspect of the Rosh Hashanah service is all-encompassing and seminal, the starting point from which we will draw inspiration for a whole year. Rosh Hashanah is a time to set forth an agenda for the year to come, to establish priorities, and to get in touch with those aspects of our lives that are most fundamental and essential. It means laying aside, for the moment, the disjointed details of our busy lives and focusing on the overall objective. What is my ultimate purpose? What do I really want out of life?


            The stories of our foremother Sarah and the prophetess Chana are remarkably similar. The two women, by all accounts women of stature, leadership and wisdom[2], were nevertheless plagued with a pervasive sense of lack. For many years they yearned and unceasingly prayed for a child. Finally, on this day, Rosh Hashanah, G-d hearkened to their prayers.


            Why were Sarah and Chana so unhappy? Even Elkanah, Chana's noble husband, could not understand. "Chana, why are you crying? Why won't you eat? Why are you so depressed? Am I not better to you than ten sons?[3]" But Chana was not comforted, nor was she dissuaded in her quest. She persisted in praying until G-d finally responded favorably.


             Elkanah held Chana in great esteem.  In no way did he intend to disparage her or make light of her needs.  He felt that she would be placated by his assurances of love and devotion.  If G-d had seen it fit to deny them the gift of children, shouldn't they accept His decree?  Surely Chana was living up to all that G-d could be demanding of her.  Why should she be so distressed?


But Chana made no reply to Elkanah. She did not attempt to refute him, to explain or defend her desire to be a mother. She just continued her prayers—silently, persistently, tenaciously. For Elkanah's opinion was diametrically opposed to Chana's world-view. Elkanah was attempting to comfort Chana with a reminder of her personal status and accomplishments. By those accounts, Chana certainly should have been satisfied. Yet she was not. For Chana was not concerned with her marriage, her status, her accomplishments. All of this meant nothing to her if she did not have the opportunity to pass it along to the next generation. Indeed, when Elkanah realized how sincere and selfless was Chana's desire for a child, he concurred with her. After Shmuel's birth, Elkanah told Chana:  "Do what is best in your eyes; stay until you have weaned him, only may the Lord fulfill what you have spoken concerning him[4]."


            Motherhood is not just another stop on life's roadmap. It reflects a profound departure from the usual human state of all-inclusive self-absorption. But physical reproduction alone does not signal instant freedom from personal ambition. It is possible to produce offspring without necessarily achieving the profound spiritual stamina to care for them fully and unstintingly.  Where does one begin?


            We begin with Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is not only for women, or for mothers, or for any particular segment of society. It is for us all. On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate motherhood as the ultimate symbol of unconditional and selfless devotion. On this day, we must confront head-on the ongoing struggle over our selfish instincts. We firmly state that our own lives and achievements are not so over-riding in importance after all. The advancement of another human being is worth the dedication of my resources, my brain, my time, and my talents.


But the message of Chana's story is not that we must discard ourselves and deny our own personalities to be devoted to someone else. Such an approach is beneficial to no one, least of all the object of our altruism. Chana did not see her desire for motherhood as noble and sacrificial.  Her personal longing for a child stemmed from her intense conviction that nothing that she could offer the world was more valuable than the birth of a child.

            We are all here due to the efforts of two human beings, our mother and father, and the third, divine partner, G-d. What have we received from our parents? Our limbs, our physical characteristics, and our emotional traits. They raised us and molded us and shaped our outlook in ways so profound that we are hardly aware of their impact. But have they given us, their children, the most important gift of all?  What a child needs from a parent, above all, is the assurance that his life has value. . The only way to teach this lesson is by demonstrating, in the most literal, rudimentary terms, that he is worth our time, effort and devotion.        

            When Chana gave birth, she stayed at home for two years until her child was weaned[5]. She gave up visiting Shiloh, site of the tabernacle, and its concomitant opportunities for spiritual advancement, to devote herself completely to her son.


This sends a powerful message. This tells the tiny toddler: "Your needs take precedence over my visits to Shiloh. In tending to you, I have discovered an even deeper outlet for my spiritual yearnings".   And for what purpose? So that the child should grow up to be self-absorbed: believing that his own needs are paramount, elbowing everyone else aside? Precisely the opposite. Such an upbringing produces a secure child, a G-dly child. Having been assured from birth of his value in G-d's eyes, he now has the emotional and spiritual strength to go forth and devote himself to others.


When Chana's son Shmuel reached the age of two, she returned with him to Shiloh to dedicate his life to divine service. She told the High Priest, Eli: "It was for this boy that I prayed, and the Lord granted me the request that I asked of Him. [Therefore] I have also lent him to the Lord….[6]"

Chana did not desire a child for the fulfillment of her biological destiny. It was a spiritual quest, and Chana proved it. It is one thing to dedicate your as-yet unborn and yet-to-be conceived child to G-d. It is quite another to actually, faithfully fulfill that pledge once you have held the child in your arms. Chana's devotion produced this child, an outstanding child, who would in turn grow up to be a prophet and teacher, the anointer of King David[7].

Almost anyone can produce a child. But how will we produce children who will be an inspiration, who will eagerly devote themselves to the service of others?  For that, we need a Rosh Hashana service, to remind us what motherhood is really all about.


(Based on the Rebbe's talks, Tishrei 5731, 5734)

[1] Berachos 29a    

[2] On the verse "and the souls that they made in Charan"(Beraishis 12:5), Rashi comments:  "Avraham influenced the men, and Sarah influenced the women".  Similarly, Elkanah and Chana actively recruited people to join them on their annual pilgrimages to the tabernacle in Shiloh (Tanna D'Bei Eliyahu 8)

[3] Shmuel I, 1:8

[4] ibid, 1:23

[5] ibid, 1:22

[6] ibid, 1:27

[7] ibid, 2:10

In Search of a Jewish Mother's Day