Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Jewish Men and Their Mothers

Krum as a bagel
There is an old stereotype about Jewish men wanting to marry women just like their mother which I found echoed twice in the first few parshas of sefer Bereshis:

1. "Therefore will a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and behold they shall be as one flesh." (2:24)

What does "one flesh" mean? Rashi says one flesh refers to children. Children are one flesh comprising each of their parents.

The Ramban, however, rejects this approach. One flesh, according to the Ramban, refers to the closeness associated with familial relationship. The pasuk is saying that a man will leave the "flesh" of his mother an father and replace it with another familial relationship - that with his wife.

Here the focus is on relationship. A person craves the feeling of familial relatedness and when he leaves his family he seeks to recreate it with someone else.

In the second one, the stress is different:

2. "And Yitzchak brought her [Rivkah] into the tent of Sarah and he took Rivka and she was for him a wife, and he loved her and behold Yitzchack was consoled over his mother." (24:64)

In this posuk the identification between wife and mother is even stronger. First, the father is out of the picture. Second, the pasuk is suggesting that Rivka takes the place of Sarah in Yitzchack's mind. Rivka fills the void left by the loss of his mother.

Indeed this is Rashi explanation. He breaks up the phrase "ha-ohala Sarah" into two: "he brought her into the tent and she was Sarah, meaning that she took on the appearance ("dugmas") of Sarah his mother." The reference to Sarah is not to the tent but to Rivka's appearance.

Its hard not to link the fact of Yitzchak's finding confort in Rivka with the "resemblance" between her and Sarah. Which is weird if you consider that his finding comfort follows the phrase "and he took her for a wife and he loved her." Reach your own conclusions.

Yet resemblence need not be taken to mean physical resemblence. In fact, Onkeles translates "v'ha taknin ovadaha k'ovdei Sarah": "her deeds were proper like the deeds of Sarah." We are talking about a similarity in behavior and personality.

Thus, in the second pasuk in contrast to the first, the stress is not on the relationship itself but on the object of the relationship. Yitchak craved a wife that would be like his mother and only then would he find comfort.

But ultimately we can't possibly separate the two. A person's image of who his mother (or father) is is inextrixcably entwined with the very profound and deep relationship he had with her over the course of a childhood.

And there's the rub. To a wife, her husband's mother is just a lady she met as an adult relatively recently. She cannot fathom who this person is as a mother to her husband. Nor can she be expected to.

Just a thought.

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