Parshat Shelach: ‘Every mother’s child’
D'var Torah

Parshat Shelach: ‘Every mother’s child’

Each Shabbat, my congregation, like countless others, pauses during the Torah reading to recite a Misheberach — a blessing for those who are ill. We pray for Divine mercy and healing. As is the widespread custom, we identify those on whose behalf we offer our prayers by citing their Hebrew name, followed by their mother’s Hebrew name (Yosef ben Rachel, for example). This differs from other occasions, when a person’s father’s name is invoked, either exclusively or, in many communities, in conjunction with that person’s mother’s name.

The practice of citing only a mother’s name during prayers for healing is ancient. The talmudic sage Abaye prescribes this protocol (Shabbat 66b; see also Rashi’s brief commentary). Abaye adds that he learned this tradition from his adoptive mother.

The Book of Psalms may well provide still earlier hints of this maternal deference: “O Lord, I am Your servant: Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have released me from my bonds” (116:16). So, too, “Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant Your strength to Your servant and deliver the son of Your maidservant” (86:16).

It seems that the use of a mother’s name is intended to bolster our prayerful petition for healing, reminding God (as it were) that the ailing person is a mother’s precious, beloved child. Each human being, we, too, are thereby reminded, is thus eminently deserving of the compassion and consideration and mercy her or his mother would seek and would, herself, bestow. While I strive to be an attentive, caring, and loving father, there is no denying the unique bond of compassion between a mother and her child.

This boundless estimation of a mother’s compassion may help account for the tradition that Joshua’s name change in Parshat Shelach links him to the Matriarch of Israel, Sarah Imeinu: our “Mother” Sarah. When Hosea bin Nun is renamed Yehoshua (Joshua) bin Nun, the letter yod is added at the beginning of his name. Tradition has it that that yod was the one originally found at the end of Sarai’s name, and was removed when the matriarch was designated as Sarah (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 6:2; Bavli Sanhedrin 107a). Yehoshua — Joshua — was thus renamed with his “Mother” Sarah in mind.

Joshua was to lead Israelite military forces into battle, and to oversee the conquest of the Promised Land. He was commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel. Someone wielding that kind of lethal power and martial responsibility needs to be painfully aware that every human being — those under his command as well as those who are (or are among) his enemies — is a mother’s cherished child, and by virtue of that very fact, deserving of compassion and mercy and consideration. The name of the Mother of all Israel was incorporated into Joshua’s nom de guerre, so that he would carry her compassionate maternal legacy into battle.

Abraham Lincoln, commander-in-chief of United States forces during the Civil War, analogously summarized his life: “All that I am or hope to be I owe to my angel mother.”

The British novelist E. M. Forster, author of “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” famously wrote: “I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”

Just before the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol delivered a national radio address. He was widely vilified for stumbling over his words. His faltering speech (notwithstanding its precedent in Moses’ stammer!) was interpreted by many as indicating that he was not entirely sure of his course or confident of the military capability of Israeli forces. Golda Meir (the only mother, to date, to serve Israel as Prime Minister) rose to Eshkol’s defense: “A leader who doesn’t hesitate before he sends his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.”

The sacred dynamic of soldiers and commanders acknowledging the mother’s child in every human being was in dramatic evidence in the body-cam recordings of former hostage Noa Argamani’s rescue from her Gazan captivity by IDF commandos. The heavily armed soldiers, speaking for the nation as well as in loco parentis, reassured her, “We’re proud of you.” Noa’s first question: “Is my mother still alive?”

So, too, the three male hostages, housed nearby and rescued the same day, had been conditioned by their mendacious captors to believe that Israel had turned on them, abandoned them, and considered them national liabilities to be eliminated. They therefore needlessly feared for their lives when IDF troops stormed their room, until those soldiers — well trained in the psychological impact of prolonged captivity, and carefully prepared for their heroic rescue mission — announced: “We love you,” accompanied by a gentle fist-bump.

The enemies of the Jewish state, together with media detractors and political propagandists, continue to impugn the humanity and unrivaled moral restraint of the Israel Defense Forces. War inevitably brings tragedy and the death of innocents. The State of Israel has distinguished itself, however, in its consistent efforts to warn Palestinian civilians in advance of bombings and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties. Those civilian casualty numbers are routinely and cravenly inflated, and specious accusations of genocide are lodged against Israel, specifically because such offenses are anathema to Jewish morality and the principles of the IDF. The disingenuous accusations themselves are thus a tribute to the values of the accused.

As Golda Meir observed: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”

In the meantime, may we embrace the model of Joshua, commander of the armies of Israel, bearing the name and channeling the spirit of our distant ancestress and shared mother, Sarah.

To every mother’s child serving in the IDF today, let us properly and sincerely return the words of comfort and compassion that they themselves have so recently offered in the very heat of battle, words worthy of our mothers:

“We love you.”

“We are proud of you.”

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