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The prayer of a mother
By Rabbi Jack Riemer
I am going to do something a little bit different today,
if I may.
Usually, on the Shabbat before Mother's Day, rabbis
speak about the importance of mothers in our lives. What
I want to do today instead is speak about the importance
of mothers in law in our lives.
How many people here are in laws?
My sermon this morning is addressed to you. I want to
speak to you today about the topic of how to be a
successful in law.
In laws have a bad image in modern culture. They are the
butt of many cruel jokes.
Do you know the one about the man who says: "I just came
back from a marvelous trip".
His friend says: "Really? Where did you go?"
And the man says: "I took my mother in law to the
Or do you know the story of the man who says: "I have
for you bad news and good news."
The man says: "Tell me the bad news first."
So his friend says: "Your new Mercedes just went off a
cliff and was totaled."
The man says; "So what's the good news?
"Your mother in law was in it."
And then there is the Jewish story about in laws. In
order to understand this story, you have to know that
the Yiddish word for father in law is 'shver' and the
Yiddish word for mother in law is 'shveiger', and you
have to know that the word 'shver' also means 'to be
heavy or difficult, and that the word 'shveiger' may be
related to the word 'shveig' which means: to be silent.
Someone once said that it is not shver to be a shver.
You just have to learn how to shveig.
And there is one more cynical Jewish joke about in-laws.
The joke is that in order to be a successful mother in
law, you just have to learn to keep your checkbook open
and your mouth closed.
What lies behind these nasty jokes---of which there are
so many? And why are mothers in law caricatured so
cruelly on television comedies? Why are they always
pictured as intrusive, judgmental and critical?
I am no psychiatrist, so I cannot say for sure, but my
guess is that in laws are subconsciously feared as
rivals for our spouses love and devotion. And perhaps
the hostility that we cannot allow ourselves to admit
towards our own mothers somehow gets projected onto our
spouse's mother instead. I cannot say for sure, but
whatever the reason there is no doubt that mothers in
law are the subject of much ridicule in our culture.
And yet, it is not so in the Jewish tradition, and it
should not be so in our lives today. Mothers in law are
extra parents, and they should be treated with the
reverence that they deserve. After all, if they produced
and raised the person whom we chose to marry, how bad
can they be?
And therefore, this morning I want to introduce you to
two great mothers in law: one from ancient times, and
one from our own time.
The first is the woman whom we met in the Megillah that
we read on Shavout---Naomi.
The book is called 'the Book of Ruth", but I think that
it should really be called 'the book of Naomi' for she
is the central character in the story. And if ever there
was a great mother in law, it was Naomi.
In the first chapter, Naomi decides to go back to Judah
where she comes from. And Ruth insists on going with
her. Ruth recites the famous speech that we all know:
"Entreat me not to leave thee, and to depart from going
after thee, for whither thou goest, I will go, and
wither thou lodgest, I will lodge. Your people will be
my people, and your God will be my God. Only death will
separate between you and me."
We all know that speech, and we all love that speech.
And we all cite it as a proof of the courage and the
loyalty of Ruth---that she was willing to leave her
home, and go to a strange land, simply out of love for
Naomi. But this speech can be read another way. It can
be read, not only as a tribute to Ruth, but as a tribute
to Naomi. Imagine how much love she must have shown to
Ruth during all the years that Ruth was married to her
son, that Ruth was willing to follow her to a land that
she had never seen!
And in the next chapter, when they arrive in the land,
it is Naomi who watches over Ruth, and who guides her
into making the right shidduch. And then, in the last
chapter, after Ruth and Boaz marry and have a baby, it
is Naomi who takes care of the baby, to the point where
people call the baby 'Naomi's child".
I would argue that Naomi is the model mother in law in
Jewish history. She is the archetype of what it means to
be a good mother in law. She is loving, devoted, caring,
and smart. And she does not say: 'how dare you betray
the memory of your dead husband, who was my son, by
remarrying?' Instead, she is the one who not only
approves of Ruth remarrying, but who works to make it
happen. Naomi is surely the model mother in law from
whom we can all learn.
And she is not the only one. Down through the centuries,
there have been many great mothers in law in Jewish
history. Let me give you just one random example. Rabbi
Shmeul Edels is one of the great commentators on the
Talmud. His insights are found in every edition of the
Talmud. And where did he get his name? He called himself
Reb Shmeul Edels because it was his mother in
law—Edel---who supported him and his family so that he
could devote himself to Torah study, because she
recognized his talent and his potential as a scholar.
And there have been others like her down through the
centuries, who supported their daughters and their sons
in law emotionally and financially, so that they could
achieve great things. And therefore, I think it is wrong
to make fun of mothers in law, as our culture so often
does. Mothers in law deserve reverence and respect, not
And that is why I try to honor in laws at every wedding
that I officiate at. The moment of the bedeken, the
moment when the groom puts the veil over the face of his
bride, is a sacred moment. It is more than just an echo
of the way that Rebecca met Isaac in the Bible. It is a
moment in which the groom recognizes and respects that
there is a private dimension within every relationship.
He begins their marriage together by acknowledging that
there are corners of his new wife's life into which even
he cannot intrude. It is a sacred moment. And what I do
at every bedeken that I officiate at is invite the in
laws on both sides to recite a blessing of good wishes
to their children. I ask the in laws to wish their
children well as they begin their new lives together,
and to tell them the hopes for them that are in their
hearts at this sacred moment. I ask the in laws to bless
both their children—their child by birth and their child
by marriage---and to tell them what they wish for them.
And every time they do this, I can see a tear in their
eyes, and in the eyes of their children as well. It is a
I must tell you about one exception to this rule. I have
a good friend, who lost her husband eighteen days before
her daughter's marriage. And so I guess she felt that
she had to speak for her husband as well as for herself
during the bedeken. And so she gave her new son in law
just one brief word of advice. She said to him: "Take
good care of her, and if you hurt her, I'll kill you."
I think that was a very appropriate bracha to give under
the circumstances, don't you?
It's short and simple, and makes the point, don't you
think? It is what every father-in-law wants to say at
the bedeken, and so this woman took her husband's place
and said it for him. Good for her!
But what I really want to do today is share with you a
remarkable prayer that I recently discovered: the prayer
of a new mother in law.
I found it in a wonderful book that I heartily recommend
to everyone who is here today. It is a book called: "A
Jewish Woman's Prayer Book", edited by Aliza Lavie, and
published by Spiegel and Grau. This book is a real
treasure. It is a collection of prayers written by women
down through the centuries for all of the spiritual
moments in life. There are prayers here to be said by
brides on the eve of their wedding, and prayers to be
said before giving birth, and prayers to be said by
women who are infertile, and prayers to be said when
going to the Mikveh, and prayers to be said in time of
illness and in time of recovery.
And in this collection, I found---much to my surprise—a
prayer to be said by a new mother in law! Prayers by
brides and prayers by new mothers and prayers by women
who are struggling with infertility and prayers to be
said in time of illness---these I was familiar with.
Prayers on these themes I had seen before in other
collections of women's prayers. But a prayer on becoming
a mother in law? This was something that I had never
seen before, and so I read it with great interest.
I found it to be a very moving prayer. I think it
expresses very well the feelings that are in the hearts
of every woman at this sacred moment in her life and in
the life of her family.
And so let me share it with you---both in Hebrew and in
And now listen to it in translation:
Hashem, Creator of the world: nothing is hidden from
Search my innermost parts and imbue me with good spirit.
Grant me favor n the eyes of my sons-in-law and my
And grace with my sons and my daughters-in-law.
Let me see no flaws in them, not hear any faults;
Let me feel no resentment toward them, not act in a
Let no hint of jealousy be aroused in me, nor any vice
Let me always encounter them at a good time, and nourish
them with warmth and love.
May they raise their children with joy and earn a
May they be blessed from the Source of blessing---from
Your generous and Blessed hand.
Let me be worthy of the greatest kindness, that I may
give thanksAnd perform goodness.
I place my faith in You, my God, and spread my prayers
Let my lips utter prayer to You in awe and praise.
Isn't that a profound prayer?
I love the line that says: "Let me see no flaws in them,
nor hear any faults".
It means; let me not go looking for things to criticize
in them, for that will only alienate them from me. "And
let me not hear any faults" means: Let me not be drawn
into taking sides between them for that will not do me
or them any good.
"Let me feel no resentment toward them"---let me not
consider my son in law or my daughter in law to be a
rival for my child's affection, for that is not the
right way to think of them.
"Let me always encounter them at a good time" means: may
I not intrude upon their privacy and may I respect the
boundaries to which they are entitled.
Isn't this a beautiful and a profound prayer!
If any of you have children who are going to be married
soon, contact me and I will be happy to give you a copy.
And if any of you are mothers in law or hope someday to
become mothers in law, call me and I will be happy to
give you a copy too. Because I believe that this prayer
expresses so very beautifully the innermost hopes and
the deepest prayers that are, or that should be, in the
heart of every mother on the sacred day when her child
marries. This prayer expresses so very well the truth
that the one whom your child marries is not your rival
but your child's fulfillment and that the one whom your
child marries is now your child as well forevermore.
So let me pay tribute to the mothers in law and the
fathers in law who are here today, and let me wish you
well. Let me wish the fathers in law who are here today
that you never find it shver to be a shver. And let me
wish the mothers in law that are here today that you
never need to shveig in order to keep your children's
love, but that you can speak your heart's deepest wishes
to them, and be heard and listened to.
May God bless each of us, and may God bless our children
and their spouses, and may God enable us to be close to
our children and their mates now and always.
Rabbi Jack Riemer - the author or editor of six books
of Modern Jewish Thought and as a guide and teacher to
many rabbis across the denominational lines..