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The prayer of a mother in law

Mother's Day,
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 airport."

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 lawEdel---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 ridicule.

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 childrentheir 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 holy moment.

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 surprisea 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 English translation:

And now listen to it in translation:

Hashem, Creator of the world: nothing is hidden from You:
Search my innermost parts and imbue me with good spirit.
Grant me favor n the eyes of my sons-in-law and my daughters,
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 miserly way;
Let no hint of jealousy be aroused in me, nor any vice lurk within.
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 comfortable living;
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 before You;
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..

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