Friday, April 01, 2022

Going Forward: A Story of Jewish Mothers


Ashager Araro was born on a roadside in Ethiopia. Her family was walking from their village to Addis Ababa, to meet the planes of Operation Solomon, which brought 14,325 people to Israel. After she was born, there was no time to wait, and her mother, inspired by her new baby, made the decision to keep going. Ashager means to “go forward” in Amharic; she explains that her parents chose that name because "I was born after the murder of my grandfather in Ethiopia, while my family was in journey to Israel. They saw my birth as a sign from God that I should live in Israel and have a safe Jewish life. That's why they named me Ashager - going forward from something bad to something good." Today Ashager is a pro-Israel activist and spokesperson, the founder of Bettae, the Ethiopian Israeli Heritage Center, and a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves.
Emil Osterman, Mother and Child, 1910
Ashager's birth was more dramatic than most; but every childbirth is about moving forward, and every childbirth involves hazard, worry, and hope. And the drama of childbirth is front and center at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, which offers a significant lesson about the importance of moving forward.
A new mother brings two sacrifices after childbirth: one is an “olah,” an “ascent offering,” and the second is a “chatat,” a “sin-offering”. The sin-offering is deeply puzzling. Of what sin could the new mother be guilty? How is childbirth a sin?
There are many answers offered for this baffling question; I would like to focus on three of them. The first two explanations relate to two opposing aspects of childbirth. Childbirth is a natural bodily function, instinctive and involuntary, something humans have in common with much of the animal kingdom. But on the other hand, reproduction for humans is very different; it is a matter of choice, not the compulsion of instinct. In the rabbinic tradition, having children is a mitzvah, a commandment, because the decision to have children is an expression of one’s values and aspirations. Childbirth is both absolutely physical and profoundly spiritual at the same time.
So why bring the sin-offering? Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno focuses on the physical aspects of childbirth. The mother’s preoccupation with injuries, pain, and bodily functions, distracts her from her ultimate responsibilities. The sin-offering is a spiritual turning point, when the mother moves on from a deeply physical phase of life. Seforno explains that "during the days after childbirth her thoughts were preoccupied with the workings of her reproductive organs, and because of this she is not in the right state of mind to enter the Temple and offer holy sacrifices…." Fixating on the physical, the new mother loses touch with the spiritual realm. This interpretation emphasizes how the mother is immersed in the mundane during and after childbirth.
A very different theory is offered by Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein, the Sochatchover Rebbe, in his Shem MiShmuel. He explains that childbirth is a moment of incredible holiness, when the mother experiences the divine gift of bringing life into the world. To return to ordinary life afterwards is a spiritual let down. The sin-offering atones for this subtle failure, that the mother returns to the everyday after experiencing the transcendent. (I would add that for similar reasons, the Nazir brings a sin offering after the conclusion of his vow.) This explanation is the exact opposite of the Seforno’s; instead of focusing on the travails of childbirth, the Shem MiShmuel sees giving birth to a child as a divine gift. According to the Seforno, the mother offers a sin-offering as a way of moving past a fixation on the physical; according to the Shem MiShmuel, she brings a sin-offering in regret that she has left behind a unique spiritual experience.  
Both the Seforno and the Shem MiShmuel relate the sin-offering to the past. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a fascinating interpretation which sees the sin-offering as looking forward to the future, where the mother, after enduring the difficulties of childbirth, vows she will continue onward with determination and courage. Hirsch sees the sin as metaphorical; humanity is supposed to choose their own destiny, but during a vulnerable, involuntary experience like childbirth, the woman is helpless. He explains that the new mother’s sin-offering expresses her renewed determination to continue with her mission, and that "the days of suffering that come with her life's calling will not break her moral strength. Rather she will undertake and endure the suffering out of a sense of duty and for the sake of her exalted task..." Childbirth is a moment of absolute vulnerability, a complete loss of control. Motherhood is a dream of hope, a courageous look into the future. With the sin-offering, the mother vows to no longer be helpless, and to never let obstacles get in the way of her destiny. The mother courageously declares “ashager” - I will go forward, and I will not allow pain and suffering to impede my mission.
This lesson about childbirth is not just for new mothers. What mothers do is critical for the entire nation; the Talmud tells us that the Jewish people survived in Egypt because of the righteous women, who continued to have children in the most difficult of conditions. But what the entire nation does is just as critical. The Talmud makes it clear that it is a communal obligation to care for, raise, and educate the next generation. The lessons of childbirth are a national lesson; we all have a responsibility to ensure a Jewish future.
That is why we all take pride in the children of our community. Rabbi Yisroel Zev Gustman was one of the most brilliant Talmudic scholars of the post-war period. A survivor of the Holocaust, he lost his young son during the war. After he settled in Israel, he established a Yeshiva, and was considered one of the leading rabbinic figures in the world. Every year, he and his wife would attend an annual parade (on Yom Yerushalayim) where children would march in the center of Jerusalem. A colleague who walked by them one year asked Rabbi Gustman why a man of his stature would waste his time with such a frivolous activity. Rabbi Gustman responded, "We who saw a generation of children die, will take pleasure in a generation of children who sing and dance in these streets." Every Jewish child is a miracle of hope, and we all must take pride in them.
When we read about the sacrifices brought by the new mother, we should think about the sacrifices made by countless Jewish mothers, and by the Jewish people as a whole. We should remember all who courageously said “ashager” - we must go forward. It is because of them that we are here today.

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