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“Always Listen to your Mother!”

May 7, 2011


The calendar unites us and binds us together, wherever we may be. Today’s torah portion is important because it tells us how to celebrate Jewish holidays. The reading goes into some detail about the holiday of Matzot, also known as Passover, and how to calculate the next upcoming holiday, Shavuot.  It tells us about the third of the three festivals, the one celebrating the fall harvest, Sukkot.  Referred to as the first day of the seventh month, and as a day of sounding the shofar, we have the command to celebrate what became Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.  And finally, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is presented.


If you were paying close attention, you may have noticed that some of the most widely celebrated holidays were not included. Specifically missing were:  Purim and Chanukah, holidays, which after all were later historical additions, and not known to Moses.


Yet there is one other significant holiday also not included, also a later addition to the calendar, which is at least as widely celebrated as Purim or Chanukah, maybe even more so. I am referring to a holiday created not by the Torah or the rabbis, that is observed by Jews and non Jews alike, whose popularity was spurred by the floral industry in the early 1900’s, and celebrated tomorrow:  Mother’s Day.


Julia Ward Howe, a Boston poet, pacifist, suffragist, and author of the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” is credited with first organizing a day in 1870 encouraging mothers to rally for peace, since she believed they bore the loss of human life more harshly than anyone else. In 1908, Anna Jarvis picked up on the idea and arranged a simple service at her mother’s church, in West Virginia to honor her mother. She distributed her mother’s favorite flower, white carnations to members of the congregation. After years of lobbying business leaders, clergy and public officials, she finally succeeded in getting Congress to pass a proclamation, and in 1914 her lifelong friend, President Woodrow Wilson, signed a bill recognizing Mother’s Day.


At first, people observed the day by attending church and writing letters to their mothers. Over the years the day evolved so that instead of personalized expressions of love and appreciation as Jarvis had intended, encouraged by a campaign launched by the floral industry, people delivered floral arrangements, bought gifts of jewelry and clothing, presented boxed chocolates, and sent greeting cards with pro-forma sentiments. As the holiday became increasingly commercialized, Jarvis filed a lawsuit in 1923 to stop a Mother’s Day festival, and was even arrested for disturbing the peace at a convention selling carnations. Before she died in 1948, Jarvis is said to have expressed regret at ever having started the tradition.


Her campaign against commercialization was to little avail. It is estimated that Mother’s Day spending in the United States is expected to reach $ 15.6 billion this year, up about 4 % from last year.  The second Sunday of May has become the most popular day of the year to dine out, and more phone calls are made on this day than any other.  Incidentally, although this is the day the most calls are made, not too long ago, when people would reverse charges, making what was known as collect calls, more collect calls were made on Father’s Day than any other day.


We honor mothers for their care and concern, the love and attention and devotion, but also because of the wisdom they offer.


Rabbi Marc Gellman wrote a book called “Always Wear Clean Underwear” where he explains the underlying truth behind the things our mothers tell us. As we all know the reason we need to wear clean underwear is because we never know when we will be taken unexpectedly to a hospital.  I ask you:  have you ever heard of a hospital or a doctor turning someone away because they were not wearing clean underwear?!  So why is this myth perpetuated?  Because there is a deeper message, and the meaning of this teaching is that mothers are telling us — what people don’t see about you should be just as important as what people see about you.


When moms tell children, for example: “eat your vegetables,” they are talking about more than your diet and are really imparting a greater truth.  By not allowing children to only eat sweets or junk food, they are saying — what you want isn’t always what you need.  By teaching us to choose carrots instead of chocolate, they are teaching us that when you grow up there will be times when you should choose what is good for you instead of what looks good, and what you crave at that moment.


When a mother says to look both ways before crossing the street, the meta-message of being cautious is to teach us not to jump into things. It is important to stop and look both ways, to consider the consequences of our actions.  Once we have paused to better assess the situation facing us, then we should proceed, and this applies to whatever we do.


How many times have mothers told children: keep your shoes off the couch or not to put your feet on the sofa.  Moms say this because you are bringing in the dirt on the bottom of your shoes.  But it has to do with much more than keeping furniture clean.  When mothers say this they are teaching their children to have respect, respect for others; for the people who have no room to sit because you are spread all over the couch; respect for the people who clean the couch.  It reminds us that we are all connected and shouldn’t only think about ourselves and our own comfort.


I can think of at least one woman who is probably very happy she took her mother’s advice, a woman whose wedding was witnessed by millions around the world last week. I heard that Kate Middleton’s mother was the one who told her daughter and encouraged her to go to St. Andrews University because Prince William was a student there.  She apparently told her daughter she might have the chance to meet the future king if she goes to the same school he goes to.  Assuming that this is true, had she not listened to her mother, she would never have met the love of her life and had such a celebrated and beautiful wedding.


On this Mother’s Day when we thank our mothers for raising us, for caring for us, for giving us love and all the little things we take for granted remember to thank them for all the things they taught us and for the wisdom they imparted to us. While thinking about what to get for Mother’s Day this year, the best advice and the best gift of all might just be to listen to your mother, and eat that broccoli.  After all, she knows what is best for you.


Also published on Medium.


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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.