Shortly after the passing of Miriam, the preeminent Yiddishe mama (Jewish mother), the water that had flowed miraculously from a stone for 40 years, as our ancestors traveled through the desert, ceased its flow. The nation then realized that the water had been provided in the merit of Miriam, and although Moses and Aaron were able to restore the water, the water source would forever be known as the well of Miriam.
Everything in the biblical narrative, including its stories, is instructive. To reveal the lesson behind this particular story, one need only think about the symbolic role of water. The Talmud refers to Torah as food, because the Torah is ingested by the mind like food is ingested by the stomach. The role of water is to lubricate the body and to facilitate the distribution of the food’s nourishment throughout the body. When viewed this way, the lesson of Miriam’s well is clear. The Yiddishe mama has a particular role to play in Jewish life. The Torah tells us that the obligation to teach Torah to the child falls primarily on the father. The father provides food for Torah thought directly to the child’s mind. The Yiddishe mama nurtures a home environment and a culture that extends the Torah to the child’s heart and facilitates the child’s ability to internalize it, allowing it to flow within the child like water. Thus, Miriam, the preeminent Yiddishe mama, provided the water.
The Yiddishe Mama Discrepancy
This understanding about the Yiddishe mama explains a curious discrepancy in the Torah. Just before G-d gave the Torah at Sinai, He told Moses how to guide the nation as they prepared to receive the Torah, starting with the words “So shall you say.” G-d used the very same phrase just after the Torah was given, this time to offer guidance on how the children of Israel were to respond to receiving the Torah. With one discrepancy: Before the Torah was given, Moses was told to relay the guidance to both women and men, placing women ahead of the men; after the Torah was given, Moses was told to relay the guidance to the men.
Our insight into the distinct properties of water helps us understand this apparent discrepancy. In a child’s life, the giving of the Torah represents the age of studying Torah. But before children are old enough to go to school, they need to absorb a love of Judaism at home. This is received primarily from the Yiddishe mama, who has the ability to nurture the absorption of our heritage with love. This is why G-d instructed the women before Sinai: to teach the nation to receive the Torah with love.
It goes without saying that there are exceptions to most rules, and in some houses the father takes the lead in nurturing a loving tone in the home and the mother takes the lead role in educating the children. It is also true that most men and women overlap in both areas. But on the whole, the mother’s and father’s roles are distinctive in the Torah: the mother nurtures, and the mitzvah to teach Torah to the next generation rests on the shoulders of the father.
When the teachers teach young children in school, they act as agents of the father. Therefore, once the child is old enough to attend school, the father’s role (often through the agency of the teacher) begins in earnest. This is why G-d instructed the men, after Sinai, to teach the nation how to study the Torah with reverence.
How to Nurture
The Torah teaches us that G-d dwells in the heart of the Jew just as much as He dwelled in the Temple. Thus, if we want to know how the Jewish women of old, under the guidance of their Yiddishe mamas, built families and homes, we need to consider their contributions to the building of the Tabernacle.
The Torah tells us that the women contributed to the building of the Tabernacle before the men did. This is consistent with what we mentioned above about the order of Jewish life. The role of the Yiddishe mama begins much earlier than the task of the Yiddishe father. And what did these women contribute?
Four Pieces of Jewelry
The Torah tells us that the women in the desert contributed earrings, nose rings, rings and bracelets. These four contributions tell us much about the parenting ingredients that build a Jewish home. In other words, there are symbolic connections between the contributions the Yiddishe mama made to the Tabernacle and the contributions the Yiddishe mama makes to the Jewish home and to the heart of her child.
The earring represents the importance of listening. A parent must listen carefully to a child from the youngest age to determine the child’s particular character, so that the child can be raised appropriately, and so that the parent can devise unique parenting methods suited to each child.
Listening also teaches us a lot about ourselves, because children reflect back to us what we model for them. If a child screams, we probably scream too much. If a child is rude, we are likely rude in their presence. It is difficult to remember each of our failings, but by listening to our children, we can pick up on our failings and correct them before they cause too much damage to our children.
The nose ring represents the smell test. A parent must ensure that their child’s friends and interests pass the smell test. Children often want things that aren’t good for them. Because we love them, we are tempted to indulge their every whim. But parents must remember their duty to raise responsible, spiritual and moral children. This entails passing everything through the smell test before giving our approval.
The ring is worn on the finger, and it represents pointing the way. Parents cannot expect children to know good from bad. Despite their innocence, children aren’t selfless, moral and proper. Children, just like adults, are inherently interested in fun and indulgent pursuits. If we don’t show them the way, we can’t expect them to know it for themselves. We must point them in the right direction.
Finally, the armband. Pointing the way is not enough. Guidance often needs to be reinforced with firmness, which is represented by the arm. We need to put some steel into our instructions. Parents, especially today, are reluctant to be firm with children. We are afraid that we will cause irreparable damage. This is why we often hear parents referring to their children as buddies. But children don’t need buddies. They need parents.
Firmness doesn’t mean cruelty. Firmness is rooted in love. If we love our children, we give them the gift of a moral and upstanding life. If we opt for friendship and to never risk the child’s ire by enforcing discipline, we don’t love the child; we love ourselves. We opt for the convenient path even if our children will suffer morally. To be sure, we need to temper discipline with love. We need to tell them that we love them even as we discipline them. It isn’t an easy balance. It is tricky and often messy. But that doesn’t exempt the parent from their duty to raise an upstanding child.
If we want our children’s hearts to be a Tabernacle for G-d, we need to invest the ingredients that our Yiddishe mama taught her generation to invest in G-d’s home. After all, we want our children to know us not only as their mama, but as their Yiddishe mama. We want to know that we gave them what they need to grow up as proud, educated and resolute Jews.