When, as little children, we learn about death, we also learn about the cycle of life. People, as well as animals, are born, age, and die; it is the way of the world. Nothing in our mindsets changes the underlying physical reality of the life cycle.
But the way we think about life can – and should – change how and when we can create value – or even holiness – by seizing hold of a piece of the natural world and directing it toward a higher ideal. Our worldview can make the difference between man being merely another animal, and aspiring to be better than animals.
Take, for example, growing away from one’s parents. Independence from our parents is inevitable in the way of the world, especially because parents usually predecease their children. But just because something is inevitable does not mean that it cannot be deeply meaningful on a spiritual level as well.
We start with motherhood. Creating and nurturing new life is what mothers do, so when children grow up, it is always bittersweet when they become more independent. But, as the Torah tells, us, the purpose of growing up is not independence per se, but instead investing in the next generation of productive relationships.
Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)
Marriage is not naturally inevitable. As we know, men are not instinctively monogamous; in a state of nature, powerful men accumulate women as subsidiary possessions, not as life-partners. So the Torah’s assertion that man is meant to leave his parents reflects the natural way of things, but “cleaving to his wife and becoming one flesh” is a prescription for what mankind should strive for, because in the Torah, partnership in marriage is also a prerequisite for partnership in a marriage with G-d. The Torah approach takes an animalistic desire and repurposes it toward a higher goal.
So it perhaps comes as no surprise that the next two times the word “his mother” is found in the Torah not only refers to the role of a mother as a nurturer, but also as the person who helps their son find a new relationship, a relationship where the son marries:
[Ishmael] lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother [Hagar] got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (Gen. 21:21)
This is motherhood beyond merely nursing a child until he is weaned; this is motherhood that continues to invest the son has a new woman in his life, his own life partner.
Indeed, in the Torah, that kind of motherly investment can stretch from beyond the grave:
Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Gen. 24:67)
Think of how amazing this is – that the ideal mother is able, even well after she has died, to welcome a daughter-in-law into the family. In so doing, she nurtures both her son and his wife even after she no longer lives and breathes.
This is the richest kind of investment in human relations. Just as we say that the highest form of charity is helping someone become capable enough to not require charity any more, the highest form of motherhood is raising a child to the extent that they can, in turn, invest in their own relationships. The bonds to one’s mother need not be broken when one marries, of course, but the exclusive dependence on one’s mother rightfully should diminish when a man marries.
The Torah is all about intergenerational investments, of seeing that every small thing we do today can contribute toward the Big Picture, a future that is measured in days or in generations. So while motherhood certainly involves giving birth, nursing, and caring for a child, the Big Picture for a good mother is to encourage children down a path toward the rest of their lives – toward maturity, adulthood, relationships and, above all, toward purpose. Because if we are to be more than mere animals, we need to invest in outcomes and goals that are far more than the animalistic physical cycle of life.
The Torah commands a number of ways in which we are taught to honor a mother’s investment. The text repeatedly commands us to never strike or curse our parents, and we are also commanded to directly honor/glorify them as well. And I think this is specifically because of the investment that parents make to their children.
In keeping with the idea that we are always supposed to find ways to elevate nature, to find ways to make the mundane holy, the Torah tells us of a mother bird and her eggs:
If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the mother bird sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the mother bird together with the young: but thou shalt surely let the mother go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayst prolong thy days. (Deut. 22:6-7)
The idea is that we should always preserve and elevate the ideal of motherhood, even when we, for our own needs, have to change the outcome. We do not make a mother suffer through the loss of her profound investment in her young.
I think this also helps explains a specific verse which is repeated three times in the Torah: “do not cook a kid in his mother’s milk.” Jewish Law understands that the reason for the repetition is to provide each of the facets of the law that we practice when we do not mix meat and milk. But the specific language used in the text is far more poetic and symbolic than merely, “don’t mix meat and milk.” The imagery is of motherhood, and the investment that a mother makes in her offspring. So if a mother’s job is to help her young reach their mature purpose in this world, then if we choose to alter that purpose, then we must do so while still respecting the mother’s investment of herself into her young.
The word for “cook” is another clue. The root word for “cook”, bshl, really is used in the text to mean, “converting something edible into readiness for a higher purpose.” You can see this everywhere the word is used in the text:
[the butler’s dream] On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters bshl into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” (Gen. 40:10-11) [making mere grapes into a king’s elixir]
Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of G-d. Bake what [of the manna that] you would bake and bshl what you would bshl; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.” (Ex. 16:23) [making normal food ready for the Sabbath]
[ordaining the priests] You shall take the ram of ordination and bshl its flesh in the sacred precinct; and Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram, and the bread that is in the basket, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
The same word is used for converting an animal into a sin offering, and of converting a Nazirite back into a normal (holier) existence. In all cases bshl refers to changing the value of a thing, and making it fit for a higher purpose. This is a key concept, because the mother goat has made a kid, which she nurses. When we seek to eat that goat, we are indeed giving it a higher purpose than it first had – but it is still a different purpose than the one the mother goat had in mind!
And we can certainly do that. We can kill an immature animal for food. But when we do, we must still take care to honor the mother who invested in her kid in the first place, to not use the milk of a mother’s sustenance for the purpose of prematurely ending a life.
Why is there so much in the Torah supporting this deep respect for motherhood? I think that ultimately, it is because G-d has invested in us in much the same way as a mother invests in her young! G-d willed us into existence, but he also shaped us and invested his own spirit in each of us to form our souls, in much the same way as we perceive that mothers pour themselves into their young. What does G-d – or a mother – ask for in return? Gratitude. Connection.
Which in turn explains another key linguistic challenge. The words for “milk” in the Torah and for “fat” are the same root word: chlv. We can only tell whether the text means “milk” or “fat” based on the context in which the word is found. Yet this understanding of milk as an investment in a relationship helps us understand why animal chlv is the same word as a mother’s milk:
You shall eat no chlv of ox or sheep or goat. Chlv from animals that died or were torn by beasts may be put to any use, but you must not eat it. If anyone eats the chlv of animals from which offerings by fire may be made to G-d, the person who eats it shall be cut off from kin. (Lev. 7:23-25)
So we cannot disrespect motherhood by cooking a kid in his mother’s milk. And we do not disrespect the maternal contributions of G-d by consuming the chlv that He contributes to the animal. Instead, we are commanded to always burn the fats on the altar, as they are not for us. They are gifts to G-d.
Why? Because the very first fats in the Torah were those of Abel’s offerings:
Abel, for his part, brought the firstlings of his flock and from their fats (chlv). G-d paid heed to Abel and his offering,
Abel’s offering is then echoed, in its way, by Avraham, who also gives chlv to others, the angels whom he perceived as being connected to G-d.
He took curds and chlv and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.
We are not permitted to eat fat because fat is meant to be a gift, appreciation for the blessings we are given. We cannot repurpose fats to eat them, because when we repurpose it must be for a higher purpose, and a gift is already the highest possible purpose that the fat can achieve. This is what Abel showed us: the fats of the animals are the highest and best thing from the animal, and so we do not disrespect the ultimate maker of all things by trying to use those fats for something other than as a gift.
This connection explains yet another conundrum: Three times the text tells us: “You shall not cook (bshl) a kid in its mother’s milk.” But the text immediately preceding these words is – in two of those cases – “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your G-d.” This verse directly confirms the connection between Abel’s offering of the firstlings, and the fact that he also brought chlv, from the fats of the animals. We show gratitude to G-d, the creator of all life, just as we honor motherhood. Acknowledging that the first fruits are gifts from G-d is human gratitude, just as we respect motherhood and its gifts to the next generation. Both are using everything for the highest possible purpose: furthering holy relationships.
Though the text tells us three times “you shall not cook (bshl) a kid in its mother’s milk,” the third time it is found (Deut. 14:21) the text does not refer to the first fruits. Instead, that phrase is immediately preceded by, “For you are a holy nation to the Lord your G-d.” When we show appreciation and gratitude, when we connect with G-d and honor his gifts, then we become holy. Holiness is all about elevation of the natural world toward positive and healthy relationships based on gratitude for the personal investment that G-d – and mothers – make into their own.
The natural world has a cycle of life. When we add the holy ingredient of ongoing gratitude mixed with the understanding that our investments are meant to be both “in the moment” and connecting generations, we come to understood a core identity of the Jewish people and the relationships that we are commanded in the Torah to have with G-d and with Man.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter joint venture!]