The Way of the Mothers
By Rabbi Ed Snitkoff
Israel is such an interesting place.
Over the past year, the entire country
has been inundated with a very curious advertising campaign on behalf of a large optical chain. In newspapers, over the internet, on bus posters, in gigantic posters on the side of tall buildings, we read the Biblical injunction from the Ten Commandments, followed by a question:
Honor Your Mother and Father…
When was the last time you called your mother or father to say "Good Morning?" Brought to you by Halperin Optics
Normally a business uses wording in their advertisements that encourages people to purchase their product. We would expect to read "Get the Best Glasses Here" and not verses from the Bible that have no direct relationship to the product being sold.
The motivation behind this advertising campaign has piqued the curiosity of many in Israel, as we see this campaign all over the country, and in so many contexts. A reporter asked the owner of this optical chain, why he chose to do this. He explained that following the recent death of his mother, he was moved to find a way to memorialize her. "What better way to do so than to remind the entire country to honor their parents and connect to them on a regular basis?"
This is a very special aspect about living in Israel! This advertising campaign has touched many people who relate that every time they encounter this reminder on the side of a bus or in newspaper, they think about it and often call their parents to just say "Hello." How many countries in the world can boast that the Bible can be used in a successful ad campaign?
Honor Your Father and Your Mother! The fact that the recent death of his mother moved the owner of this company to begin this unique advertisement campaign is certainly understandable. The sound of our mother's voice is the first sound we recognize as babies, and her face is our first and strongest connection to the world and to other people.
A recent study by Israeli biologists shows that the scalp of infants produces an odor enzyme that nourishes areas of the brain that produce feelings of empathy and love in mothers after birth! Imagine that- scientific proof that our mothers are hard wired from the time of creation to love us.
Our mothers are also our spiritual mentors. How interesting that according to traditional Jewish Law, a person is considered a Jew if their mother is Jewish. It makes no difference who the father is! In Jewish tradition, it is assumed that the mother will take the leading role in creating identity and spiritual life. Our mothers are our foundation.
I live on Derech Hebron, "The Way to Hebron," in Jerusalem. If we walk south from my home, we will pass Bethlehem and then Hebron. The entire journey is a total of 28 kilometers, about a day's walk. I actually think of my road as the "Way of the Mothers," as it has been a road of pilgrimage and homage to our ancestors for generations.
Why do I think of this place as the "Way of the Mothers?" Because on the way to Bethlehem, we pass and stop at the tomb of Rachel who was buried there by Jacob "on the way", after she died giving birth to Benjamin. This tomb has been a place of pilgrimage, literally on the side of the road, connecting us to our mother who never reached home. We visit this place with Jeremiah's words on our lips,
A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15)
Imagine the Jews (and others) on pilgrimage, passing here over the centuries, crying together with Rachel at the exile of her children. Today of course, this verse is cause for rejoicing as Rachel surely is no longer crying as her children have returned, as the words of Jeremiah prophesy:
Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping,and your eyes from tears,for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD,and your children shall come back to their own country.(Jeremiah 31:16-17)
After connecting with the memory of Rachel, we continue our journey south to Hebron, the city of our ancestors, reaching the Cave of Machpela, purchased by Abraham to bury Sarah, the mother of the Jewish People. Eventually Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are also buried there. There we can pay homage to the memory of our ancestors, keeping in mind that the road there is certainly dedicated to our mother, Rachel.
The Way to Hebron connects us to the stories of the matriarchs and the patriarchs of the Bible, and became a major pilgrimage route from Jerusalem, today serving as one of the busiest thoroughfares of the city. (As I write these words I can hear the traffic outside my window!}
Recent archaeological discoveries on the side of this road enrich our narrative and horizons as we strive to honor our mothers. A great blessing of the rebuilding of Jerusalem is the need to expand the road system to accommodate a boom in traffic. In 1992, in widening the Way to Hebron, an ancient ruin was discovered, causing a shift in the direction of the road expansion, to allow archaeologists to explore the site. In 1997 they finally and definitively identified the site as the Kathisma Church, dated to the early 5th Century CE, known by ancient Christian pilgrims as the Church of the Seat of Mary.
According to this old Christian tradition, this was the spot where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, rested and drank on the way to Bethlehem. This church was a major stop for Byzantine Christian pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem. It is mentioned a number of times by early pilgrims in their travel diaries.
The church is a series of octagonal hallways, surrounding a large limestone rock, identified by some to be where Mary rested, and drank from a spring.
The Piacenza Pilgrim who visited in the 6th Century, describes the church, including a "miraculous" water font emanating from below the stone, telling us how the faithful would collect the water to bring home. A side note: Archaeologists uncovered large cisterns above the church on a ridge, and a clay pipe leading from there to the area beneath the stone! We understand that the builders of the church helped enhance the miracle of the spring waters with this underground plumbing system.
While for many Christians today, paying homage to specific places (especially one with an enhanced miraculous experience) is not the focus of a pilgrimage to Israel, and they might not choose to stop here for a visit. I disagree, and believe that this is a very important site to contemplate the place of our mothers in our lives.
How fascinating that early Christians saw an imperative to mark a purely Christian tradition on the very road upon which Rachel's tomb is located, only a few miles away. Not just any site, but a site dedicated to a mother, a very special mother for Christians. Think about this: For about 250 years a Christian pilgrim would be able to visit two sites on this road dedicated to the memory of mothers. One mother whose voice is heard crying and yearning for the return of her children. Another, the mother of Jesus is remembered as she rests on her trek to Bethlehem. Both Jewish mothers. Both involved in different ways in the Jewish, and Christian, story of redemption.
Eventually this church falls into ruins and its location is forgotten. How interesting that only through the return of the children of Rachel to the land, leading to expansion of this road, are these ruins exposed.
It is especially meaningful to note that the remains of the church sit below the shadow of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, named after Mother Rachel, whose tomb is found only a few miles down the road. (Ramat Rachel-Rachel's Heights was the southernmost point of Jewish Jerusalem, and saved the city from the Egyptian invasion in the 1948 War of Independence).
If you stand in the ruins of the Kathisma Church, Kibbutz Ramat Rachel is above you to the east, and the road leading to Rachel's tomb is only a few meters to the west. Jews and Christians can walk together here as they share their mutual stories, on the road to redemption.