Kevin Durant, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and You - 100th Anniversary of Mother's Day

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Many cynics assume that Mother’s Day was invented by the greeting card industry and they are only half wrong. In 1905, Anna Jarvis of West Virginia lost her beloved mother whom she respected, admired and loved beyond words. She began a campaign to create Mother’s Day as a recognized holiday in the United States in order to honor, "the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world." She was successful in convincing several states to officially recognize the day and ultimately in 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation creating Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, as a national holiday to honor mothers.


It didn’t take long for Hallmark and other greeting card companies to capitalize on this new holiday by selling printed cards with messages of appreciation to Moms. Jarvis was so disappointed and disturbed by the commercialization and exploitation of what she intended to be a genuinely sentimental day that she worked to rescind the very holiday that she had introduced. Mother’s Day was supposed to be about hand written, personal letters of appreciation, she felt, not about mass produced, impersonal cards that generate profit for big companies instead of engender love and gratitude. Despite her organized boycotts, it was too late. The greeting card industry was too strong and Mother’s Day was here to stay.


This year, on the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day, over 133 million cards will be given, millions of bouquets of flowers sold, brunches eaten, and an estimated $20 billion will be spent on gifts. With all the attention and fanfare paid to what has become among America’s most popular holidays, it is critical to remain mindful and sensitive to those who aspire to be mothers, but have not yet been blessed with the opportunity.   However, ultimately, Mother’s Day is not about celebrating the institution of motherhood, taking pride in one’s maternal instinct or even about applauding all mothers. According to its founder, Anna Jarvis, Mother’s Day is entirely about our own personal mother and recognizing her unique role and contributions to our life. Jarvis, who did not have children of her own, specifically did not call it Mothers’ Day in the plural, but Mother’s Day, the day dedicated to our singular, one and only mother.


This week, the N.B.A. bestowed its highest personal honor, the MVP, Most Valuable Player Award on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant. At the reception celebrating his achievement, Durant who is incredibly competitive, aggressive and relentless on the court, was clearly emotional while thanking his teammates, coaches, fans and friends. He couldn’t fight back tears when he came to his final thank you addressed to his mother, Wanda. He told her, “We weren’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs. Food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real M.V.P.”


While Durant was receiving an award for his athletic prowess, halfway around the world in our Holy City of Yerushalayim, l’havdil Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a was receiving the prestigious Israel Award for his contributions in the field of Jewish Religious Literature.   Rav Aharon, as he is affectionately known, is an extraordinary Talmid Chacham, Rosh Yeshiva, teacher, thinker and writer whose brilliance is only surpassed by his modesty and model character. In an interview years ago, when it was suggested to him that many of his students believe that his passion for Torah learning began when he first encountered Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik who would later become his father in law, Rav Aharon was quick to correct the record. He explained that in fact, it was his mother, Bluma, herself a product of Telz in Lita, who was the driving force to ensure that her son would become a Torah scholar. She arranged special teachers and advanced learning opportunities for him as young man and made special efforts to position her son as a prized student of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, long before he ever met the Rav.


Whatever success we achieve in life, whatever accomplishments we earn, would not be possible without the woman who not only brought us into the world, nourished us, nurtured us and cared for us, but empowered us, inspired us and propelled us forward to become the people we are, our mothers. Mothers have a special role and a critical voice in our development. It isn’t just that they changed our diapers, tucked us in to sleep, nursed us back to health when we were sick, packed our lunches for school, and patiently did our homework with us. Our mothers had a much more significant pedagogic role to play.


In his eulogy for his mechutenesta, the Rebbetzin of Talne, Rabbi Soloveitchik spoke about his own mother and said:


People are mistaken in thinking that there is only one masorah, and only one masorah community, the community of the fathers. It is not true. We have two masorot, two traditions, two communities, two shalshalot ha-kabbalah [chains of tradition]- the masorah community of the fathers and that of the mothers. "Thus shalt thou say to the House of Jacob [=the women] and tell the children of Israel [=the men]" [Exodus 19:3], "Hear, my son, the instruction of thy father [mussar avikha], and forsake not the teaching of thy mother [torat imekha]" [Proverbs 1:8], counseled the old king. What is the difference between these two masorot, these two traditions? What is the distinction between mussar avikha and torat imekha? Let us explore what one learns from one's father and what one learns from one's mother.


From one's father one learns how to read a text- the Bible or the Talmud, how to comprehend, how to analyze, how to conceptualize how to classify, how to infer, how to apply, etc. One also learns what to do and what not to do, what is morally right and what is morally wrong. Father teaches son the discipline of thought as well as the discipline of action. Father's tradition is an intellectual-moral one. That is why it is identified with musar, the biblical term for discipline.


What is torat imekha? What kind of a Torah does the mother pass on? I admit that I am not able to define precisely the masoretic role of a mother. Only by circumscription may I hope to explain it. Permit me to draw upon my own experiences. I used to have long conversations with my mother. In fact, they were monologues rather than a dialogue. She talked and I "happened" to overhear. What did she talk about? I must use a halakhic term in order to answer this question. She spoke of inyana de-yoma [the affairs of the day]. I used to watch her arranging the house in honor of a holiday. I used to see her recite prayers. I used to watch her recite the sidra [weekly Torah portion] every Friday night; I still remember the nostalgic tune. I learned much from her.


Most of all I learned that Judaism expresses itself not only in formal compliance with the law but also in living experience. She taught me that there is flavor, a scent, and a warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life- to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders. Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.


The laws of Shabbat, for instance, were passed on to me by my father; they are part of musar avikha. The Shabbat as a living entity, as a queen, was revealed to me by my mother; it is a part of torat imekha. The fathers knew much about the Shabbat; the mother lived the Shabbat, experienced her presence, and perceived her beauty and splendor.


The fathers taught generations how to observe the Shabbat; the mothers taught generations how to greet the Shabbat and how to enjoy her twenty-four-hour presence.


Rabbi Soloveitchik never attended a Yeshiva. All of his formal Torah learning came from his father. And yet, it is his mother whom he credits with awakening and nourishing his soul. “Without her teachings, which quite often were transmitted to me in silence, I would have grown up a soulless being, dry and insensitive.”


This Sunday, on the 100th anniversary of Mother’s Day, let’s make Anna Jarvis proud. Instead of purchasing a mass produced greeting card, hand write a letter to your Mother and thank her for being "the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world." Let’s never take for granted the toras imecha, the unique roles of our mothers and the lessons we have learned from them.