September 22, 2019

What women know of war

I was 15 the first time I saw a mother grieve for her son.

It was my freshman year of high school, just after the homecoming dance, when our community was rocked by the death of 18-year-old Alan Epstein, a heartthrob jock who coached girls’ basketball, mentored his younger siblings and had breakfast with his mother before climbing into his Jeep for the last time.

Never have I seen a more wrenching scene than his funeral. In the hushed sea of sobs, among the thousand mourning bodies clinging together in black clusters, and the choking atmosphere of agony and anguish, I mainly remember one thing: When his mother entered.

She dragged herself down the synagogue aisle, screaming with every dreaded step, her arms locked like steel over her two younger children, who held her up as the power of her rage made her legs go limp. I remember how they moved, the three of them in rock formation as if a single organism, striving against an irresistible force, as if the casket of her oldest son was a raging fire that would scorch and then consume them.

A grieving mother is not an image one easily forgets. Horrible and haunting, a mother losing her child is the single greatest injustice inflicted upon the possibilities of nature. And yet, here and elsewhere, it is a common fact.

Last week in Israel, we watched once again as men killed men and women grieved. While their children were still missing, and the Israeli government ravaged its way through the West Bank, the mothers of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel traveled to the United Nations to plead for their sons’ return.

“Every mother’s nightmare is waiting and waiting endlessly for her child to come home,” an impassioned Rachel Frenkel told the president of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Her anguish was obvious, but her message was neither emotional nor political. With the moral clarity of a prophet, she sat before the entire assembly and declared: “It is wrong to take children, innocent boys and girls, and use them as instruments of any struggle,” she said. “It is cruel.”

Not two weeks later, Suha Khdeir, the mother of murdered Palestinian teen Muhammad Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive, would come to experience that same calculated cruelty. While Palestinian-led riots broke out all over East Jerusalem, demolishing light-rail stops and inciting clashes with Israeli police, the Journal’s Simone Wilson reported that Suha Khdeir sat in mourning on her porch, surrounded by female relatives; she barely had the strength to eat. “I can't swallow from the pain,” she said as her cousin lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips. Even at protestations that she could die of dehydration, she answered, “I want to die. I want to follow my son.”

In the adjacent men’s mourning tent, Mahmoud Odeh, 46, a physical therapist who rents an apartment from the Khdeir family, had the sense to recognize who is hurt most by these losses. “If European people and Americans and Israel think we raise our kids to be killed, they are making a big mistake,” Odeh said. “A cat does not allow you to take her son. And we as a people, we value life. This mother sitting here and that mother sitting in Gush Etzion, they lost their sons. It's not political.”

In the Torah, Judaism’s first matriarch dies immediately after her husband nearly sacrifices their son for God. According to one midrash, Sarah’s death is the work of Satan, who visits her and tells her of Abraham’s plan to ascend the mountain and kill their child. Almost at once, Sarah dies from grief. And we are left with a sobering question: How often in our tradition, and in our world, is it men who take action and women who suffer the consequences?  

Sherri Mandell, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for her 2003 memoir “The Blessing of a Broken Heart” is another Jewish mother who has endured the unendurable. In 2001, her 13-year-old Israeli-American son Koby and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were abducted and then “bound, stabbed and beaten to death with rocks,” according to reports. Their blood was smeared all over the walls of the cave they were left in, and their bodies were so badly mutilated and disfigured, that dental samples were the only means of identifying them.


Mandell has reason to want revenge. But in an Op-Ed for The Times of Israel last week, she wrote instead of human dignity. “I always speak about the way that the Jewish people seek justice, but leave vengeance to G-d,” she wrote. “My mother always told me: the best revenge is a good life and I have always followed her teaching, never allowing the murder of my son to fill me or my family or children with a rage for vengeance.”

How many of us who have not suffered her loss still secretly wish or openly call for the destruction of our enemies?

How much longer will we silence and ignore the wisdom of women while men wield swords and throw stones?

Of the stunningly few women actually named in the Talmud, the sage Bruriah offers some of the most vital and humane counsel in the entire Jewish tradition. When her husband, the 2nd century Talmudic scholar Rebbe Meir is repeatedly harassed by a band of neighborhood thugs, he decides to pray for the death of those that disturb him. Bruriah reminds him of a line from Psalms: “Let sins be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more.”

It does not say, “Let sinners be uprooted from the earth,” she tells him. “It says ‘sins.’” Her teaching is clear: A Jew should never wish for the death of sinners, but for the death of sin.

A lesson that perhaps only a mother could teach.