Mother in Law Episode 1

by Deanna Levine

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The Ladies' Tikkun on Thursday, 1 June 17 (2nd day of Shavuot, 5776)

Held by courtesy of Rabbi Hackenbroch and Gila in their beautiful home

Here we are on Shavuot—the festival of revelation: Mount Sinai trembles, thunder and lightning split apart the skies, the rocky crests of a barren desert suddenly burst into verdant bloom. The unstoppable, all-powerful Voice of the Holy One shatters the silence . . . and a couple of million refugees, yesterday kvetching and quarrelling, today stand together as one nation with one heart to embrace the essence of truth, to receive timeless wisdom – the Ten Commandments, the quintessence of divine law.

And how do we, some thirty-three centuries later, commemorate and recreate this awesome experience? Customs range from the sublime (the reading of the Ten Commandments) to the sumptuous for (for example, the cheesecake)! But one Shavuot custom stands out as rather incongruous. Among all the books of the Torah, the one we read on Shavuot is a seemingly minor tale of a couple of Moabite widows and their Jewish mother-in-law.

Widowed and uncertain of her future, Ruth might easily have reverted to her old comfort zone and left Naomi — as in fact her Moabite sister-in law, Orpah, had done. But Ruth’s devotion to her deceased husband’s familial and tribal lineage is unshakable; and she recognizes in her mother-in-law a quality of kindness and grace that wins her undying loyalty. “Wherever you go, I will go,” she proclaims. “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your G‑d, my G‑d.”

Why read Megillat Ruth? Some say – because Ruth was the mother of royalty, the great-grandmother of King David. Others say because Ruth was the first official convert to the Jewish faith. Its innate relevance might also stem from the quality of the core relationship it portrays. Because Ruth is a rare narrative indeed – the saga of a mother-in-law, Naomi, and a daughter-in-law, Ruth, and their implausibly positive emotional bond. It poses a rare opportunity to re-examine this often ridiculed love-hate relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and turn it around.

Can two women love the same man – the husband of one and the son of the other – and live in peace? A question which even Rashi might have asked!

So why were Adam and Eve the happiest couple in the history of the world? Because neither one of them had a mother-in-law!

The question was often asked, “What’s the difference between a Jewish mother-in-law and a rottweiler? To which Rashi gives the enlightened response, “Eventually the rottweiler lets go...”close

 

Sadly, mother-in-law jokes are a mainstay of comedy. They play on the stereotype that the average mother-in-law is overbearing, obnoxious, and probably unattractive to boot – and that the old battle-axe considers her daughter-in-law to be totally unworthy of her perfect boychik.

Boy meets girl and get engaged; he calls Mum to share the good news. They arrange dinner so she can meet his fiancée. He arrives with not one, but three women – a blonde, a brunette and a redhead. “Why three women?” asks Mum. “Guess which one is your future daughter-in-law.” Mum studies each one carefully, then exclaims, “It’s the redhead.”  “How did you work that out so quickly?” he enquires in wonderment. “Simple,” she replies icily. “Because I can’t stand her already.”

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” we are taught. “Judge everyone favourably”. “Give the benefit of the doubt.” Yet when it comes to those awkward, hypersensitive in-law moments, there’s more doubt than benefit, and not enough love to go round. Too often daughters-in-law are rarely comfortable openly to communicate with their mothers-in-law, let alone accept their well-considered advice. Conversely, mothers-in-law, convinced it’s for the good, too easily intervene with unwelcome criticism, blind to the resentment it engenders. Feeling uncomfortable changes to being judgmental, which gives way to paranoia, and the “in-law syndrome” descends into a state of virtual warfare – or more subtly – exclusion from family gatherings.

If each in-law relationship could work with a minimum of hang-ups and negativity, these women could have worlds to offer each other. The one needs to train herself to look at her daughter-in-law with the “good eye” and the “good friend” described in Ethics of the Fathers — seeing the good in her, accentuating the positive, dropping the judgment. And the other should try to value and welcome her mother-in-law’s wisdom, concern and in-the-trenches experience with the man they both love.

If mother-in-law says something that feels like criticism or interference, daughter-in-law could take the sting out of it, putting a positive spin on it. If daughter-in-law is too busy with little ones, school meetings,  housework or career to invite mother-in-law into  her life, mother-in-law could replace the irritation at having been slighted with a positive resolve to help her free up time. She could, for example, offer to babysit or slip her some money for extra cleaning help; they could take walks in the park; they could do lunch: they could listen and learn. Hopefully, that may work for their benefit and that of their families, who are likely to be much relieved at the improvement in their relationship.

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