God, the Consoling Mother (Isaiah 66:1-24)
This Shabbat is the third of seven Shabbatot of consolation which follow Tisha b’Av (Shiva d’Nehamta). Normally, the haftarot for these Shabbatot are set and represent the earliest known fixed haftarot in the tradition. (See Pesikta d’Rav Kahana) This Shabbat, however, we have a conflict since it is also Shabbat Rosh Hodesh which has its own fixed haftarah. How is this liturgical conflict to be resolved? On this question, see the following dvar Torah.
As I noted there, the Ashkenazic tradition chose to read the haftarah for Shabbat Rosh Hodesh. In part, this opinion was reinforced by a number of verses in this haftarah which express a message of solace; among them this verse: “As a mother comforts her son (child), so will I (God) comfort you; You shall find comfort in Jerusalem.” (verse 13) Here, God’s mercy is likened to that of a mother for her child. Amos Hacham explains the significance of this image: “I, the Lord, comfort you, mourners of Zion, with great comfort, like a man who experiences the great solace with which his mother would comfort him, on account of her loving her child more than any other person. This is why the comfort which a mother gives is better than the comfort of any other person. This is why the prophet likened God’s comfort to that of a mother rather than to that of a father as in most other Biblical passages.” (Isaiah, Daat Mikra, pp. 692-3)
In a midrash composed in Eretz Yisrael in the 4th century, Rabbi Shmuel drew a distinction between the kind of sympathy one could expect from one’s father and how it differs from that of one’s mother: “It is the way of a father to have compassion: ‘Like a father has compassion (k’rahem) upon his children’ (Psalms 103:12) and it is the way of the mother to offer comfort: ‘As a mother comforts (k’nahem) her child’ (Isaiah 66:13) The Holy One Blessed be He said: ‘I will act like a father and I will act like a mother to Israel’” (adapted from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 19:3 Mandelbaum ed. p. 305)
The Hassidic sage, Rabbi Zadok Hakohen M’Lublin (19th-20th century Poland) explains what he sees as the difference between these two types of sympathy: “The compassion of the father regards the future where the father can rescue his child from trouble whereas the mother can offer comfort over sadness brought on by the past.” (Pri Hazadik Shoftim 14)
I am not sure that in our day, we expect specific kinds of solace to be associated with given parental roles. What is clear here, though, is that neither the prophets nor the rabbis were shy about using “mother” imagery to describe God’s nurturing side. We can still use a bit of this nurturing, both with regard to our past as well as for our future.