Most Jewish holidays commemorate ancient historical events or celebrate significant religious themes. Mother’s Day is a relatively new (since 1914) American holiday honoring motherhood. It is also a good occasion for Jews to honor not only their physical mothers but also their spiritual mothers: including the non-Jewish mothers and grandmothers of converts to Judaism.
When the Baal Sham Tov heard what happened to Count Valentine Potocki, a young Polish nobleman who secretly converted to Judaism, and was later arrested and burned alive in the center of Vilna in 1749; he said that Potocki’s soul was a Gilgul (reincarnation) of parts (sparks) of the soul of both Sarah and Ruth, who also were not born to a Jewish mother, but whose grandchildren became devoted Jews.
Indeed, there is something special about the non-Jewish mother’s and grandmother’s of most converts to Judaism. Ruth was the most famous female convert to Judaism. One of her descendants was the father of King David.
According to a Midrash the souls of all future converts to Judaism were also standing at Sinai. Perhaps the special non-Jewish grandmother’s who rejoice when they are blessed by Jewish grandchildren are descendants of the ‘mixed multitude’ of non-Jews who joined the Jews who escaped from Egypt and also stood at Mount Sinai.
According to Sefer HaPliyah a 14th century Kabbalistic text, most converts to Judaism are gilgulim- reincarnated Jewish souls from previous generations that were lost to the Jewish people, who are now returning home to their original people. Since Potocki left no children, his soul would be reborn in a Gentile body and then someday would return (convert) to the Jewish people again.
Jewish mystical teachings relate that the souls of Jews who were cut off from the Jewish people, without leaving physical descendants to propagate their Jewish lineage, will reincarnate in later generations in the bodies of close friends or extended family, who 3-7 generations later will revert to Judaism. Perhaps these special non-Jewish grandmothers are descendants of such Jews.
An example of this kind of special type of non-Jewish mother from England was recounted several years ago by Rabbi Barbara Borts: One of the most touching conversions I ever did was a young girl of 11, brought to me by her mother, to discuss Judaism.
The mother was a widow, living back at home with her mother and her father, who was a minister. This girl had done some research on Hanukkah for her school class, and in the process both loved what she learned and discovered that her late father’s grandfather was a German Jew.
I asked her mother why she would support this. Her response was that her two daughters were no longer going to church, and she was delighted that one of them had found a religious home. When I said that I could not imagine doing what she was doing if the positions were reversed, she said, ”It’s different for Jews, after the Holocaust and all.”
So, the girl started Hebrew school classes, and attending services. I moved a couple of years later, and bequeathed her to the next rabbi. Some years later, we met up again when she was in University. She had converted, changed her name permanently, was an active member of a Jewish student organization, and planed to become a Rabbi.”
Most Jews have heard about the famous Eshet Khayil “a woman of valor” glorified in the last chapter of the Book of Proverbs; which speaks about the virtues of a strong, active Jewish wife and mother. Among her many wonderful virtues is that a Torah of kindness is on her tongue (Proverbs 31:26)
But almost no one has heard of King Lemuel, whose own mother admonished him so wisely that he added her words about the Eshet Khayil “a woman of valor” to the Book of Proverbs. King Lemuel always remembered how his mother, admonished him that wine is not for kings since it impairs their judgment, and that the most important thing in life is to marry a woman of valor and to always respect her great capabilities.
The Biblical book of Proverbs states; “My son, heed the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the Torah of your mother.” (Proverbs 1:8) and then restates: “My son, keep your father’s Mitsvot, and do not forsake your mother’s Torah.” (Proverbs 6:20)
Two historical examples of women of valor that all rabbis should teach about are Deborah and Yael. Deborah was a Prophet and a Judge who held court under a palm tree named after her. (Judges 4:4-5) Deborah was the best known female prophet since the time of Miriam (Exodus 15:20), two to three generations previously.
Prophet Deborah had inherited from her mother some of the wooden tent pegs that secured Miriam’s tent, which was always erected close to Miriam’s well, that according to the Midrash followed the Jewish People in its travels in the Sinai wilderness.
This connection between Miriam the prophet and Deborah the prophet is why the story of Deborah’s leadership is the haftarah to Be-shallach where the Torah states that Miriam was a prophet.
Prophet Deborah started the liberation of northern Israel from Canaanite domination when she called the tribes of Israel to battle; and summoned Barak to lead them.
Prophet Deborah’s revolt was successful and was finished off when in a tent dwelling, a convert to Judaism, Yael the Kenite, killed the Canaanite general Sisera with a wooden tent peg (Judges 4:18-22) that had first belonged to Prophet Miriam, which Yael had received from Prophet Deborah on the twentieth anniversary of Yael’s conversion to Judaism.
But an Eshet Hayil is rarely like Prophet Deborah or Yael. Most of the time they are simply wonder-filled loving Jewish women. As Rabbi Tanhum said: ‘When a man lives without a wife, he lives without joy, without blessings and without goodness’.
I would add that an unmarried man also lives without the ongoing feeling that God’s presence rests on him. To view your spouse as a gift from God is a blessing. First of all, I thank God that my wife and I met. If I hadn’t taken a position in the city where she lived, if somebody hadn’t given me her phone number, if she had already been involved with someone else, we never would have gotten together.
Very few of us marry the girl next door anymore. A dozen factors, most seemingly quite random, govern who we meet. So I thank God every day, and especially on Mother’s Day, for bringing us together. As the Talmud says:” Love your wife as you love yourself—and honor her even more.” (Yebamot 62b)
Second, I thank God that we are such a perfect match. We beat the odds in the love game. As the Talmud says: “Be careful to honor your wife: for blessing enters the home only because of the wife” (Baba Mezi’a 59a)
Third, I thank God that she is such a good wife and mother; patient, sensitive, enthusiastic, supportive, always concerned, very intelligent, with a positive Jewish neshamah and much more.
So I urge Jewish families who may have been blessed by a non-Jewish spiritual mother or grandmother to celebrate their mazal tov.