RJ Fall 2001

Ask the Rabbi

My mother is never there for me. How can I respect and honor her?

by Judy B. Shanks

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Q. Dear Rabbi,

I need your help. In my first trimester of pregnancy, I had a miscarriage. On the way to the hospital, I phoned my mother, who lives in the same city, to ask her to help my family and me get through this emergency. I was stunned to hear her say, "I can't get there until later tonight--I'm so sorry, honey, but I know you'll be fine." My mother has always been very selfish, but this hurt me to the core. What could have been more important than me at that moment? Fortunately, I was okay physically, but I'm still mourning the baby and I'm furious at my mother. I can barely speak to her, but she does not even know I'm upset. I'm afraid if I try to tell her, she'll repeat her favorite line to me: "You are just too sensitive." How can I "honor" her if I don't respect her, and wonder if I even love her?

"Neglected in North Carolina"

A. Dear "Neglected,"

I am so sorry to hear that, at such a painful moment of loss, your mother could not see beyond her own immediate needs. Your anger, resentment, and disappointment reveal the depth of your sense of betrayal: moms are supposed to be there for their children, and time and time again, she is not.

Our tradition teaches us that all people can do t'shuvah--can repent, turn, change. I would urge you, even at the risk of rebuff, to speak honestly to your mother about the hurt she caused you. You pay her the highest honor by granting her the opportunity to acknowledge her mistakes, apologize, and change. Should the unexpected occur, should she finally acknowledge and ask forgiveness for her years of selfishness, you two might begin slowly to repair your relationship. If she responds in a disappointing way, keep in mind that, for most individuals, t'shuvah does not come easily.

On Yom Kippur we also look into our own hearts for the will to forgive others the hurts they have caused us, so that we may enter the New Year free of the unbearable emotional weight of grudges and anger. Even if your mother is never able to be more generous or nurturing, it is possible for you to forgive her for not adequately fulfilling your needs and expectations.

As the New Year approaches, spend some quiet time reflecting on those unfulfilled maternal expectations. Write them down as a list. Try to write, as well, the talents or qualities you can admire in your mother, perhaps her strength and independence, or her relationship with your father or your children. As you write, step back from the turmoil of emotion and look as objectively as you can at this portrait of your mother. Now, slowly, try to let go, bit by bit, the burden of your resentment toward her. You might wish to write down or say aloud some words of forgiveness, as a ritual of release and a way to direct your prayers with power to heal. Here are some thoughts that might unlock the right prayer for you: "I forgive you for not always being who I needed you to be. I forgive you for not knowing how to love me the way I need to be loved. I forgive you for the hurts you suffered in your own life which cause you to forget the pain of others. Please forgive me for the times I tested your patience and used my anger as a weapon. I forgive you for the years of distance between us. I pray we will create a different kind of closeness in the years to come."

Letting go is a mourning process, a painful release, a sad but strengthening exercise in compassion and love. You may need to say these prayers many times. As you pray, ask God to be with you, to strengthen you, to help you move from anger to forgiveness. As the pain begins to lessen, think of the other "mothers" in your life, the women and men who do nurture you, comfort you, stand ready always to share joys and challenges. Speak words of gratitude for their presence and vow to be worthy always of their love. May the NewYear begin to bring peace into your heart, your family, and your home.

Judy Shanks, HUC-JIR class of 1984, is rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA.


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