Numbers 8:1-12:16; Zachariah 2:14-4:7.
We know that God has no gender. In fact, according to Maimonides, God is so far beyond description that we should take special care not to describe God.
Still, the Torah and broader Jewish tradition does describe God extensively. We can think of all the descriptions of God as metaphors. These shape the way we see God, the way we understand the world around us as well as our own understanding of who we are as individuals.
God is a friend (to Abraham), a king (to the Jewish people) and a warrior (as in the Song of the Sea).
It isn’t only metaphors of God which help us understand ourselves and our world. In Parshat Behaalotecha, the Torah presents us with an interesting image of Moses that can open our eyes to the way we perceive ourselves. In Numbers, the Children of Israel turn to Moses with complaint. Moses then turns to God, saying:
“Did I conceive all these people, did I bear them that you should say to me, Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant, to the land that You have promised on oath to their fathers?” (Numbers 11:12).
Moses is described in a variety of ways in our tradition — as Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher), as a lawgiver, as a shepherd (this is both physical and metaphorical). But I don’t think that many of us carry around the image of Moses as our mother. Yet here it is in the Torah.
Professor Mara Benjamin’s recent book The Obligated Self: Maternal Subjectivity and Jewish Thought focuses attention on the many ways in which we are enriched by exploring the many sides of motherhood. She describes religious categories such as obligation, love, power and teaching through the lens of motherhood and the complexity of that role.
I’d argue that the Torah chooses to have Moses frame his experience as one of motherhood in the above verses due to the very complexity that Professor Benjamin illuminates.
Moses feels the pressure of caring for the people. He knows that he is responsible for them. Even as he turns to God in frustration, wondering why God is expecting him to care for the people, Moses does not reject the responsibility. In this moment, Moses sees himself and describes himself as a mother.
Of course, motherhood contains a multitude of experiences and moments, not only the frustration that Moses deals with here.
It is worth asking ourselves — If Moses can best describe his experience at that moment as a mother, might not we be enriched by knowing the wide variety of experiences of people who are, in any number of ways, different from ourselves?
Rabbi Steven Rubenstein is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield.