Parashat VaYishlah: “Son of Your Maidservant”
In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlah, we read that Yaakob Abinu was gripped with fear when he learned that his brother, Esav, was approaching with an army of four hundred men. He offered an impassioned prayer to G-d, prepared for the prospect of battle by dividing his family and belongings, and sent Esav a generous gift of appeasement.
Many commentators raised the question of why Yaakob was afraid. Many years earlier, when he first fled from Eretz Yisrael to escape from Esav, G-d appeared to him in a prophetic vision and guaranteed to protect him and bring him back home safely (28:15). If G-d gave him an explicit promise of protection, what did he have to fear?
One answer is that Yaakob was not afraid for his physical safety, or for that of his family. Rather, he feared for his children’s spiritual wellbeing.
The Torah tells that when Yaakob divided his family and possessions, he said, "If Esav comes upon the first camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will find refuge" (32:8). Curiously, Yaakob uses different grammatical forms in the two instances of the word "Mahaneh" ("camp") in this statement. In the phrase "upon the first camp," Yaakob employs the feminine form ("Ha’mahaneh Ha’ahat"), whereas in the second phrase – "the remaining camp" – he uses the masculine form ("Ha’mahaneh Ha’nishar"). The reason, perhaps, is that the first instance of the word "Mahaneh" refers specifically to his four wives. Yaakob’s fear was that Esav might kill or capture his wives, which would result in the remaining camp, his children, becoming "refugees," lost and without direction. Yaakob understood that the education and religious development of a child depends primarily upon his or her mother. The mother is the one who guides, directs and inspires the children, and instills within them an awareness of love for G-d. Yaakob thus feared that if "Ha’mahaneh Ha’ahat" – his children’s mothers – would be lost, then the "Mahaneh Ha’nishar," his children, would lose their source of guidance and direction, and would be unable to continue their spiritual growth.
In one of the chapters of Tehillim which we recite as our Hallel prayer, King David proudly proclaims to the Almighty, "Ani Abdecha, Ani Abdecha Ben Amatecha" – "I am Your servant, I am Your servant the son of Your maidservant" (Tehillim 116:16). Revealingly, David attributes his sense of "Abdecha," his subservience to G-d, to his mother, to the fact that she was G-d’s "maidservant." David’s father was Yishai, who, as Hazal teach, was one of only four people in history who never committed a single sin throughout their lives. And yet, although he had a remarkably saintly and pious father, he gave the credit for his religious growth specifically to his mother. It was her example, devotion and nurturing that turned him into G-d’s loyal servant.
While of course fathers also play a vital role in children’s education and development, the primary role is played by the mothers. By being G-d’s "maidservant," faithfully devoting herself to the laws and values of Torah, the mother is uniquely capable to raise committed, G-d-fearing Jews who will bring pride and glory to their parents, to their community, and to the entire Jewish Nation.