For the week ending 13 January 2007 / 23 Tevet 5767

Mothers-in-Law Know Best

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Anonymous
Dear Rabbi,
I don’t particularly get along with my daughter-in-law. I have heard that the Torah predicts that this is normally the case. I was wondering if the Torah also teaches how to rectify this situation with practical advice how to improve the relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law. If you choose to publish this, you may. Just keep it anonymous. Thank you.

Dear Anonymous,

Permit me to open with a joke – please don’t take it personally.

A trip for mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law was organized in order to foster friendship and bonding between the two relations. It was decided that mixing the women on the same bus would be volatile, so they ordered one bus for the mothers-in-law and one for the daughters-in-law, with the intention that they would socialize off the bus at the various attractions. As the buses toured the countryside, suddenly the bus of mothers-in-law plummeted off a cliff. While the daughters-in-law cheered jubilantly from above, they noticed one of the women crying. “Don’t tell us you actually got along with your mother-in-law”, they asked with surprise. “No, that’s not it”, she replied. “My mother-in-law missed the bus!”

It is true that our sources comment on the notoriously strained relations between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. Obviously, the source for this tension is two-sided. The mother-in-law’s feeling of losing her son, and being replaced by another woman, results in her subconscious feeling that her daughter-in-law will never be able to provide for her son what she could. On the other hand, the daughter-in-law’s feeling of being an outsider, and her desire for her husband’s devotion, results in over-sensitivity to her husband’s natural closeness to his mother. Indeed, she notes, he married her, not his mother!

What is the Torah’s advice for navigating this delicate situation? The answer is for each to realize her unique sphere of influence.

It is true that a wife will never be able to provide for her husband what his mother did. A wife doesn’t birth, nurse and raise her husband as a mother does. That would truly be abnormal. However, if she loves her husband, she must surely recognize his mother’s role in making him into the person she decided to marry. By extension, she should be able to love her mother-in-law as she loves him.

Conversely, a mother will never be able to provide for her son the physical, emotional and spiritual fulfillment and realization of his potential as a wife does. That would truly be unnatural. However, if she loves her son, and wants the best he deserves for the way she raised him, she must surely recognize his choice of wife to make him into the person she intended him to become. By extension, she should be able to love her daughter-in-law as she loves him.

As it turns out, then, each play vital and complimentary roles in development of the “man in their life”. The mother, through great sacrifice and dedication, constructs the inner sphere of her son, preparing him to become the very best he can be. The wife, with great sensitivity and support, extends this inner potential to the outer sphere, enabling him to actually become his best. These two spheres of influence, when respected and appreciated by both mother and wife, can exist simultaneously and harmoniously when the appropriate and necessary boundaries are honored.

In fact, the dynamic of these concentric spheres of influence are present from the outset of the marriage and are symbolically represented at the wedding ceremony under the chuppah. For this reason, the mothers escort the bride seven times around the standing groom. In this way the bride begins to extend her husband’s orbit beyond the relatively static state of ingrained potential before the chuppah, to the dynamic state of fruition to be realized after the chuppah. However, this can only be achieved by a joint effort of mother and wife, as the two encircle the groom conjoined in love and joy.

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