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On Mother's Day

One of the life lessons that my dear, late mother drummed into me, was that “you can do nothing with mothers”. That is to say, mothers are a law unto themselves. They can embarrass you, they can bring you down to earth with a gentle or not so gentle bump, and you shouldn’t try to control them, because it’s a Sisyphean task.

Our Torah portion this week - aharei mot-kedoshim follows on from the aftermath of Shemini, in which two of Aaron the High Priest’s sons, Moses’ nephews Nadav and Abihu, were killed at the altar. Aaron receives divine instructions not to come into the Holy of Holies at will, but rather once a year at Yom Kippur for the ritual of the scapegoat, the two goats,one For God and one for Azazel. The High Priest must enter alone, and he must do so wearing the correct clothes, a linen tunic with linen breeches, sash and a turban.

The rabbis of the Talmud were, of course, interested in who should make these clothes. And the answer - of course - was mother.

In the Bavli Yoma 35b, it was said about the High Priest Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥarsum that his mother made him a tunic worth twenty thousand dinars, but his fellow priests did not allow him to wear it because it was transparent and he appeared as one who is naked. The Gemara raises a question: And could he be seen through a garment made to the specifications of the priestly vestments? Didn’t the Master say: The threads of the priestly vestments were six-fold? Since the clothes were woven from threads that thick, his body could not have been seen through them. Abaye said: It is like wine in a thick glass cup. His flesh could not actually be seen, but since it was very fine linen, it was somewhat translucent and his skin color was discernible.

This is a fascinating if somewhat alarming tale. A mother so proud of her son the High Priest, who dotes on that son so much, that she creates for him an expensive tunic so sheer that he could not wear it. Making him if not chopped liver then wine in a thick glass cup! What on earth was that son to do? Wear another tunic that his mum hadn’t made, reject her wet drapery for something less diaphanously clinging to his skin, and accept forever the consequences?

Well, you cannot do anything with mothers! Here we see their power. Even that most elevated of humans, the High Priest of the Temple of Jerusalem had one too! And even at the height of his powers, she could render him naked, as the day she gave birth to him.

For those of you still lucky enough to have your mothers, take this as a friendly reminder that Mother's Day (the American version, that is) falls on May 10th this year. You have ten days to find a way to honour and appreciate her. And I honour the memory of my mother by sharing this story of the High Priest with a pinch of salt as a bit of fun.

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