Photo Credit: Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Editor’s Note: Rebbetzin Jungreis, a”h, is no longer with us in a physical sense, but her message is eternal and The Jewish Press will continue to present the columns that for more than half a century have inspired countless readers around the world.

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I’ll always remember a letter I received from a woman who was torn between caring for her elderly, widowed mother; attending to the needs of her household; and earning a livelihood. She noted that she was not working by choice – her husband had experienced enormous financial setbacks, which necessitated her taking a job.

She also wrote that she had two daughters of marriageable age and had to take into account the monetary demands that come with making weddings and helping married children launch their new lives.

She explained that her mother refused to consider moving to a senior facility or even moving in with her, insisting she could manage on her own (unfortunately, she couldn’t). She herself lived in Flatbush while her mother lived in Boro Park. Her two brothers live out of the city, one in Monsey, the other in New Jersey.

Her brothers’ children were already adults themselves but they too lived a nice distance away. So she couldn’t rely on any of them for much help. She was at a loss as to how to deal with the problem.

I responded:

It’s perfectly understandable that you feel overwhelmed. You are caught in the middle, with demands being made on you from all directions.

Since all your priorities are equally vital, you, your siblings, and their wives should brainstorm together. Rule number one must be that the care of your mother is everyone’s responsibility. To be sure, your brothers don’t live very close to either you or your mother. Nevertheless, you must make it clear to them that you cannot handle this alone and that their cooperation is essential.

Obviously, it would make things easier if your mother would agree to enter a good senior facility, but since she is resistant to making such a move, coercing her could be very damaging. She is lucid now, but if you impose this upon her it could shatter her self-respect, make her feel her children have abandoned her, and indicate to her that she is no longer in charge of her life.

An old Yiddish saying puts it this way: “One mother can care for 10 children, but 10 children cannot care for one mother.”

Please do not think I am being critical of you. I am fully aware that you are trying your best. Just the same, Yiddish is a folk language and there is much truth to be found in its adages, so it is worthwhile for us to give some serious thought to this expression.

Ask yourself if the situation were reversed and the mother of 10 children found herself in terrible straits, would she even for a moment entertain the thought of giving up on some of her children or sending them away? Which mountain would a Yiddishe Mamma not climb, what sacrifice would she not make, if her children’s lives were at stake?

The sad reality is that while children can survive the loss of a parent, albeit painfully, parents cannot survive the loss of their children.

I remember visiting a man who was sitting shiva for his daughter. “Rebbetzin,” he said, his voice trembling, “I learned how to say Kaddish for my father and mother, but no one ever taught me how to say Kaddish for my child. That I do not know how to do.”

To be sure, he said Kaddish, but the pain of having lost his daughter remained an open wound that refused to heal and followed him everywhere for the rest of his life. I relate this story not, Heaven forbid, to cause you additional suffering but so that you may share it with your siblings and bear it in mind as you evaluate and make your choices.

Having said all that, I suggest the family summon all its resources and engage someone to stay with your mother. If that proves to be too costly, you might consider looking for a young girl or woman who would be grateful to work in exchange for free board and lodging. It is also worthwhile to call the many excellent bikur cholim organizations. Girls’ yeshiva high schools and seminaries should also be contacted. Most of them have very fine chesed programs – students who volunteer to help those who are infirm or housebound.

Additionally, explore the resources in your own family. Baruch Hashem, your daughters are at an age at which they can take turns staying with your mother, especially for sleeping over at night. This worked in my own family, and it might just work for you. There are additional advantages to this – grandchildren are more likely to make your mother smile, and while she may be unresponsive now, she might open up to them.

I do not minimize the challenges ahead of you. Challenges, however, are never easy. And honoring parents is one of the most difficult of all; it is counted among those mitzvos that have “no limit.” We recite this in our prayers every morning, but it is not just a prayer – it is a truth that must be absorbed and constantly worked on.

As for shidduchim for your daughters, who knows? It may be that in the zechus – merit – of the honor and care you render to your mother, Hashem will send your daughters their shidduchim with ease and blessing.

I can assure you that the example you will set in showing proper honor to your mother will not only be a source of blessing to your family, it will be a legacy that will transcend the generations. May Hashem guide your path.


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