“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother. Behind the lattice, she sighed. Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”
Those of us who are parents recognize in this verse in Judges the anxiety of not knowing where a child is: that momentary loss of eye contact in a busy place, that waiting for news, that expectant sound of a familiar car parking in the driveway or a key turning in the door. Until we hear it, we wrestle with a polarity of emotions: we expect the worst and then push aside the demons of worry that are ever-present. There must be a logical explanation for the delay. The biblical text masterfully captures this moment, not by telling but by showing. A mother sighs at the window, wondering when her son will come home.
This is no ordinary mother. It is the mother of a cruel enemy general who oppressed the Israelites for years, a general who died a coward. But the text pushes aside the politics to ponder the anguish of a mother in pain, one who intuits that her son will perhaps not be coming home. We have never met Sisera’s mother. She is introduced to us only to provide this spotlight. Her ladies-in-waiting try to reassure her that Sisera is merely enjoying the spoils of war: the women and the embroidered clothes, as if they were all mere objects. The text here offers a vulgar note of women making other women into chattle. There is a reason Sisera has not yet made his way home, they contend. And she, too, dismisses any thought of a bad outcome with this reasoning: “she also assures herself,” the verse states. We are not convinced.
As readers who have already learned that Sisera is dead, we sense that when this mother approached the window in pain she somehow already knew.
As a community, we have all been waiting by that window for weeks, checking the news constantly and asking if there are any updates, any developments about our three kidnapped boys. We prayed for them, thought of them, cried for them. We told ourselves that the army would find them. It was just a matter of time.
The murder of three Israeli teenagers was just confirmed when journalists and pundits were talking about political and military responses within hours. The inevitable responses of harsh retribution or measured restraint were out in the public domain, as expected. They were predictable and predictably not effective.
But these were mere distractions. All most of us could really think about was what it must be like to be a parent of one of those boys at that hour and for every other hour after that. Our own sacred texts demand that we do this as a sign of compassion, pushing away the politics and prognoses that will inevitably follow a tragedy like this for one simple moment: the moment a parent who is waiting finds out the terrible news that he or she has lost a child.
We have all been in some psychic, mystical way the parents, brothers, sisters and friends of those boys: Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaar. This bond of connection and concern runs deep, in tears, in friendship, in helplessness. We waited by the window with the families of these boys.
Yet, at the end of the day, our verse in Judges reminds us that we are not the parents. Whatever closeness and pain we experience can never come close to that of the families who lost those children. Sisera’s mother does not stand with her friends at that window. She stands alone.
And this too, is an obvious but critical aspect of community. There is something intensely uncomfortable about strangers or acquaintances who are more distraught than the actual mourners. An I-Thou relationship is constituted through many private understandings. One of them is that we must know when to respect the privacy and singularity of mourning, especially in deaths that receive great public attention. We can never to presume to understand someone else’s most intimate pain. We have our own pain as a community and extended family that has lost three young lights. It translates and extends itself but also has a limit. We go on when those who sit on the floor in mourning cannot imagine they ever will.
Compassion extends us. Respect limits us. Our humanity makes us reach out. Our humility makes us stand back. We mourn with these parents, and we also know that there is an abyss that we will never understand. Even as we all stood with these parents, they stood at a window alone and will be alone still.