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Vayishlach: Mother Rachel, The Shekhinah in Exile

Bereishit/Genesis 35:16-21: "They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.’ But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day." (JPS 1999 translation)

Rachel is the mother figure of the Jewish people. She came to symbolize the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God, in exile, a compelling image of maternal lament. Her tomb, Kever Rachel, has become a place of pilgrimage for all those who sorrow and mourn, a place for people to come and pour out their hearts. Until this day.

How did this happen? Why didn’t Jacob take Rachel’s body to Hebron, to the Cave of Machpelah, where all the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs were buried, to be buried there? After all, it wasn’t all that far away. Several answers have been proffered: (1) techniques for preserving bodies were not practiced by nomads at the time, so burial was usually done quickly; (2) Jacob was too grief stricken to do much more than have his beloved wife buried where they were; (3) marriage to two sisters is later prohibited, Leah was the first wife and, once Jacob entered the Holy Land, that was the only marriage that was permissible; (4) Jacob could not be buried with more than one wife; thus Rachel, as the second wife, could not be buried at Machpelah; (4) Rachel voluntarily relinquished the “right” so she could later comfort her children.

This is the first and only instance in Torah where a monument is erected on a person’s burial site. According to the Talmud (which, of course, hadn’t been written yet), we aren’t supposed to put markers on the graves of righteous people because they should be remembered for their actions. But, it has been our practice throughout generations to erect monuments on the grave sites of our departed. And we don’t differentiate between the righteous and commoners. One explanation is that the purpose of a monument isn’t to glorify the departed, but rather to ensure that their memory won’t be forgotten. But won’t the righteous be remembered for their deeds? There is another consideration, the law of tahara/ritual purity. In his discussion of the laws of mourning and the laws of tahara, Maimonides rules that all graves must be marked to ensure that there be no inadvertent transmission of ritual impurity. To do that, any marker is adequate, not a substantial monument.

Really? Is that why Jacob erected a pillar at Rachel’s grave? Some future concern/consideration? No, there is another one, which we learned from Caleb. When he was seeking guidance on whether to disagree with the rest of the spies, he made a pilgrimage to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron from inspiration. The lives of the righteous are a source on inspiration; we can draw comfort from them during challenging times, but only if we know where they are buried. Thus, there is a reason to mark the grave sites of the righteous. For our own benefit, so we can visit them, pray by them, be inspired by them, even be healed by them.

Midrash Rabbah, that great Biblical exegesis, tells us that this was Jacob’s motivation. For future inspiration. Jacob foresaw, through prophecy, that 1000 years later his descendants were destined to be exiled from the Land of Israel. He foresaw that as they left their land, they would pass the monument he had erected at Rachel’s grave, and pray there for God’s mercy. The book of Jeremiah describes this destruction and exile: 31:15 - Thus said the LORD: A cry is heard in Ramah — Wailing, bitter weeping — Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children who are gone.

In Eichah, the Book of Lamentations, we read about the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE for the sin of idolatry. After the death of King Josiah in 609 BCE, Judah was overtaken by the Babylonian empire. The Judeans were allowed to keep Jehoiakim as their king, but when he declared independence, in 597 they returned to punish Jerusalem. The Babylonians exiled some of the elites and religious leaders, massacred others, ransacked the temple and the city. Jerusalem remained standing and the Davidic kingship was allowed to continue with Zedekiah, the son of Josiah, who the Babylonians believed would be submissive. But once Jerusalem recovered, he stopped paying tribute to and began to arm himself for a new attack. The Babylonians returned and laid siege to Jerusalem for two years. When Jerusalem finally fell, the city and the temple were completely destroyed. Eichah weeps for this destruction. The shame, the trauma, the disgrace, the indignity, the loss, the pain. But Eichah and Midrash Eichah Rabbah question whether this was reasonable divine justice. They express that Israel was accountable to God and didn’t deny its responsibility, but concludes that God’s reaction was disproportionate.

In the Petichta (the opening/introduction) to Eichah Rabbah (verse 24) The central female figure is Rachel. The Petichta explains that on the day of Israel’s destruction, God called for weeping and lamenting. The ones he made a covenant with, the ones in whom he put his trust and hope, the ones with whom he formed a loving relationship let him down by transgressing their agreement and worshiping idols. God is distraught and asks Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses to come and weep with him. Instead, they appeal to God with arguments of emotion and persuasion to not destroy Israel. God dismisses their appeals: If only you knew how grievous their sins were, G‑d told them, you would not ask me to forgive them.

Suddenly, after the men are done speaking, Rachel leaps forward uninvited and makes her presence known saying:

"Master of the Universe! You know full well that your servant Jacob loved me greatly and worked for my father seven years for my sake. And when those seven years were completed and the time came for me to marry my husband, my father devised a plan to exchange me for my sister and give her to my husband instead of me. When I found out about this plan, I was extremely distressed, so I informed my husband. I gave him certain secret signs so that he should be able to distinguish between me and my sister (…). However, after this I had a change of heart, (…) and took pity on my sister that she should not be shamed in this manner. At night when they exchanged me for my sister (…) I told my sister all the secret signs that I had given to my husband, so that he would think she was Rachel. (…) I had pity on my sister instead of being jealous of her. I did not allow her to be shamed. Now if I, who am a mortal human being, dust and ashes, did not become jealous of my rival wife and did not allow her to be shamed and humiliated, then You, the merciful King who lives and exists forever, why have you become jealous over idolatry, which has no substance to it, and sent my children into exile? At last, God is moved: 'Because of you, Rachel, I am going to bring back the people of Israel to their place.'”

The power of Kever Rachel, the tomb of the mother who died in childbirth while on the road, punished for stealing the terafim, her father's household idols, who became the mother of exiles, who is identified with the Shekhinah and went into exile with the destruction of both temples, who is inconsolable, who weeps for her children. And who has the moral power that moves beyond outrage to effect change. It is her tears (and her audaciousness) that caused God to relent and promise an ultimate redemption. This is the ultimate act of melitz yosher, of spiritual intercession. Rachel gave up thousands of years of burial next to her husband in the Cave of Machpelah for her descendants’ sake.

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