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Mama Rachel Redux

Unlike the other great heroes of our pantheon, our ancestor Rachel holds a unique place in our mythology. This special significance is powerfully captured by the prophet Jeremiah, whose promise of redemption we read on Rosh Hashana.

Jeremiah singles Rachel out as possessing the power to move the heavens:

כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ׃כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב׃וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם – So 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. So says the Lord: you can stop crying, your eyes from your tears; there is truly a reward for your labors. The Lord declares: They shall return from the enemy’s land! There is hope for your future. The Lord declares: Your children shall return to their country! (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

The historical backdrop of Jeremiah’s words is the disastrous reign of the Jewish King Menashe, whose father had initiated a religious revival. On his accession, Menashe backslid and reintroduced polytheistic worship across the country, particularly the Temple Mount. The Creator is enraged, and the exile is already well underway due to the degree of religious failures and betrayal.

This historical scene sets the stage for a poignant Midrash, recounted by Rashi, imagining a scene where the patriarchs and matriarchs plead before the Creator. Avraham stands before the Creator and says that only his children accepted the Torah – this argument goes nowhere. He and Yitzchak testify about the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac; this does not win the day. Yakov invokes his great trials to escape the clutches of Esau and the jaws of Lavan; if God will banish them to their doom, was it all for naught? Moshe recalls his unparalleled loyalty, fidelity, and sacrifice for God’s people; was all that just to have them fade away? Moshe curses the sun for shining at such a time of catastrophe.

Amidst these pleas, Rachel’s intervention stands out, demonstrating her unique role. She steps forward and recalls her pain, how her father made her wait, then cheated her out of her great love, yet allowed Leah in to save her from shame, which led to a life of competition, passed on to their children, paving the way to Egypt and everything that followed.

This is the backdrop of Jeremiah’s vision; Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe, with all their abundant merit and greatness, can furiously plead to no avail; they are all denied.

Rachel alone has the quality to evoke the response – מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה.

This line is powerful and heartrending. It is something our ancestors held onto – on their deportation from Jerusalem, they passed her shrine on the way to Babylon and cried and prayed. This imagery and language is the basis of countless moving songs in multiple languages in Jewish pop music.

More than anyone else in our Tradition, Rachel is the ancestor we associate with exile, pain, and redemption.

But why?

Rachel’s unique position in this narrative invites a deeper exploration of pain and its meaning; a concept echoed in modern psychology. When children are in pain, they want the pain to go away. A savvy parent can make nice and kiss the pain away, and the episode is over and forgotten.

In contrast, when mature people are in pain, they ask why. When we ask why, they don’t necessarily mean the big global and universal why; we understand that the universe is much bigger than any of us. Moshe asked for this insight, which God said was beyond human comprehension. When we ask why, it is a search for meaning.

Legendary psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shared this great insight with us – a person with a why to live for can bear almost any how.

It’s intuitive and easy to understand. What would a normal and healthy parent be willing to endure to save their child? Almost anything.

What this suggests, then, is that more than we want our pain to stop, we want our pain to matter; we desperately desire the redemption of pain, and this remains the case even once the physical pains have stopped – some of life’s greatest pains are the ones that didn’t matter, the ones that were pointless, futile, unnecessary. The psychological injury doesn’t heal as quickly as the physical injury.

As the popular aphorism puts it, there is no pain, no gain, or as another one puts it when a door closes, a window opens. We understand that progress or gain can be associated with pain and that pain that leads to gain is worthwhile. The discomfort of childbirth is proximate to the gain of having a child; we are comfortable with pains that carry us forward.

From the stories of our ancestors, Rachel stands apart from our ancestors. Significant challenges characterize our ancestor’s lives; that’s why they’re our ancestors. And yet, at the end of their days, they dies full and complete – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים / שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה / וַיִּגְוַע יִצְחָק וַיָּמת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ עֵשָׂו וְיַעֲקֹב בָּנָיו /  וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב. When Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam die, they die with no anguish or suffering; it is a smooth and peaceful, even loving, transition – מיתת נשיקה. These greats live challenging lives and rise to greatness, but in the fullness of time and before the end, they live to see the culmination of their journey; everything has come full circle, and they die content, fulfilled, and satisfied.

In contrast, Rachel does not die with such fulfillment or satisfaction. She dies bleeding and in pain, on the back of a life of many pains. The pain of a cheating father, cheating her out of her great love and cheating her out of happiness and a comfortable future. She knows the pain of self-sacrifice for her sister, giving up the future to spare her shame. She endures the pain of endless competition. She bears the pain of childlessness.

And then she dies in childbirth. Not at home, not somewhere safe, not somewhere significant; just on the side of the road, on the way, in between places, or in other words, the middle of nowhere.

Unlike every other ancestor, Rachel stands apart as the archetype and embodiment of unredeemed pain. It’s not fair. The defining theme of her life is that things are not fair. When Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe had their great tests to point to, those trials ended, but Rachel never did; she lived with her sacrifice until her dying breath.

Unfairness speaks to us at the deepest, most pre-conscious level; without being taught, children recognize when something is not fair and will say so. Scientists have shown that chimpanzees and dogs recognize and are agitated by unfairness.

The notion of unredeemed pain is not fair, and it speaks to us. It cannot be allowed to stand; it must be corrected. It moves us in a way that is so tangible and real that it is perhaps what compels God as well. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz poignantly suggests that we should disagree with the prophet; Rachel must not stop crying!

Drawing together these ancient insights and contemporary understandings, we arrive at a profound conclusion.

Pain and unfairness are often parts of our existence, and it is imperative to recognize the power of empathy towards ourselves and others – acknowledging Rachel’s pain is the turning point in this scene. At times, finding meaning in suffering can arguably be more crucial than escaping the pain.

It is unconscionable that our pain goes unseen, unredeemed, not mattering. It cannot be. Sometimes, it only hurts for a while, and sometimes, it never resolves, and the pain persists with no apparent meaning or payoff. This compelling sentiment is intimately associated with Rachel.

This is further echoed by the prophet Malachi, whose words close out the Tanach, the last prophecy; there will be ultimate reconciliation between all things – וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב־אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל־אֲבוֹתָם.

The prophets reassure us that there is a divine counter for every tear and every scrape; the tears are not forever; redemption will come for Rachel’s children, and they will all come home together in the end. The potential for a brighter future always remains regardless of the depth of current struggles.

Today, we might be sad, but one day soon, all will be made right.