Rachel Weeps in Ramah: Of All the Patriarchs, God Listens Only to Her
Jeremiah 31, in a passage that was chosen by the rabbis as the haftarah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah (b. Megillah 31a), depicts the matriarch Rachel crying over the exile of her descendants:
ירמיה לא:יד כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.
Jer 31:14 Thus says YHWH: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children. She cannot be comforted because her children are no more.”
The passage continues with YHWH promising that Rachel’s exiled children will eventually return to their homes:
לא:טו כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב. לא:טז וְיֵשׁ תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם יְ־הוָה וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם.
31:15 Thus says YHWH: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, declares YHWH. They will return from the land of the enemy. 31:16 There is hope for your descendants declares YHWH: Your children will return to their own land.
In this haunting passage, Rachel’s cry encapsulates the tragedy of separation from her progeny, as they are marched off the territory where she is buried. Rachel here is the embodiment of the sorrow of dispossessed motherhood; her mourning capacity has the power of moving God to repentance and to mercy.
Passing by Rachel’s Grave
Why, of all people, is Rachel chosen as the successful intercessor? One suggestion, which the rabbis proffered in several places, connects her success to the location of her grave. The Torah records how Rachel died while travelling:
בראשית לה:טז וַיְהִי עוֹד כִּבְרַת הָאָרֶץ לָבוֹא אֶפְרָתָה וַתֵּלֶד רָחֵל וַתְּקַשׁ בְּלִדְתָּהּ. לה:יז וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ בְּלִדְתָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמְיַלֶּדֶת אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי גַם זֶה לָךְ בֵּן. לה:יח וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בֶּן אוֹנִי וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין.
Gen 35:16 When they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. 35:17 When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, "Have no fear, for it is another boy for you." 35:18 But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.
Rachel Dies of Two Curses
Although complications during childbirth was the most common cause of female death in antiquity, Rachel is the only matriarch reported to die in this manner. A close look at the Rachel story as a whole suggests that her agonizing and solitary death is, to an extent, self-inflicted, fulfilling two predictions. The first was uttered by Rachel herself when she confronted Jacob with the demand:
בראשית ל:א וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל יַעֲקֹב הָבָה לִּי בָנִים וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי.
Gen 30:1 And she (Rachel) said to Jacob, "Give me sons, or I shall die."
The second is the curse Jacob pronounces on the head of the thief who stole Laban’s gods:
בראשית לא:לב עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה.
Gen 31:32 But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!
Jacob, of course, did not know that the thief was his beloved Rachel herself. Curse and punishment, threat and execution, forge an intimate link between self-destructiveness and motherhood.
Rachel’s Lonely Burial
In death, Rachel is further singled out for the ultimate separation, for she is buried not with her husband or her ancestors, but on the road:
בראשית לה:יט וַתָּמָת רָחֵל וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם. לה:כ וַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה עַל קְבֻרָתָהּ הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת רָחֵל עַד הַיּוֹם.
Gen 35:19 Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrat—now Bethlehem. 35:20 Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day.
And yet, the rabbis reimagine this burial account as an important part of God’s future plans for Israel. For example, in the 5th century midrash, Genesis Rabbah (82, Theodor-Albeck ed.):
מה ראה יעקב לקבור את רחל בדרך אפרת אלא צפה יעקב שהגליות עוברות משם לפיכך קברה שם שתבקש עליהם רחמים הה"ד רחל מבכה על בניה וגו'
Why did Jacob bury Rachel on the way to Ephrat? He foresaw that the exiles would pass by there, and thus, he buried here there so that she could please for mercy for them. This is what it says, “Rachel is weeping for her children…”
Thus, Rachel’s lonely grave becomes a monument that tradition imagines the captive Israelites would pass as they march on their way to captivity. It is the last place where Israel can ask an ancestor to intercede with God before they leave God’s land.
Yet, this is only one rabbinic explanation for how Rachel was chosen. In another, much more elaborate midrashic depiction of the scene, Rachel’s superior position over the patriarchs is based on her own righteousness and self-sacrifice.
Proem 24: Connecting Jeremiah with Lamentations
Eichah Rabbah (5th cent. C.E.) was composed as a series of homilies on each of the five chapters of Lamentations, preceded by no less than thirty-six פתיחתאות, “prefaces” or “proems.” A proem is a kind of derashah (homily) in which the darshan (speaker or homileticist) leads up to a particular passage by beginning his derashah with what should appear at first glance as an entirely unrelated passage. The darshan then begins to explicate that first passage, and this explication leads him step by step to the “punchline” verse from the biblical reading.
Many scholars believe that these proems began as public talks in synagogue, used to introduce a weekly or holiday reading. Some of these proems were eventually collected into midrash books, such as the opening section of Eichah Rabbah, where they were further redacted and expanded.
The longest proem in Eichah Rabbah, #24, introduces the passage in Jeremiah, where God responds to Rachel’s cry. Although proems included in commentaries generally introduce a verse in the book in question, the unusual inclusion of the derashah here is due to the belief, standard in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (e.g., b. Baba Batra, 15a), that Jeremiah was the author of Lamentations.
In the proem, the rabbis pit the patriarchs, Moses, and finally Rachel against God in a trial aimed at showing that Israel’s sins did not deserve the grim punishment that God devised. The proem features one of the most original tableaux in all rabbinic literature; it contains a stunning piece of theatricality that, just like a classical Greek drama, culminates with a dea ex machina, the matriarch Rachel. The dramaturgy of this midrashic vignette suggests rabbinic familiarity with contemporary, late ancient theater, and it underscores rabbinic understanding of the role of irony and humor in the darkest of times.
The Attempt to Convince God to Have Mercy
The ostensibly unrelated passage with which the proem begins is Isaiah 22. The darshan moves verse by verse, parsing each with a midrashic gloss. The subject of God’s anger and the difficulty of calming it first appear in the gloss on verse 4:
ישעיה כב:ד עַל כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי שְׁעוּ מִנִּי אֲמָרֵר בַּבֶּכִי אַל תָּאִיצוּ לְנַחֲמֵנִי עַל שֹׁד בַּת עַמִּי.
Isa 22:4 That is why I say, “Let me be, I will weep bitterly. Press not to comfort me for the ruin of my poor people.”
The verse describes a God steadfastly refusing to be consoled over the grim fate of Israel. As a gloss to this verse, the darshan turns to a statement by Resh Lakish (3rd century C.E.):
אמר ר"ל בשלשה מקומות בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ולא הניחן, ואלו הן, בדור המבול ובים ובחורבן בית המקדש.
Said Resh Lakish: “Only at three junctures [in history] did God forbid the ministering angels to sing in front of him: In the generation of the Flood, of the [crossing of the Red] Sea, and of the destruction of the Temple.”
Resh Lakish lists here three catastrophic punishments that came without possibility of “parole” or mitigation of sentence. The first resulted in the destruction of all humanity other than Noah and his family, the second in the Egyptian army drowning in the sea. These were both punishments of non-Israelites, but the third is a punishment for Israelites, and thus the angels try to comfort God but God refuses to hear it:
אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למלאכי השרת ניחומין אלו שאתם אומרים לפני, ניאוצין הן לי, למה, כי יום מהומה ומבוסה ומבוכה לה' אלהים צבאות.
The Holy One, blessed by He, said to the ministering angels: “Are you attempting to offer me consolation? These are insults! Why? “For my Lord YHWH of Hosts had a day of tumult and din and confusion” (Isa 22:5).
Israel Pleads Their Case Before God
The text envisions the Assembly of Israel (Knesset Yisrael) pleading their case before God, reminding God of the good old days. First the darshan crafts a plea based on his reading of Psalm 42:5, then he continues with another version of this plea, this time connecting it also to a verse in Lamentations (5:18):
רבש"ע שחחה עלי נפשי כשאני עוברת על ביתך והוא חרב וקול דממה בתוכו ואומר מקום שזרעו של אברהם הקריבו קרבן לפניך, והכהנים עומדים על הדוכן, והלוים מקלסים בכנורות, יהיו שועלים מרקדים בו, הה"ד על הר ציון ששמם שועלים הלכו בו (איכה ה יח),
Lord of the Universe, my soul stoops whenever I pass by your home (i.e. the Temple), now ruined and steeped in silence, and it says: Only foxes dance at the very place where the seed of Abraham had made sacrifices to You, where once the priests had stood on the platform and where the Levites had praised You with their stringed instruments, as it says, “because of Mount Zion which lies desolate; foxes prowl over it” (Lam 5:18).
אלא מה אעשה שעונותי גרמו לי ונביאי השקר שהיו בתוכי שהתעו אותי מדרך חיים לדרך המות לכך נאמר אלה אזכרה ואשפכה עלי נפשי וגו'.
But what can I do? I whose sins and false prophets had misled me from the path of life to that of death?! This is why it says, “When I think of this I pour out my soul” (Ps 42:5).
God Destroys the Temple But Has Regrets
The midrash next describes how God made it possible for the gentiles to destroy the Temple by removing his presence from it, after which the Temple is destroyed and God returns to his home in the heavens. But then, God suddenly grasps the far-reaching implications of the tragedy:
באותה שעה היה הקדוש ברוך הוא בוכה ואומר אוי לי מה עשיתי, השריתי שכינתי למטה בשביל ישראל, ועכשיו שחטאו חזרתי למקומי הראשון, חס ושלום שהייתי שחוק לגוים ולעג לבריות,
Then the Holy One bitterly wept: “Woe unto me! What have I done! I had lowered my Presence to dwell below for the sake of Israel and now that they have sinned I returned to my original dwelling place, where, heavens forbid, I have become an object of laughter in the eyes of gentiles and butt of universal mockery.”
To arrest the divine tears, the angel Metatron, the mediator, proposes to cry instead of God, as though such a transfer of lamentations could erase the divine shame, but God rejects the offer:
באותה שעה בא מטטרון ונפל על פניו, ואמר לפניו, רבש"ע אני אבכה ואתה לא תבכה, אמר לו אם אין אתה מניח לי לבכות עכשיו אכנס למקום שאין לך רשות ליכנס ואבכה, שנאמר ואם לא תשמעוה במסתרים תבכה נפשי מפני גוה וגו'.
Then Metatron came and fell before his face and said: “Lord of the Universe, I will cry and you need not cry.” [God] said to him: “If you do not let me cry now, I will disappear into a place all but inaccessible to you to cry, as it is said, “if you do not heed my soul shall weep in secret places on account of your arrogance” (Jer 13:17).
Evidently God prefers to shed God’s own tears. But Metatron’s futile attempt also galvanizes God into action.
God’s Overwhelming Sadness
Recruiting the ministering angels as companions and guided by Jeremiah, God sets out to see Jerusalem with own eyes and to assess the full scope of the damage that He himself had allowed to be inflicted on the city. The realization is overwhelming:
באותה שעה היה הקדוש ברוך הוא בוכה ואומר אוי לי על ביתי, בני היכן אתם, כהני היכן אתם, אוהבי היכן אתם, מה אעשה לכם, התריתי בכם ולא חזרתם בתשובה!
Then, the Holy One, blessed be He, cries and says: “Woe is to me because of my house! Where are you, my sons? Where are you, my priests? Where are you, my loyal followers? What shall I do in your case? I had warned you, but you did not repent!”
Jeremiah’s Mission to Awaken the Patriarchs and Moses
God then rebukes Jeremiah and entrusts him with a curious mission:
אני דומה היום לאדם שהי' לו בן יחידי, ועשה לו חופה ומת בתוך חופתו, ואין לך כאב לא עלי ולא על בני, לך וקרא לאברהם ליצחק וליעקב ומשה מקבריהם שהם יודעים לבכות
Today I am like a person that had one son, made him a wedding, and he died during the wedding, and you don’t feel bad either for me or my son. Go and call Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses from their graves because they know how to weep.
Jeremiah, however, comes up against some challenges. First, he awakens the patriarchs, but when they ask him why, he is afraid to tell them what happened and proceeds to Moses’ grave, which God told him how to find. Once he awakens Moses, he again is too afraid to tell him why, but Moses finds out about the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel from the angels:
והיה צועק ובוכה עד שהגיע לאבות העולם, מיד אף הם קרעו בגדיהם, והניחו ידיהם על ראשיהם, והיו צועקים ובוכין עד שערי בית המקדש, כיון שראה אותם הקדוש ברוך הוא מיד ויקרא ה' אלהים צבאות ביום ההוא לבכי ולמספד ולקרחה ולחגור שק, ואלמלא מקרא שכתוב אי אפשר לאומרו, והיו בוכין והולכין משער זה לשער זה, כאדם שמתו מוטל לפניו, והיה הקדוש ברוך הוא סופד ואומר אוי לו למלך שבקטנותו הצליח ובזקנותו לא הצליח
He (Moses) then went away crying and shouting until he reached the fathers of the world who immediately tore their clothes, put their hands on their heads, and like him burst out crying and shouting until they reached the very gates of The Temple. When the Lord saw them, a call immediately went out to pronounce the day a day of lament, of weeping and of wearing sackcloth—If it weren’t a scriptural passage, it would have been impossible to say such a thing—they were crying and weeping as they were walking from gate to gate. It was like a man in the presence of his departed loved one, and the Holy One, blessed by He, was delivering a eulogy, saying: “Woe is to a king who succeeds in his youth but fails in his old age!”
Following the lamentations come recriminations as Abraham does his best to counter the divine accusations of betraying God’s instructions (namely violating the commandments). Abraham questions God:
רבונו של עולם מפני מה הגלית את בני ומסרתן ביד האומות, והרגום בכל מיתות משונות, והחרבת בית המקדש מקום שהעליתי את יצחק בני עולה לפניך?
Lord of the Universe, why did you exile my children? Why did you hand them over to gentiles who killed them in all manners of brutal execution? Why did you destroy the Temple where I had sacrificed my son Isaac to you?
To this, God responds:
בניך חטאו ועברו על כל התורה, ועל כ"ב אותיות שבה
Your descendants sinned (responds God). They transgressed every rule of the Torah, each of its twenty-two letters.
God then calls upon the letters to testify, and Abraham challenges them one by one, and after gimmel, the third letter of the alphabet, they decide to keep quiet. At that point, each of the patriarchs plus Moses makes a pitch for leniency:
רבש"ע למאה שנה נתת לי בן, וכשעמד על דעתו והיה בחור בן שלשים ושבע שנים, אמרת לי העלהו עולה לפני, ונעשיתי עליו כאכזרי ולא ריחמתי עליו, אלא אני בעצמי כפתתי אותו, ולא תזכור לי זאת ולא תרחם על בני.
Lord of the Universe. When I turned hundred you gave me a son. When he acquired understanding at the age of thirty-seven, you told me to sacrifice him to you. I was cruel, did not spare him, and with my own hands I tied him up. Will you forbear to recall this and to take pity on my children?
רבש"ע כשאמר לי אבא, אלהים יראה לו השה לעולה בני, לא עכבתי על דבריך ונעקדתי ברצון לבי על גבי המזבח ופשטתי את צוארי תחת הסכין, ולא תזכור לי זאת, ולא תרחם על בני.
Lord of the Universe. When father told me: God will show the lamb to be sacrificed (Gen 23:8) I did not doubt your word and willingly gave myself to die on the altar, stretching my neck under the knife (so I could be properly slaughtered). Will you not remember this for my sake and spare my children?
רבש"ע לא עשרים שנה עמדתי בבית לבן, וכשיצאתי מביתו פגע בי עשו הרשע ובקש להרוג את בני, ומסרתי עצמי למיתה עליהם, ועכשיו נמסרו ביד אויביהם כצאן לטבחה, לאחר שגדלתים כאפרוחים של תרנגולים, וסבלתי עליהם צער גידול בנים, כי רוב ימי הייתי בצער גדול בעבורם, ועתה לא תזכור לי זאת לרחם על בני.
Lord of the universe, for twenty years I toiled in Laban’s house and when I finally left it [to return home] the wicked Esau met me seeking to kill my sons. I was ready to die in their stead yet you handed them over to their enemy like lambs to slaughter after I had toiled so to raise them? I suffered greatly to bring them up and now you will not remember this and spare my children?
רבש"ע לא רועה נאמן הייתי על ישראל ארבעים שנה, ורצתי לפניהם כסוס במדבר, וכשהגיע זמן שיכנסו לארץ, גזרת עלי במדבר יפלו עצמותי, ועכשיו שגלו שלחת לי לספוד ולבכות עליהם, זהו המשל שאומרים בני אדם מטוב אדוני לא טוב לי, ומרעתו רע לי
Lord of the Universe, was I not a faithful shepherd of Israel for forty years? I ran before them like a horse in the wilderness, and when it came time to enter the land, you decreed that my bones would fall in the wilderness. And now that they are exiled you sent for me so that I may lament and cry over them? Is this what the popular proverb means: “when it is good for the master it is not good for me, and when it is bad for the master it is really bad for me”?
Despite all their begging and cajoling, God does not change Israel’s fate. Instead Moses goes to visit the Israelites in Babylon, but admits to them that he cannot convince God to bring them back. Moses then returns to the patriarchs and tells them what he saw, and they all cry. Following this, Moses curses the sun for shining on the world while Israel is suffering, and then complains again to God that the punishment is too harsh.
The climax of the midrash is when Rachel involves herself:
באותה שעה קפצה רחל אמנו לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמרה
At that point Rachel our mother jumped in front of the One Blessed be He, saying:
רבש"ע גלוי לפניך שיעקב עבדך אהבני אהבה יתירה, ועבד בשבילי לאבא שבע שנים, וכשהשלימו אותן שבע שנים, והגיע זמן נשואי לבעלי, יעץ אבי להחליפני לבעלי בשביל אחותי, והוקשה עלי הדבר עד מאד, כי נודעה לי העצה, והודעתי לבעלי ומסרתי לו סימן שיכיר ביני ובין אחותי, כדי שלא יוכל אבי להחליפני, ולאחר כן נחמתי בעצמי וסבלתי את תאותי, ורחמתי על אחותי שלא תצא לחרפה,
Lord of the Universe, it is known to you that Jacob your servant loved me very much and toiled for me for seven years in my father’s house and that when these seven years were complete my father planned to substitute my sister for me as a wife. I knew his plan and therefore was cast into a dilemma. I informed my husband [of my father’s plot] and gave him a sign to distinguish between me and my sister.  But later I had a change of heart. I suppressed my desire [for Jacob] and conceived pity for my sister’s shame.
ולערב חלפו אחותי לבעלי בשבילי, ומסרתי לאחותי כל הסימנין שמסרתי לבעלי, כדי שיהא סבור שהיא רחל, ולא עוד אלא שנכנסתי תחת המטה שהיה שוכב עם אחותי והיה מדבר עמה והיא שותקת, ואני משיבתו על כל דבר ודבר, כדי שלא יכיר לקול אחותי, וגמלתי חסד עמה, ולא קנאתי בה, ולא הוצאתיה לחרפה,
In the evening, when my sister was substituted for myself, I disclosed to my sister the signs I had given to my husband so that he would believe her to be me. I even crawled under their bed. When he talked to her she maintained her silence while I answered him lest he recognized her voice. I did her a kindness. Nor was I envious of her nor did I expose her to shame.
Rachel’s Sacrifice: Bible vs. Midrash
Rachel’s words here open us up to a world that does not exist in the Torah. First, the text here strongly supposes that Rachel loves Jacob, though the Torah never says this. We do catch a glimpse of the ebullient young Rachel as she “rushes” home “to tell her father” (Gen 29:12) of Jacob’s unexpected arrival but we can only guess what she felt when she was replaced in Jacob’s bed. We are informed, no less than three times, that she was the (passive) object of Jacob’s abiding passion (Gen 29:18, 20, 30).
More significantly, nowhere in the story of the “bedtrick” or switching of the sisters are we told what Rachel felt about it. Moreover, the image of an empathetic Rachel actually helping her sister fool Jacob and make him her husband is in tension with the image of family strife explicitly presented in Genesis, according to which neither of the sisters is happy with her lot.
Leah feels that she is unloved, and Rachel is jealous of Leah’s fertility and wishes to have children of her own, and she emerges as jealous and quarrelsome:
בראשית ל:א וַתֵּרֶא רָחֵל כִּי לֹא יָלְדָה לְיַעֲקֹב וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ…
Gen 30:1 When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister…
As her first solution, Rachel suggests that Jacob have children with her maidservant, which she will raise as hers. The name of the second of these sons highlights how contentious the situation with her sister is:
בראשית ל:ח וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל נַפְתּוּלֵי אֱלֹהִים נִפְתַּלְתִּי עִם אֲחֹתִי גַּם יָכֹלְתִּי וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ נַפְתָּלִי.
Gen 30:8 And Rachel said, “A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed.” So she named him Naphtali.
When Rachel finally bears a son, the name demonstrates that she remains unsatisfied:
בראשית ל:כג וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן וַתֹּאמֶר אָסַף אֱלֹהִים אֶת חֶרְפָּתִי. ל:כד וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר יֹסֵף יְ־הוָה לִי בֵּן אַחֵר.
Gen 30:23 She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 30:24 So she named him Joseph, which is to say, “May YHWH add another son for me.”
In contrast to this contentious Rachel, who feels disgraced by her sister’s fertility and competes with her, the rabbis imagine Rachel in her early years as a young woman driven by empathy for her less beautiful sister. Even though she loves Jacob, and she experiences the trick as something painful, she is willing to make the sacrifice to prevent her sister’s humiliation. The midrash even extends Rachel’s part in the trick from a passive participant to an active one, imagining her speaking to Jacob from under the bed so that Leah need not speak and give away with her voice that she was not Jacob’s intended.
Rachel Succeeds where the Patriarchs and Moses Failed
Having reminded God of her sacrifice, Rachel continues with her plea:
ומה אני שאני בשר ודם עפר ואפר לא קנאתי לצרה שלי ולא הוצאתיה לבושה ולחרפה, ואתה מלך חי וקיים רחמן, מפני מה קנאת לע"ז שאין בה ממש והגלית בני, ונהרגו בחרב, ועשו אויבים בם כרצונם,
“And if I, a mere mortal, dust and ashes, overcame my envy and did not shame my sister, why should You, the merciful King, be jealous of idolatry that has no substance and exile my children to be put to death by the sword and to become a prey to their enemies?”
In this case, the plea has its desired effect, and God relents:
מיד נתגללו רחמיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא ואמר בשבילך רחל אני מחזיר את ישראל למקומן, הה"ד כה אמר ה' קול ברמה נשמע....
And immediately the mercy of the Lord was stirred and He said: For you, Rachel, I will restore Israel to her place. For it was said: “A voice is heard in Ramah...” (Jer 31:15–17).
This, the rabbis argue, is why Rachel alone is able to challenge God to be self-sacrificing. Instead of criticizing God for divine injustice and defending Israel’s wrongdoing, as all the patriarchs did, Rachel tells a story that involves self-critical assessment. In doing so, she evokes divine empathy, the rare ability to imagine oneself in the other’s shoe.
Rachel is also humble. Crawling under a bed is a humbling gesture, even open to mockery. Rachel’s act, because it stems from unselfishness, ennobles this puerile venture.
Eichah Rabbah is not the only rabbinic text that envisions the patriarchs, matriarchs, and Moses beseeching God on behalf of their exiled descendants. As noted above, it appears briefly Genesis Rabbah (and in Pesiqta Rabbati), and can also be found in the liturgical poetry (piyyut) ascribed to Elazar HaKallir, one of the greatest poets of Late Antiquity, and recited on Tisha Be’Av.
But Eichah Rabbah Proem 24 goes beyond all other texts by positioning Rachel as the only successful mediator. Whether comic or tragic, and her sudden intervention can be seen as both, the imagery of the unselfish Rachel as the only voice capable of penetrating the divine ears, also celebrates empathy and consolidates siblinghood.
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September 26, 2019
March 19, 2020
Prof. Hagith Sivan is Professor Emerita of History in the University of Kansas’ Center for Global and International Studies. She holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and among her many books are, Jewish Childhood in the Roman World (2018), Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress (2011), Between Woman, Man and God: A New Interpretation of the Ten Commandments (2004), and Dinah‘s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible To Late Antiquity (Philadephia 2002).
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