Rachel Weeps for Her Children
…I am one of those unfortunate souls who never had a nurturing mother. I often stroll in the park just to watch a mother adoringly walk her young child, holding her hand, with endless love and care. Oh, how I long so for such love – for the love that only a mother can give.
I know, I know and have been told countless times to grow up and begin to accept that life is not fair; “learn to love yourself,” I have been told. I have heard it all. God knows the hours I have spent with therapists, gurus, soothsayers and healers – some better than others. But I still seek that motherly love. Call me a coward, call me immature. I want to be adored. Is it too much to ask for?
Please tell me something – anything – that can soothe my weary soul.
Tired and forlorn,
The story of Rachel our mother, who dies at a the young age of 36 in this week’s Torah portion, is one of the most moving accounts you will ever read, and one that nurtures us till this very day.
Rachel began to give birth. Her labor was extremely difficult… She was dying, and as she breathed her last breath, she named the child Ben-oni (My Sorrow’s Son). His father called him Benjamin. Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, now known as Bethlehem. Jacob set up a monument on her grave. This is the monument that is on Rachel’s grave to this very day (Genesis 35:16-20).
Rachel’s sad death in childbirth, giving her life for her newborn child, would personify Rachel’s historical role as the quintessential mother who would sacrifice herself for her children, throughout the ages, until the end of time.
Why was our mother Rachel buried on the road and not in the Machpelah Cave in Chevron where the “founding” four couples (Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and later Jacob and Leah) were laid to rest? Chevron is not that far from Bethlehem. Why did Jacob not make the extra effort to honor his beloved wife and accord her the dignity of a proper burial in a respectable resting place, beside all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs?!
Jacob himself, lying on his own deathbed, answered this question, when he made Joseph swear to bury him in Chevron together with his fathers: And I, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died by me in the Land of Canaan, on the road, a short distance from Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem (Genesis 48:7). I am asking you to trouble yourself to take me to be buried in the [Holy] Land… even though I did not do the same for your mother. She died near Bethlehem … and I did not even take her to Bethlehem to bring her to [a settled place in] the Land. I know that there is resentment in your heart toward me [over this]. But know that it was by Divine command that I buried her there, so that she should be a help for her children when Nevuzaradan [of Babylon] will exile them and they will pass by there. Then Rachel will come out upon her grave and weep and plead for mercy for them, as it is written: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are away. And G-d will answer her: Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work will be rewarded, says G-d; and they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future… that your children will return to their own borders (Jeremiah 31:14-16).
Indeed, Rachel’s motherly tears were recognized by Jacob when he first met her: When Rachel the shepherdess appeared with her father’s sheep, “Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept” (Genesis 29:9-11). Why did he weep? Because he foresaw that Rachel would not be buried at his side (Rashi), so that she could cry and plead for her suffering children (Shaloh). In other words, upon setting his eyes on Rachel for the very first time Jacob wept for all the tears that Rachel would shed for her children.
Every detail in Torah is both precise and relevant to our lives. What is the deeper significance of all these tears – both Rachel’s and Jacob’s? Practically speaking, how is the location of Rachel’s burial place on the road “a help for her children?” True, her exiled children were surely consoled as they passed by her grave on their way out of Jerusalem. But why are Rachel’s tears more effective in her grave on the road than had she been weeping from the Machpelah burial place?
Above all, how does it help us today to know that Rachel lays buried on the road and weeps for her children, and that Jacob wept thinking about it?
The answer can be found in the book of Tanya (chapter 45), where he presents a powerful meditation on achieving spiritual awareness based on the psycho-spiritual application of Rachel and Jacob: Rachel is the supernal attribute of Malchut – the power of dignity – the source of all souls. Jacob is the dimension of Tiferet – compassion – arousing empathy for the soul’s traumatic descent into the material universe.
Every soul on earth, the Tanya explains, begins its journey in the spiritual realms and from there it is thrust into “exile” in a physical body and universe that conceals the soul’s presence and all things spiritual.
The Divine spark of the soul is in effect trapped in the narrow confines of our mundane existence even if one never transgresses, causing a profound state of spiritual and existential dissonance. How much more so is the spiritual exile when we become enmeshed in our narcissistic behavior, unrefined thoughts, speech or deeds, which further displaces the Divine soul, and, by extension, the soul’s Divine source, causing, what is called, the esoteric doctrine of the “Exile of the Shechinah.”
Rachel manifests and identifies with this spiritual exile of Malchut. She therefore paid the price by dying in childbirth, and then dwelling in a lonely wayside grave in order to bear witness to the suffering of her children. As long as her children are wandering and oppressed Rachel cannot find any final rest and remains with them “on the road”. “Rachel weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted.”
And what is Jacob’s role in this process? Tanya explains that Jacob represents compassion – a potent method to awaken the exiled soul (and Shechinah) from its displacement.
This continues Tanya, is the meaning of the verse “And Jacob kissed Rachel and lifted up his voice and wept:”
“Jacob — with his supernal attribute of Divine mercy (of Atzilut) — arouses great compassion for Rachel, the source of all souls. “And he lifted up his voice” — upwards, to the fount of the Higher Mercies, to the source of the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy. “And he wept” — in order to awaken and draw from there, from the boundless Divine Mercies, abundant compassion upon all the souls and upon their source, to raise them from their exile and to unite them in the Higher Unity of the Divine infinite light, at the level of “kisses”, which is “the attachment of spirit with spirit,” as it is written, “Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth,” which means the union of the word of man who studies Torah with “the word of G-d, namely, the Halacha.” So too, through thinking Torah thoughts, mortal thought is united with divine thought, and so too, mortal action is united with Divine action, through active observance of the commandments, and, in particular, the practice of charity and loving-kindness.”
Simply put, Jacob’s cry and kiss is a method that we can all employ to awake ourselves from spiritual slumber: By pondering on the radical descent of the soul into a body we can arouse a profound sense of compassion for the trapped soul. How sad it is to see a gentle soul, descend from its loftiest heights, to the nethermost depths of selfish existence. This compassion (of Jacob) empowers Rachel to stand strong with her exiled children. And ultimately Rachel’s tears prevail: Your work will be rewarded, and they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future. Your children will return to their own borders.
In psychological terms, Malchut (Rachel) is dignity. Dignity is the feeling of confidence and security that comes from knowing that you have inherent value and are indispensable, by virtue of the fact that you were created in the Divine Image. The antithesis to dignity is a sense of worthlessness, shame, insecurity, low self-esteem, sometimes to the point of self-loathing.
A nurturing mother instills in her child this feeling of Malchut. More accurately: She doesn’t instill it; a healthy mother cultivates and nourishes the dignity that is the birthright of every soul. When there is a lack of nurturing, dignity is not annihilated, it goes under cover.
In our materialistic world we often can get distracted by our temporary pleasures and forget that the single most important responsibility is the nurturing of our children’s majesty.
This is truer today more than ever. With our ever-accelerating technologies and comforts, an unprecedented standard of living, ironically and paradoxically, our level of self-esteem continues to erode. The busier we are with outer stimulation and the acquisition of wealth, the more we neglect our children. The more functional our external lives, the less functional our inner ones.
Of all the attributes, perhaps the one most severely compromised today is Malchut, dignity. We can find much wisdom, understanding, knowledge, love, discipline, compassion, ambition, (even) humility and bonding; but personal dignity is profoundly displaced in our dysfunctional world.
This is the psychological “exile of malchut” and the “shechinah.”
Enter Rachel: Rachel, the quintessential mother of Israel, resides “on the road” and always remains with us, through our wandering and confusion.
We all hope and pray for a biological mother (in addition to Rachel) that will protect and nurture us. Everyone deserves as much. But even when blessed with a healthy mother, we must always remember that all of us live in a form of “spiritual exile,” in need of our mother Rachel. And even when we are deprived of a nurturing mother, we are never deprived of Rachel, who always stands vigil, adoring us unconditionally, then and now – to this very day.
To this very day Rachel weeps for her children. As the mother of all children, she watches over us and weeps with and for us. She sheds a tear for every lonely child, for every suffering youngster or adult.
And these are not mere tears; they are the tears of a loving mother; tears that water the seeds of our parched souls, allowing them to bear fruit: Their souls will be like a watered garden; and they will sorrow no more (Jeremiah 31:11).
All of us must know, that regardless of our biological mother’s efforts on our behalf, regardless of the way out dignity is nourished or abused, Rachel always remains on watch, and does not rest. When trouble brews she intercedes on our behalf.
We can only wonder whether it was Rachel’s tears that have kept us alive for all those years, allowing us to survive despite all odds.
How do we activate Rachel’s maternal love? We ponder on our predicament, not to bring on feelings on depression or self pity, but to evoke compassion: Have some mercy – hob rachmonos – on yourself. Your beautiful soul, a lofty and delicate creature, lays trapped in your callous body and heartless world. She waits for you to acknowledge her. Embrace her, kiss her, cry for and with her – commit to activities (in thought, speech and action) that caress your soul an allow her to actualize in this world.
Your compassion – on yourself and on others – helps our mother Rachel within each of us to do her work.
Until we arrive at our destination, when “Your work will be rewarded, and they will return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future. Your children will return to their own borders.”