“Jacob’s Body Is Taken to Canaan” by James Tissot, 1902
“Jacob’s Body Is Taken to Canaan” by James Tissot, 1902

Hoping through the tears as a new year dawns

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Genesis 47:28-50:26

A voice is heard on high, the sound of lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children… But the Holy One says: Withhold your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work … they will return from their enemy’s land. There is hope for your future … (Jeremiah 31:15-16)

As we head into the final week of 2018, we have reached the final parashah in Genesis. Jacob has been reunited with his treasured son, Joseph, and the time for Jacob to die is drawing near. Among other things Jacob does at this point, he looks back one last time and invokes the life and death of his beloved, beleaguered Rachel.

“I came from Paddan,” says Jacob, “Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road, while there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem” (Genesis 48:7).

In his waning hours, Jacob waxes nostalgic and plaintive for Rachel, his soulmate and true love, but by whose side he will not be laid to rest. Instead, he asks to be buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a request Rashi finds somewhat unfair, given Rachel’s lonely roadside grave.

But Nachmanides (Ramban) sees Jacob’s place beside Leah as an acknowledgment of Leah’s primacy as first wife and mother of his eldest sons, and a nod of eternal respect for her plight as the less-favored wife.

Rashi suggests Rachel’s gravesite was designated by God to give comfort along the road as the Jews went into exile in Babylonia following the destruction of the First Temple, prompting Jeremiah’s depiction of Rachel “weeping for her children.”

Rashi further comments that this may be why, upon meeting Rachel for the first time, “Jacob kissed Rachel, and he raised his voice and wept” (Genesis 29:11), for he saw in a prophecy what would befall her and their descendants. Jacob remembers how Rachel “died on me,” a deeply painful choice of words describing a loss that likely affected Jacob for the rest of his life.

The image of a disconsolate woman, mourning the children who will not come back to her, leaves us breathless and heart-wrenched. Rachel, who died giving birth to the second child she longed for so dearly, stretches out her arms in empathy to all people who have lost children, who died in childbirth or who lost beloved partners — which occurs far less often nowadays but still happens too frequently in underserved and developing communities.

Rachel also embodies the brokenness of our world, and is akin to the “Shechinah in Exile” — the Kabbalistic idea that the nearest sefirah (emanation) of the Divine, the “Shechinah,” has been wrenched away from the other nine sefirot, and that the perfection and repair of the world (tikkun olam) can happen only when people subdue their egos and their desire to hurt others, join in partnership with the Shechinah and become devoted to good works, proper observance of the mitzvot and fulfilling the will of the Creator.

“Mama Rochel” is also a partner — for those who yearn, who hurt and who pray for healing at her burial place, Rachel’s Tomb. Women who struggle with infertility pray there, and people of all situations and needs pour out their heart to her. The spirit and the memory of our flawed but adored matriarch provide comfort for people who are missing a crucial piece — whatever that piece may be. Rachel stands with us symbolically as we walk the road of life. Separate from her beloved, she is present for all of us.

And so, during these last days of 2018, many of us may be thinking about ways we’d like to improve or change for 2019. What pieces of ourselves and our world are still missing that can be made whole, or at least a little better, as the new year dawns?

Jews in traditional settings say daily prayers committing to teshuvah, to turning over a new leaf, and declarations of change are most prominent at the High Holidays. But our secular calendar offers us a chance to begin again — to address that which is lacking in our lives and pledge to try to do better.

Sometimes it may seem that all is lost. But despite Rachel’s tears, God does reassure her that there is yet hope, even in the darkest hours. May we, too, know the blessings of fulfillment and restoration — speedily and in our time.

Shabbat Shalom and happy 2019!

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].