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Tisha B'Av: The Power of Rachel's Tears
Video 5 of 5
As we mentioned earlier, the story of the night that Lavan switched Rachel for Leah under the chuppah doesn't seem to contain any sort of clue to signs that Rachel exchanged with Leah. It seems to just come out of nowhere and it seems to contradict what happens later. I mean, Rachel doesn't seem to be this person who happily gives Leah signs so that she can marry the man of her dreams; it just doesn't seem like it when you read the text. Where would the Sages come from in saying otherwise? Are they just trying to whitewash Rachel? What about everything we've seen in Jeremiah? Did the Sages see that too? How come they tell us such a different story in the story of the Simanim?
I want to suggest to you that the story of the Simanim is consistent with the view we've taken of the Rachel story given to us by Jeremiah. Not only is it consistent with Jeremiah's vision of Rachel, but I’d like to suggest to you Jeremiah's vision of the Rachel story was the source that the Sages had for their story about the Simanim. Yes, as crazy as that sounds, the evidence actually seems to suggest that that’s true. Because if you look at the story of the Simanim it actually appears three major places within Rabbinic literature. It appears in masechet Bavah Basra in the Talmud, it appears in masechet Megillah and it also appears in the introduction to Eicha Rabba in the Midrash.
The introduction to Eicha Rabba seems to be the most expansive version of the story, but in Eicha Rabba guess what? The Sages are not trying to explain the verses back in Genesis that describe the wedding night; that's not the verses they use to come up with the story of the Simanim. Do you know the verses they're trying to understand that bring them to the story of the Simanim? It's the verses in Jeremiah that we've been studying. Kol b'ramah nishma. It's those verses; it's yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich, there's rewards for what you've done. What's the reward? The Sages want to know. And they tell this story. Yes, at the time when all of the Kingdom of Judah was being exiled, at that time Jeremiah came and pled and begged with the Almighty that the children should come home. But God said, no. And Jeremiah went to each one of the forefathers and said, “Stand up and beg for your children.” And God said no to all of them, including Moses himself, until Rachel stood up to make her case. It was to Rachel that God said I will listen to you because yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich, there's reward for what you've done.
And the Sages say, why? Why should Rachel be rewarded? And then they tell us the story of the Simanim. Her great kindness to her sister. This kindness that seems to materialize out of thin air, like we talked about before. She makes the case to the Almighty. She says, “You know well that my husband loved me most, that he worked for seven long years for my hand in marriage. And that when I found out that my father was going to switch Leah under the chuppah, I knew about it beforehand, I knew about it and I could have foiled it with these signs; it was so hard for me,” the Sages say, “but at the last minute I gave her those signs so that she wouldn't be publicly humiliated.” And that’s why Rachel is to be rewarded so many years later, according to the Sages.
So that's the Midrash, and it’s remarkable. The Midrash starts from the same place we started from, from the words of Jeremiah, kol b'ramah nishma, the voice that weeps in the heavens. So one second; we started from Jeremiah, too! We saw this glorious, unfolding story that seemed to point directly to the birth of Yissachar. Did the Sages see that? And if they did, how come they seem to be ignoring it? How come they seem to be telling us something different than that? A story involving signs. Did the Sages know about yesh Sachar and its connection to Yissachar, or not?
It turns out they did know. Let me read to you another Midrash. A good friend, Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld called my attention to this. It's a Midrash Tanchuma at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. The Midrash says all of the names of the various tribes – Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda et cetera – they were all named in a way that foreshadows some sort of redemptive occurrence later on in the Torah. Reuven's name, the beginning of it, comes from the word ‘see,’ and that foreshadows the point where God says ra'oh ra'iti, I have seen the suffering of Israel and I'll redeem them. Shimon, his name means ‘to hear,’ and that foreshadows God saying vayishma Elokim et na'akatam, God heard their cries. The Midrash goes through all the names until it gets to Yissachar. What redemptive moment is foretold by his name? Ki yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich, the Midrash says. Oh, that’s Jeremiah 31. There’s reward for what you’ve done, Rachel. There it is, they saw it! We weren't the first ones to come up with this interpretation. So what then do the Rabbis mean when they tell us the story of the Simanim instead of the story of Yissachar’s birth?
You might say, “Oh these are two Midrashim; maybe one Midrash knows about one thing and the other Midrash knows about the other.” But maybe not; maybe it's all one story. In other words, maybe when the Sages told the story of the Simanim what they were really doing is describing the significance of the birth of Yissachar. Now I know that may sound strange, but let me give you a little bit of background.
The first thing you need to know about Midrash is that Midrash is different than Peshat. Peshat – peshuto shel mikrah – the simple meaning of the text; it's the basic way of looking at Biblical text. Midrash is something else. It’s not there to tell you the Peshat; the words of the text tell you the Peshat. Midrash doesn't explain to you what happened, it's there to explain to you the significance of what happened. It's adding interpretation about the significance of events. You want to know what happened? Look in the text. You want to know what it means? We'll try to give you our insights, the Rabbis say.
Here, maybe, is what that means in our case. Let’s look at two moments in time. The wedding night, when Rachel and Leah were first switched, that’s the first moment; the second moment, years later, the night Yissachar was conceived. What happened on each of those nights? What happened was exactly what the biblical text says happened. But what are the significance of those two moments in time? One moment in time changes the other. Strangely enough, it’s not the way you think; it’s not like the first moment changes the second. It’s the other way around; the second changes the first! Retroactively, the second moment has an effect of healing history. The night Yissachar was conceived has an effect, as it were, on the past. Makes it as if that first night, the wedding night, Rachel had actually given Simanim to Leah. It heals the wounds of that night. Here’s how.
The night the Dudaim story took place, Rachel was supposed to be with Yaakov. But Rachel engineered it so that Leah was with him instead. In so doing, she was replaying an earlier night when Rachel was supposed to be with Yaakov, but Leah was with him instead. And what night was that? It was their wedding night. Rachel is re-engineering that night; the first time around Rachel was victimized, she didn’t have a choice. Her father had engineered it the first time, but this time she’s not the victim of her father.
She’s proactively giving Leah that night. “This is what I want to give you.” She’s saying the right thing to do is to give you this night; I’m choosing that for both of us now. There’s another way to see this story, not just my way, but your way. Lachen yishkav imach halaylah, let him be with you tonight. You feel that I stand in the way of his companionship with you? Let me try to give you the gift of some of that companionship. It’s all her choice; she’s giving Leah, retroactively, the permission to be in a relationship with Jacob that should have been Rachel’s exclusively.
But here's the thing. If we try to apply that model here, what would it even mean to say that? The story of the Simanim seems to be the Sages taking a stab at adding information to the text. The night when they were switched something else happened that you don't know, there used to be these codes and then Rachel gave them to Leah - they're adding information. What do you mean Fohrman, they're adding significance, how could you possibly understand that? Are you saying that the story of the switch was the story of the switch and the story of the Simanim is an explanation of the significance of that story? Yes, after all these years, Rachel is finally giving that to Leah. She’s saying let’s replay that night. One more time you will be with Jacob on a night that I should have been, but this time I’m the one who’s making that happen. Neither of us are the victims of Lavan anymore.
And once they go through it again, they can banish the ghosts that have haunted them. Once Rachel can give this night to Leah, she’s not haunted by the jealousy born of that original poisonous night anymore. She’s healed that. She’s given Leah permission to be in this relationship. And that is what the Sages mean when they talk about the story of Simanim. The Sages are explaining to you how a later act changed an earlier disaster. They’re talking to you about the night of the Dudaim, these wildflowers. And they’re saying that the choices Rachel made that night had the effect of erasing her victimhood on the night she was married.
What would it look like to erase her victimhood that night? Lavan scheming, setting up Leah to take over her place, Rachel all alone in a room. How would it be that she wouldn’t be victimized? Well, if Rachel had signs that she could have used to foil her father’s plot and didn’t use them, she would have made the choice to let this happen. That’s the effect of the choices she makes later on in history. It’s as if she is creating those choices in the past. It’s as if she gave signs to her sister.
Everything we’ve talked about in the last five videos, the Sages said in one simple but beautiful metaphorical story. She gave signs to her sister; she redid the past and released herself and her sister from the hold that that past had on her. And indeed, it wasn’t just her. It was her sister, too.
Remember how we asked before how Leah’s actions seem so strange? After she gets this night she dances out to her husband, meets him in the fields and says elai tavo, you’re coming to me tonight! What is she saying? Sachor secharticha b'duda'ei beni, I have rented you for the night; there's a transaction. You know what she's saying? We're going to replay that night now, too! From my perspective we're going to replay it.
From my perspective what did that poisonous night look like? You know why it haunted me so? It haunted me for two reasons. First, you, Yaakov, on that night, you didn’t know who I was. I was veiled, you think I deceived you. Because of that you harbored resentment against me for all these years. And there was a second reason you resented me. There was a transaction you think I got in the middle of. You worked for my father for seven years for Rachel, and unintentionally I was made to get in the way of that transaction. And because of that, there’s been all this resentment that’s got in the way of you feeling like a companion for me.
But you know what? We're going to replay that night. Way back on that original night you had said to my father, hava et ishti… v'avo'ah eileha, give me my wife so that I can be with her. But you didn’t get the woman you were expecting that night. Well now, years later, in our replay of that night, you will get the woman you were expecting, me! And now I can use those same words: Come, be with me.
Way back when you first bargained for my sister, Rachel, father had said to you ,mah maskurtecha, what is your price for her? You had said seven years. Now I say to you, sachor secharticha, I have paid the price for you tonight. There's a new barter, a barter that I made with Rachel. And guess what? There's no deception this time, no veil. You see me? I'm Leah. We're replaying the whole thing, and this time when there is no deception. When you're in on it, Rachel’s in on it, I'm in on it; if you're with me tonight, then you too, Yaakov, have to banish the ghosts of that terrible night.
And that's in fact how it is. No more do we ever hear those words that Leah is a senu'ah, a hated wife. History has, in effect, been rewritten; the poisonous night has lost its power to infect the family of Jacob. Rachel and Leah have unburdened themselves of its poison. They're now able to let go and to move on in life. As sisters, they found a new beginning.
Tisha B’Av is the great holiday of Jeremiah. We know that principally because he’s the author of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. He’s the one who teaches us how to mourn. But Jeremiah himself points us to Rachel if we really want to learn how to mourn. Look at her tears and what they did. But do you know what Jeremiah is really telling us? He’s really telling us that it wasn’t Rachel’s mourning that saved us, that made God say that the Exile was going to be over, all of your children are going to come back. It wasn’t because she cried, it’s because she fixed something that she could fix. It’s because when she was at her rawest, things were hardest, most painful for her, she reached out and saw the perspective of her sister, who she’d seen as a rival; that somehow made peace with her.
What, then, is Jeremiah really telling us? He’s saying beyond reading Lamentations, beyond mourning, if you really want to emulate the heroine of tears, then pay attention to the real reason why God listened to her. Reach out empathetically to your sister and brother with whom you may be in conflict. If we follow Jeremiah’s advice, the highest thing we can do on Tisha B’Av is not just be sad. Rachel’s sadness didn’t move God as much as her heroism did. Can we be heroes? Would that be even greater than sitting on the floor and being sad?
What would it even mean to be heroes? We all get into conflict with others, it’s part of life. We even get into conflict with people that we should be getting along with: Family members, co-workers, neighbors. Being a hero doesn’t mean never getting into a fight; it means having the strength to get out of one once you’re in it. And the key to that is to do what Rachel did.
At your greatest moment of pain, can you step back and ask yourself, What does this situation look like from my opponent’s point of view? Do I really have the only perspective here? What does it look like from his point of view? Her point of view? That kind of curiosity is heroism. It’s the way out of vicious conflict. If we can emulate her heroism, feel their pain too, and respond, then maybe, like Rachel, God will be unable to deny us our deepest wishes, just like her.
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