The Story of Rachel and the Power of Her Tears
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What’s the point of feeling sad on Tisha B’Av? Is the goal just to wallow in the past and mourn over things we can’t change? What if mourning could actually redeem the past, and change the future?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores these pivotal questions by re-examining the story of Rachel, the mother of our people. In the Book of Jeremiah, we’re told that when Rachel Imenu wept for her children, God listened. Perhaps if we can discover why Rachel’s tears had this incredible effect on God, we can discover a way to harness the power of our own tears.
Watch to discover what Rachel’s story can teach us about the power of mourning as a catalyst for growth — on Tisha B’Av and every day of the year.
Rachel’s Tears is Aleph Beta’s most popular video of all time for a reason!
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and you are watching Aleph Beta, Tisha B'Av is upon us. What are we supposed to do on this day? What do we do on the day? We read a book called Lamentations, we sing laments, it seems pretty clear what we're supposed to do. We're supposed to mourn, we're supposed to cry. But I have a question for you, is that enough?
What Is Effective Mourning?Mourning and crying is what you do as an instinctive reaction to loss but it doesn't change the loss. So maybe this year you come home from Eicha and you're on your bare feet and then you read some Lamentations in the morning and you're feeling a little sad. But just to make yourself feel a little sadder maybe you'll watch some of "Schindler's List." Then if you can cry a little bit, have you sort of done what you're supposed to do on Tisha B'Av? Or is there more to do? And if there's more, what more would that be?
Here's a way maybe we should think about it. What does effective mourning look like? Is there such a thing as effective mourning? Mourning that doesn't just mourn loss but does something too, is reparative or restorative in some way? I think we have a model for that in the Torah – Rachel, mother of our people.
The Power of Rachel Weeping for Her ChildrenThat's at least how Jeremiah seems to see it. I'm referring right now to probably the most famous verses in the entire book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah actually portrays the afterlife of another Biblical figure. We are given a vision of Rachel weeping on high in the realms of heaven.
Kol b'ramah nishma – he says, there's a voice that's heard on high;
Nehi bechi tamrurim – a voice that's crying, bitter, bitter cries;
Rachel mevakah al baneha – it's the voice of Rachel, she's crying over her children being led into exile.
Jeremiah of course lives through the very first exile of the destruction of the first Temple, this is a prophecy that is describing all of these hundreds of thousands of children of Rachel leaving the land of Israel, they're being led away into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar's troops. That's what's happening on earth. And in heaven, Rachel is crying; Mei'anah l'hinachem – she refuses to be consoled; Al baneha ki einenu – for her children because they're not there, they're being led away. She's desolate.
Then Jeremiah gives us G-d's response to Rachel:
Koh amar Hashem – thus says G-d;
Min'i koleich mi'bechi – hold back your voice from crying;
V'einayich mi'dimah – and dry your eyes from the tears.
Ki yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich – for there's reward for what you've done;
V'shavu mei'eretz oyev – your children will return from the land of the enemy.
Ve'yesh tikvah l'achariteich – there is hope for you in the end;
Ne'um Hashem v'shavu banim l'gevulam – your children will return to their rightful borders.
That's a pretty comforting prophecy. I mean on Tisha B'Av if we mourn exile, here's the promise that exile will be over. Rachel's tears were really effective. If somehow we could learn to do what Rachel did here, if we could be answered the same way she was answered, that would be amazing.
What Was Effective About Rachel's Weeping?So on the one hand we might try to emulate Rachel here to whatever extent we can, but it's a double-edged sword because maybe it's completely impossible to emulate her? She, after all, was the mother of our entire people and she was crying over them like only a mother can, there is no more poignant an image than that of a mother crying over her lost children.
We might well say if that's what it takes to storm the gates of heaven, if that's what it takes to get G-d to commit to lift the exile, then only Rachel can do it, she's the mother of our people and we're not. We cannot possibly evoke the same response from G-d. Does this picture of Rachel that Jeremiah gives us lead us nowhere but a dead-end?
I want to suggest to you that in fact this portrayal of Rachel that Jeremiah gives us has much to teach us indeed. Because if you look carefully at what Jeremiah is saying, yes, Rachel is successful in storming the heavenly gates, but she is not successful simply because she cries. She is not successful simply because she is a mother in anguish. There is a hidden secret to her success.
Why Was Rachel's Crying Rewarded?Here again was G-d's response to Rachel. Min'i koleich mi'bechi v'einayich mi'dimah – hold back your voice from crying, dry your eyes from your tears.
Now the next thing G-d is going to do is give a reason as to why Rachel should be consoled, He's going to tell her what about her made such a difference to the Almighty Himself. Well we might say well because I've listened to your voice, I've seen your tears, I have compassion for your plight. But interestingly, that's not what G-d says.
Why should you dry your tears? Ki yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich – for there is reward for your actions. Reward for your actions? All she did was cry? You get listened to if you cry, maybe. You get compassion if you cry, you don't get rewarded if you cry, do you? I mean even if that's what Jeremiah was trying to say, that wouldn't even be the way to say it. Jeremiah should have said; Ki yesh sachar l'dimateich – there's reward for your tears. But he doesn't say that; Yesh sachar l'pe'ulateich – there's reward for your actions. But what were her actions beyond to cry?
Jeremiah is doing something remarkable here. Yes, G-d listens to Rachel, but no, not out of compassion, not because He felt this great sense of mercy because there was a mother who cried. There was another reason. He listened to her because she deserved to be listened to, because there's something she had done, something so powerful, so heroic, that this quiet act lay hidden for centuries until it would finally burst forth and be rewarded with the return of hundreds of thousands of Rachel's children to their land. The tantalizing question that Jeremiah is holding out to us, is what was that thing that she did?
What Did Rachel Do?In this video I want to explore these verses that we've just read in great detail with you because I think they hold deep insight into several, very important things. First, what does it mean to cry before G-d, to mourn successfully before the Almighty? Second, a question intimately bound up with the first, who was this woman whose actions made such a difference to G-d?
We know so little about her. On the one hand, she's a very compelling figure in our imagination – the grave of Rachel in Bethlehem is one of the most visited sites in Israel today. Hundreds and thousands of people go there to pour out their hearts before G-d, probably because of this verse in Jeremiah that portrays Rachel as a caring mother who pours out her heart to G-d on behalf of us. But that's in the Book of Jeremiah.
In the Book of Genesis that actually tells the story of Rachel, we know so little about her. Yes, we know that Jacob fell in love with her, but what was it about Rachel that made him so entranced with her? We know that Jacob worked for seven years for her, but that's not about her, that's about him. We know that she was locked in rivalry with her sister, they both married the same man. We know that she stole some idols at the end of her life. We know that she died in childbirth.
Okay, but why is the text so maddeningly silent about this woman who is the mother of our nation? But maybe the text isn't silent. Maybe Jeremiah is teaching us how to read that text in Genesis. Indeed, that is exactly what I think is going on. If we look at these verses in Jeremiah carefully we will find nothing less than a grand re-reading of the life of Rachel itself. We will understand deeply who she was, why she should matter us, and why her actions mattered so deeply to G-d. We'll be able to learn from those actions, I think, so that our actions too might matter so deeply to the Almighty.