Rachel Weeping For Her Children
The Story of Rachel and the Power of Her Tears
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Tisha B'Av is the day we’re supposed to mourn and cry. But what does effective mourning look like? Is there a model in the Bible for it?
The Story of Rachel & Leah: Why Did Rachel Cry For Her Children?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he explores this pivotal question by re-examining the story of Rachel – the mother of our people – referred to in the Book of Jeremiah. The vision of Rachel weeping on high in the realms of heaven may offer a new understanding of mourning – and a whole new way to think about Tisha B’Av.
What was it about Rachel and her tears that made such an impact? Revisit the bitter struggle of Rachel and you’ll gain an entirely new perspective on relationships, empathy, and the power of mourning.
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.
A Closer Study of Rachel's Story in the BibleWhen Jeremiah is talking about Rachel crying in heaven, that would not have been the first time that Rachel would have been in heaven crying for lost children. Long before the Babylonian Exile, way back in the Book of Genesis, just after Rachel's tragic, early death, Rachel had a lost child then, too.
That child was Joseph. If you listen carefully to the language that Jeremiah is using here, you will discern an elegant pattern. Every step forward that you take in Jeremiah, is a step backward through the history of Rachel's tears. The journey concludes with those mysterious words we talked about earlier: "yeish sachar lifulateich", there is reward for what it is that you have done. We didn't know what that meant. But, as it turns out, we will find, at the end of it, the hidden heroism of Rachel. We will find out why she is the recipient of such an astonishing reward.
The journey Jeremiah takes us on begins with the words, "Kol b'ramah nishma", a voice is heard on high. Where did Jeremiah get those words from? Ask yourself this question: Aside from the Babylonian Exile, if you go backwards in biblical history, when would have been the last time that Rachel would've been crying over a lost child?
You might say, when Joseph was sold. But, after Joseph was sold, things got even worse for him. Yes. There was a brief moment in time, when, after he was sold, he was elevated to a position of power in Potiphar 's household. Then, that came crashing down.
There is Joseph. He is all alone in the house. Potiphar's wife comes. She tries to seduce him. She grabs his coat. She says, "Be intimate with me." Seeing no other way out, he actually slips out of his coat and runs outside. She gathers together all the members of the household and says, "R'u heivi lanu ish Ivri l'tzaheik banu," you see this Hebrew slave? He's come to force himself upon me! "Va'ekra b'kol gadol", but I screamed! A.
Now, if we stopped right here and I'd asked, is this the worst point of the story? Is this the moment when, if you were Rachel, looking down from on high, you would cry? The answer would be, "No. Not quite yet." Because, at this point you don't know that Joseph is going to be sent down into the dungeon.
She has made a claim. Joseph will make a counter-claim. It's in the next verse that you know. She continues talking to the members of the household. She says, "Vayehi ch'shamo," and it happened when he heard; "Ki harimoti koli va'ekra," that I raised my voice and called out; he turned and ran away and left his coat with me. Then she produces the coat. That's it! Once everyone sees this? Now, Joseph is sunk.
That's where, if you were his mother, when you would cry. But, look at the words when she produces this false evidence. "Vayehi ch'shamo ki harimoti koli," and when he heard that I raised my voice – A.
Now read the words; backwards. We are, after all, proceeding backwards on our timeline. "Koli", "kol", voice; "harimoti", "b'ramah", raise up; "ch'shamo", "nishma", is heard.
"Kol b'ramah nishma", a voice on high is heard. It's where Jeremiah got the words from. Okay. So now I "imagined" to you that, as you proceed forward in Jeremiah, it's as though you are proceeding backwards through the Joseph story. So, if we keep on reading Jeremiah, we're going to find a reference to a second time when Rachel would have cried in the Joseph story. Not just when Potiphar turns on Joseph. But a little bit earlier, when Joseph's own family had turned on him.
When Jeremiah starts talking about, "n'hi b'chi tamrurim", a bitter cry. Regular bitter is "mar". "Marar", is really, really bitter. Have you ever heard a Mem-Reish-Reish word anywhere in the Five Books of Moses? Have you ever heard it anywhere in Genesis?
It actually does appear once in Genesis. It appears in Jacob's blessing; his deathbed blessing to Joseph. When he tells him, "Vay'mararuhu", and they embittered your life. Rashi actually expounds Midrashically about the two Reish's and the word marar. Suggesting there were two ways, two moments, went Joseph's life was unfairly embittered by others.
One of those was the story of Potiphar. But there was another, of course. When Joseph's own family turned on him and threw him in the pit.
At the end of his life, Jacob seems to recognize both. And now, Jeremiah echoes this word. Suggesting that Rachel now. She's not just crying bitterly over the exile. She's also mourning two terrible points in the life of one child; in the life of Joseph. Not just Joseph's downfall in Potiphar's house. But Joseph's downfall in his own family's house, too. The sale of Joseph.
Parallels to Rachel's Weeping in the BibleNow, as we keep on reading Jeremiah, we'll hear the details. The next words of Jeremiah, "Rachel m'vakah al-banehah", Rachel, she is crying for her children. What do those words remind you of?
We do hear about a parent crying over a child in Genesis. It was Jacob. When the bloody coat was shown to him and he concluded that Joseph was dead. "Vayeifk oto aviv", his father cried over him.
It's almost as if Jeremiah is saying, "Do you think that Jacob was the only one crying? Only father, but not mother? That the "mere fact" that Rachel was no longer alive, that would have stopped her from crying?! "Rachel m'vakah al-banehah", Rachel, she is crying for her children; just as Jacob cried.
Let's go a bit further in Jeremiah's words. That's when we meet the words, "Mei'anah l'hinnacheim", how Rachel refuses to be consoled. What does that remind you of? If you take one step backwards in Genesis: "vay'ma'ein l'hitnacheim", and he refused to be consoled. Jacob says, "I'm going to go down to my grave mourning Joseph. I will never be consoled!" A.
So here comes Jeremiah and, in effect, what is he telling you? He is saying: Yes. Rachel, she was mourning for the Babylonian captives but she was also mourning over a kidnapped child. She will not be consoled. It's just one more step along the backwards journey.
Now, take one more step forward in Jeremiah's words. And one more step backwards through Genesis. Why won't Rachel be consoled? Jeremiah tells us, "al banehah, ki einennu". She won't be consoled over her children, "because they are gone".
That word, "einennu". When Joseph is first discovered missing, Reuven, Reuben goes to the pit to try to save him. To try to bring him back to his father. Only to discover an empty pit. He comes back and he says to his brothers, "hayyeled einennu". "The child. He is gone!" A.
It's the first discovery of the loss of Joseph and the sale of Joseph. The first time someone discovers that Rachel's child is lost.
Now the question is, as you go further in Jeremiah's words, will you continue to go backwards in Genesis? To earlier and earlier times? When Rachel might have cried? But the problem is, we seem to have reached the end.
Right now we're at the very beginning of the story of the sale of Joseph. When Reuben discovers that he is gone. That would have been the first time that anyone could mourn the loss of Joseph; the loss of Rachel's child.
Then, let me ask you this: Are there in earlier times that you can think of, when Rachel might have been mourning for children "ki einennu", because there weren't any?
Earlier in her life, Rachel was childless. She was infertile. She didn't have any children for the longest of times. She was wracked by pain, over her childlessness.
As we continue reading Jeremiah, would we hear any references to those moments of anguish?
"Ko amar Hashem," thus says God;
"min'i' koleich mibechi," hold back your voice from crying;
"v'einayich middimmah," and dry your eyes from tears;
"ki yeish sachar lifulateich..., " for there is reward for what you have done.
But, what did she do? Why would she be rewarded we asked?
Jeremiah will provide the answer for us. Hidden in the promise of reward is the heroic deed itself. Say those words over and over and you'll see it. "Yeish sachar lifulateich". "Yeish sachar". "Yeish sachar". What do those words remind you of? Yud-Shin-Shin-Chaf-Reish, Yissachar, Issachar. Leah's fifth child.
You want to know, why "yeish sachar"? Why there is reward for Rachel centuries later? What her hidden heroism is? Look at the birth of Issachar and you will know. Jeremiah seems to be telling us, "This is Rachel's finest moment."
Jeremiah seems to be taking us on a journey, back through Rachel's life. Until we meet a crucial moment. The birth of Issachar. But that, of course, leads us to the puzzle: What did Jeremiah see in the birth of Issachar that is cause for "yeish sachar"? Eternal reward for Rachel. That is the great puzzle that Jeremiah holds out to us. He's challenging us to read the story as he read it.
A Journey Through Rachel's Life StoryJeremiah seems to suggest to us that there was something about Rachel's actions surrounding the birth of Issachar that was a source of enduring merit for her. What was that? I mean, seemingly, when you read this story, all you hear is a painful battle between sisters. The battle seems to be played out in the names that these children get. It seems to be the least inspiring, the least possible heroic story. A story of jealousy and conflict. But maybe Jeremiah is leading us to a closer look at that story. Let's try to go through that story carefully and see if we can see what he did.
Rachel has had a difficult life. She thought that she was destined to marry Ya'akov, Jacob. He had worked for seven long years for her. Only to be deceived, on the night of the wedding, by the treachery of Lavan, Laban; Rachel's father. Laban switches Leah for Rachel under the chuppah, the wedding canopy. And Jacob ends up marrying Rachel's sister, instead of her.
That's the first misfortune that Rachel suffers. But it doesn't stop there. She then watches as her sister gives birth to child after child. While she simply stands by. She can't conceive, apparently. She's childless.
After Leah gives birth first to Reuben, then to Shimon, Simon; and then Levi; and then Yehudah, Judah. That brings us to Chapter 30, Verse 1.
"Vateire Rachel ki lo yal'dah l'Ya'akov," and Rachel saw that she had not given birth to a child to Jacob;
"vat'kannei Rachel b'achotah', and Rachel became jealous of her sister;
"vatomer el Ya'akov," and she says to Jacob;
"havah li vanim," give me children;
"v'im ayin," and if not;
"meitah anochi". I am as good as dead.
Now, parenthetically, I just want to stop right here and address a problem that I think many of us have reading this story. The picture that we're getting of Rachel here; it's a very unfamiliar picture. "Vat'kannei Rachel b'achotah'," Rachel was jealous of her sister; was desperate for children.
The picture that most of us have of Rachel though, is a more sanguine picture than that. And I think it's based upon a Medrash, Midrash that many of us have learned when we were young. It's the famous story of the simanim, the signs.
Midrashic Insight Into Leah and Rachel's StoryThe story goes like this. Way back on the night when Leah and Rachel were first switched under the wedding canopy, Rachel had, in advance of that, anticipated that some sort of deception like that might happen. The Midrash goes so far as to say, that she made her fiancé, Jacob aware of that possibility. She says, "My father is going to deceive you."
In order to avoid that possibility, let me give you signs. So that, when I'm there under the wedding canopy; or, if, as the case may be, Leah is there, under the wedding canopy; you'll know. Because, you'll ask yourself, "Does the woman who is standing behind that veil, does she have the signs? And, father won't be able to deceive us.
Jacob thought it was a great idea. But, at the very last minute, Rachel thought better of the plan. As in fact, Laban treacherously puts Leah under the wedding canopy, instead of her, she says to herself, "I can't go through with it. Look at the shame, look at the embarrassment my sister would feel." And she gives her sister the signs. Leah makes it through the night. Without the public humiliation of being found out in front of everyone. That's the story that the sages tell.
Now, a number of maddeningly perplexing questions assault you when you begin to think about this story. Yes. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy towards Rachel. But doesn't that little lesson fall a little bit short? Because, once you read a few more verses in the Bible, you get to this very clear statement: "vat'kannei Rachel b'achotah'," Rachel was jealous of her sister.
Then, out of this great sense of desperation, she comes to Jacob and says, 'I am going to be dead if I don't have children.' It's jealousy that's fueling it. The text says it's jealousy. So, here's wonderful, non-jealous Rachel becoming really, really jealous just three verses later! A.
This story of the simanim, of the signs is a very challenging Midrash to understand. Before our time is done here, we will seek to understand it. Now is not yet that time. Now let's go back to the simple meaning of the text. Let's just understand what the Torah is telling us here.
We were up to that moment when Rachel was jealous of her sister. She comes begging her husband for children. What was his response?
"Vayyomer hatachat Elokim anochi asher mana' mimmeich pri-vaten". "He said, am I in place of God Who held you back from having children?" 'I'm not the one kept you childless. I'm the wrong address for your complaints. God is responsible for that. Why don't you take the matter up with Him?' Rachel says, "Fine." "Hinnei amati Bilhah," let me give you then my maidservant, Bilhah. Try to have a child with her. At least it will be surrogate motherhood. Maybe that can work.
Bilhah conceives and has a child. Rachel names this child. "Dananni Elokim v'gam shama b'koli," God has judged me and has listened to my voice. "Vayyiten li ben," and has given me a son.
There seems to be a subtle tension within the name itself. Between justice on the one hand and compassion on the other. The phrase 'gam shama b'koli', that [God] has listened to my voice; has the sense that God is reaching out to me in compassion. He has listened to my cries, my anguish. He responded to my sense of pain.
Now, however, listen to the other half of her declaration: "dananni Elokim", God has judged me. That's some of what Rachel is saying. There was a court case here. Justice has finally been done. My position has been vindicated by God. After all the unfairness that I have been subjected to; finally, a little bit of justice.
Life really was a little unfair for Rachel. Maybe even more than a little unfair for her. She had waited for seven, long years while the man she loved worked for her hand in marriage. If that sounds romantic, what happened in the end wasn't very romantic at all. Her sister got switched under the wedding canopy for her.
While Rachel was alone in her room and everyone is dancing for her sister at this wedding. And no one knows that Rachel isn't even there and isn't even part of it.
It didn't get any better after that when finally she's married. And here comes the sister who usurped her. And, as child after child is born to her sister, when she doesn't have any children. Then, finally, a little bit of justice. "I may not have a biological child but, I've got Dan. I've got a child I can raise. Thank God! Finally, a little bit of justice. A little bit of fairness."
It's really even a little bit more than this, though. Isn't it? If this child is named Dan, "God has judged me". If there was really a court case here. A court case involves two parties. Who was the other party? The one she was struggling with? It would have to be her sister.
Remember, how did all this begin? The text tells us: "vat'kannei Rachel b'achotah' ", Rachel was jealous of her sister. Her sister was living the life with Jacob that she was supposed to be living! Leah is having child after child. While Rachel remained bereft. It just doesn't seem fair! A.
Now, however, now it has begun to get set right. "Here, finally, is a child for me." "Dananni Elokim", God has judged me. Mixed with: "v'gam shama b'koli", and He has listened to my pained voice.
Yet, if that is where Rachel is "coming from". If there is an uneasy mix of justice and compassion – in Rachel's perception of God's response to her – in the first child of Bilhah. Listen to the name that Rachel gives.
When Bilhah has a second child, Rachel names him, Naftali. Here is her explanation: " Naftulei Elokim niftalti im achoti," the struggles of God, Divine Struggles, I have struggled with my sister; "gam yacholti," and I have prevailed. I have held my own; "vatikra sh'mo Naftali", so she named him, "My Struggle".
You know, that name is a little darker than the first one. It seems decidedly like a step towards the "justice" end of the pendulum. That, it seems to me, comes with some risks.
Studying the Meaning of Leah and Rachel's StoryWhat if Rachel is wrong in her perception? You know, all these names that the two sisters give their children, the Torah simply records the names. It doesn't necessarily endorse their meaning. What if she was wrong? What if it was all compassion? But she saw justice there. What if she thinks that God has vindicated her in court? But, what if that perception is wrong?
Here's the problem. If I see myself as locked in a struggle with my sister, and God has vindicated my position. What does that say about the possibility of ending the struggle with my sister? It's a "Holy War". The problem with holy wars is: How do you ever put down the sword?
I'm going to compromise with you? If God has vindicated my position; then, if I compromise with you, I let God down. That leads us straight to the next verses in Genesis.
Leah saw that she that she hadn't had children for a while. So she took her maidservant, too; Zilpah. And she gave her to Jacob. Wouldn't you know it? Zilpah has one child. Then she has a second child. Listen to the name that Leah gives that second child. "Vatomer Leah b'ashri;" Leah said, How fortunate am I? " Ki ishruni banot," all the women, all the girls, who hear that I have just had another child will herald my good fortune. I'm just as delighted as I could possibly be! " Vatikra et sh'mo Asher", so she called him, "Fortunate!" A.
Look at Leah here. Everything is wonderful! Life couldn't be better.
If you were Rachel, and you saw yourself locked in that Divine Struggle with your sister. And vindicated because your maidservant just gave you two children. God has somehow now come down on your side. What would you say now?
Leah's maidservant has given her two children of her own! Leah is so happy. She doesn't even mention any sense of conflict. For her, your children don't even matter! What now?
It would have to have been the most crushing moment imaginable. If you're Rachel, how do you see things now?
That brings us straight to one of the most mysterious episodes of the entire Book of Genesis. The story of the duda'im, the wildflowers of Reuven. That story is the story of the birth of Issachar. Somewhere hidden in that story is an act of Rachel's that resonated for centuries. We're now in a position to see what it was.
Leah, Rachel and the Story of the MandrakesSo the next element that we have in our unfolding story of Rachel and Leah and, in fact, the last element of the story before the birth of Issachar, which is where we're going here, is a story that seems maddeningly trivial involving some sort of flowers.
It turns out that Reuben, Leah's child, he's been hanging around in the fields. He finds some flowers, these duda'im (wildflowers), brings them back to his mother. So it seems that these wildflowers are somehow very, very precious. Both Leah and Rachel want them very much and eventually they got some sort of bargain. Rachel gets the wildflowers and then Leah gets a night with Jacob that she otherwise wouldn't have.
Just this very strange story. Why is it even here? What would the Torah even want us to learn from this story? Okay. It was a day in the life of Leah and Rachel, big deal. I need to know what Leah ate for breakfast one day. Whether it was Cocoa Pops or Cheerios? Why do I have the story here?
The truth is it's not just a trivial story. It's actually a little bit upsetting.
Scheming with MandrakesFor example, look what Leah says after this little trade for these wildflowers. She has gotten a night with Jacob. "Vayavo Yaakov min hasadeh ba'erev," Jacob's coming back from the fields in the evening, "vateitzei Leah likrato," and Leah goes out to greet him, "vatomer eilai tavo," you're going to be with me tonight, "ki sachor sacharticha b'duda'ei b'ni," because I've rented you tonight in exchange for these wildflowers.
Isn't that incredibly gauche? How do you talk so cavalierly about the business arrangements of intimacy? I've rented you and Rachel's not much better. She's the one who came up with this grand idea. It's just a very uncomfortable story, wouldn't you say? What's going on here?
Now, you might say, well, there's these wildflowers, but what kind of wildflower were they? What was their significance? Maybe if we could decipher that we'd understand the story, but in fact there are all sorts of debates about what the wildflowers were. Were these flowers so prized because maybe they were aphrodisiacs or maybe they were fertility granting flowers? So it's this very strange story. It doesn't seem to be a lot of consensus about it. What do we make of it?
So I want to suggest something that may sound a little bit radical here. That what the wildflowers were actually is a red herring. You will not decipher the mystery of the story of the wildflowers by figuring out exactly which wildflower it was and then theorizing about its supposed significance to these women. The reason I say this is because the Torah doesn't tell you what the wildflowers were. More than that, the Torah knows you don't know what the wildflowers were.
The word duda'im is a unique word in Scripture. It appears exactly once, right here. So let's just add up the evidence over here. If the Torah doesn't explain to you exactly what the wildflowers are and the Torah gives you no way of figuring out exactly what the wildflowers were, other than your own speculation, then what does that really mean the Torah is telling you? That it doesn't matter what the wildflowers were. For all you know they were worthless wildflowers.
Torah Commentary on RachelRashi says the Torah specifies that Reuben went out b'ketzir hachitim, at the beginning of the wheat harvest and Rashi says this shows you how righteous this little boy, Reuben, was. He could have picked wheat except that the wheat belonged to owners in the field and Reuben didn't want to take things that people cared about. That would be stealing. So instead he took some weeds, some dandelions, these worthless wildflowers that were hefker (unclaimed property), that were basically ownerless that's what he brought to his mother.
That, by the way, is exactly how Rashi understands what the wildflowers were; weeds. Nobody cared about them. Okay. So let's say we buy that interpretation. If we do, if we accept that the wildflowers really didn't matter for their intrinsic value so now the question is how come Rachel and Leah seem to be so keenly interested in them? The answer must be the significance of the wildflowers doesn't lie in their own inherent value and what they were. It lies in who brought them and why.
What Was the Meaning of the Mandrakes?Who did bring the wildflowers? It was Reuben and he brought them from the fields to his mother. The text goes out of its way to emphasis that fact. "Vayavei otam el Leah imo," he didn't just bring them to Leah, he brought them to Leah, his mother. Seemingly, needlessly repeating that point because if you've been paying attention you know that Reuben is the child of Leah. But no, no no, he didn't just bring them to Leah; he brought them to Leah, his mother. That's the point where it matters.
Who was Reuben and why would these wildflowers have mattered so much to Leah? Put yourself in Leah's position and ask yourself why these flowers would have mattered so much to you? Here is little six-year-old Reuben, Leah's firstborn child, coming back from the fields with this little bouquet of dandelions in his hand. "Vayavei otam el Leah imo," and he brings them to his mother and says here, mom. I brought these for you. Why do these dandelions mean everything to her?
You know, if you stand back and think about what it means to be a parent, at least for the first few years of a child's life, you know, you put your heart and your soul into raising your child and it seems almost like a one way street. You're giving and you're giving and you're giving so much and the child is helpless. The child can't give you really anything back, but then one day, for the first time, your child tries to give something back to you.
What does that moment mean to you? Your kid spends the afternoon scribbling together a card. She barely knows how to draw. It's just a bunch of colored scribbles, but then with this big smile on her face she comes to you and says here, mom, this is for you. You take that card, you put it on the refrigerator and years later, decades later you never take it down because these are the first fruits of your child's independence. You've been giving and giving to them and finally they've taken this very first fledgling step. They've given something back to you.
It really is like first fruits. Indeed, if you think about the Torah's idea of first fruits, it's very, very similar. There's this command that a farmer is supposed to bring the first fruits of the season to a kohein in the Temple.
Now, what if I was a cynic and said first fruits, hah, everybody knows the first fruits aren't the best fruits of the season. Nobody wants to eat the strawberries from the beginning of the season. Why would God want the first fruits? The answer is because it's not about how the strawberries taste. It's that they were the first.
God's done so much for us; took us out of Egypt, led us through the desert, brought us into the Land. God gave and gave and gave to his children, to Israel and they were never really in a position to give anything back until they finally got in the Land and they started to farm the land and finally here's this farmer with the very first fruits of independence, something to give back. Those fruits mean everything to God.
So it is with Reuben. Here is Leah's firstborn giving something back to her. It's that first wondrous moment in the life of a parent. Rachel sees this and what does she say? Do you think you can give me some of those wildflowers?
Why Did Rachel Want Leah's Mandrakes?We often mistake what it was that Rachel asked for here. We think oh, yeah, Rachel wanted the duda'im. She wanted the wildflowers. She's even willing to buy the wildflowers. That wasn't what happened. Listen to the language of the text carefully. "Vatomer Rachel el Leah," Rachel said to Leah, "t'ni lah li miduda'ei b'neich," give me, please, some of the wildflowers of your child. Not all of them; some of them. She seems to ask very nicely. Give me, please, some of these wildflowers.
What's happening here? You see Rachel has no child. Years have passed and she still has no child. Leah has two more children. She names her last child for happiness and joy and now, there Leah is finally experiencing the first joy of a child's first fruits. Rachel looks at this and she says I don't know what life has in store for me. I don't know if I will ever have a child, but I'm asking you this. "T'ni na li miduda'ei b'neich," could you give me some of those wildflowers.
If you could share some of those with me. If I could take some of those dandelions and put them in a vase above my window, too. If I could share some of your joy in motherhood then maybe it would be enough for me. If I don't have a child, I don't want to have to look at your children with resentment when your child reaches milestone after milestone. His first softball game. His Bar Mitzvah. His wedding. I don't want to have to turn away seething in anger. I don't want to be that kind of person. I want to be able to share in your joy. I'm willing to do that. Can you let me in?
It was a kind of peace offering for Rachel, but if that's what Rachel is asking for, look at the response that Leah gives to her. "Vatomer lah," and Leah said to her, "hame'at kachteich et ishi," was it not enough that you took my husband from me, "v'lakachat gam et duda'ei b'ni," that you also now want to take the dandelions of my son.
Now, if you were Rachel and you heard that, at this moment, from your sister how would you react? I mean, I don't know about you, but if I were Rachel you just want to scratch your sister's eyes out. I'm the one who took your husband? Are you for real? Weren't you the one who took my husband? I was the one who's supposed to marry him for seven years and then you stepped in and because you got it all backwards in your mind you can't share these dandelions? Who needs you?
However, that's not what Rachel said to her. "Vatomer Rachel," and Rachel said to her, "lachein," if that's the way it is, "yishkav imach halaylah," let him be with you tonight. "Lachein," therefore. It's like oh, my goodness that's actually how you see it that I was the one who took your husband. In that moment Rachel begins to see a whole other way of seeing what happened. The history of this family. Here's how things looked from Leah's point of view and right now I'm actually giving you the perspective of Chizkuni and S'forno.
Leah's Point of ViewHow much choice did I really have? Let's go back to the night of the switch. Father suddenly convened this party, invited everybody and then he pointed at me and said put on a white dress, you're up. What am I supposed to do? I don't get to say no in that situation. It was terrible that that happened, but it wasn't my choice. But, you know, after that happened, for good or for ill, I was his wife so how come after that you agreed to marry him too.
Look at the consequences of that. I'm hated, you're loved. Couldn't you have left it well enough alone? I didn't have a choice. You had a choice. "Hame'at kachteich et ishi v'lakachat gam et duda'ei b'ni," it's not enough for you that you take my husband, you need the dandelions, too.
And, Rachel, her greatness is that at that moment she hears that and allows herself to understand. Allows herself to understand a whole different way of seeing this. You know, there was a time that Rachel saw herself as locked and struggle and God, Himself, coming down and saying your position is the correct one, but now she says there is another way of seeing it. There's my sister's way of seeing it and if my way is valid then so is hers.
All this time that I've seen it as so unfair that I haven't had these children, you've seen it as so unfair that you haven't had the love and companionship of your husband and you think I've taken that from you. How could I ask you if you would share in the joy of your child with me without me sharing something with you? "Lachein yishkav imach halaylah," so let him be with you tonight. Let me give you a gift of companionship with him, that which you crave.
So it was. Rachel was given some of the dandelions and Leah was given a night with Jacob. That night, Leah conceives Issachar. "Yeish sachar lifulateich," in the words of Jeremiah, there is reward for what you've done, for your act, Rachel.
Rachel's RewardThe reward does not come immediately. In the short term, Rachel remains childless. Leah has yet another child. This child, Issachar. He will go to a woman that you, Rachel, saw as a rival. He will go to Leah, but, as for you, one day you will have children. Hundreds of thousands and you will see those children too in the domain of a rival. Not just a rival, but an enemy, but you will get those children back because "yeish sachar," your children will come home.
We understand a great deal now, but there is one thing that we still do not understand. The strange story that the Rabbis of the Midrash tell about these simanim, these signs that Rachel supposedly gave Leah on the night she was switched, the night of her wedding. Earlier, we were puzzled by what the Sages were trying to say in that story. It didn't seem to fit with what the text of the Torah itself says.
What was the source of the story with the signs, where do the Sages get it from and what do they want us to understand from it?
Now, having seen something of the meaning behind Jeremiah's remarkable words, we're in a position, I think, to unlock the secret of the signs story. How do we understand the Sages story of the signs? That's the final question I want to tackle with you. As we mentioned earlier, the story of the night that Laban switched Rachel for Leah under the wedding canopy 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.
A Deeper Understanding of Rachel and Leah's StoryI 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 or are they just trying to whitewash Rachel? And 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 signs?
I want to suggest to you that the story of the signs 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 this story about the signs.
Yes, as crazy as that sounds, the evidence actually seems to suggest to that's true because if you look at the story of the signs it actually appears in three major places within rabbinic literature. It appears in Tractate Bava Batra, in the Talmud; it appears in Tractate Megillah and it also appears in the introduction to Eichah Rabbah, in the Midrash. The introduction to Eichah Rabbah seems to be the most expansive version of the story, but in Eichah Rabbah 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 used to come up with the story of the signs.
Do you know the verses they're trying to understand that bring them to the story of the signs? It's the verses of Jeremiah that we've been studying. "Kol b'ramah nishma." It's those verses. It's "yeish sachar lifulateich," there's reward 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 "yeish sachar lifulateich," there's reward for what you've done.
Why Did God Reward Rachel's Weeping?The Sages say why? Why should Rachel be rewarded? Then they tell us the story of the signs. Her great kindness to her sister. This kindness that seems to materialize out of thin air like we've 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 wedding canopy 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. That's why Rachel's to be rewarded so many years later, according to the Sages.
So that's the Midrash and it's remarkable. The Midrash starts in 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 Issachar. 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 yeish sachar and its connection to Issachar 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, in the beginning of the Book of Exodus.
The Midrash says all of the names of the various tribes; Reuben, Simon, Levi, Judah, et cetera. They were all named in a way that foreshadows some sort of redemptive occurrence later on in the Torah.
Reuben's name, the beginning of it, comes from the word see and that foreshadows the point where God says "ra'o ra'iti," I've seen the suffering of Israel and I'll redeem them. Simon, his name means to hear and that foreshadows God saying, "vayishma Elokim et na'akatam," and God heard their cries.
The Midrash goes through all the names until it gets to Issachar. What redemptive moment is foretold by his name? "Ki yeish sachar lifulateich," 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 signs instead of the story of Issachar'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 signs, what they were really doing is describing the significance of the birth of Issachar.
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 p'shat. P'shat, p'shuto 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 simple meaning of the text. The words of the text tell you the p'shat. 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 Issachar was conceived. What happened on each of those nights? What happened is 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 Issachar 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 signs to Leah. It heals the wounds of that night. Here's how.
The Significance of Rachel's Story and the MandrakesThe night the wildflowers story took place, Rachel was supposed to be with Jacob, 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 Jacob, but Leah was with him instead. What night was that? It was their wedding night. Rachel is reengineering that night. The first time around Rachel was victimized, but 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. "Lachein 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 given Leah retroactively the permission to be in a relationship with Jacob that should have been Rachel's exclusively.
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 Laban anymore.
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.
That is what the Sages means when they talk about the story of the signs. The Sages are explaining to you how a later act changed an earlier disaster. They're talking to you about the night of the duda'im, these wildflowers, and they're saying that the choices Rachel made that night had the effect of erasing her victimhood of it, on the night she was married.
What would it have looked like to erase her victimhood that night? Laban scheming. Setting up Leah to take over her place. Rachel all alone in her 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's creating those choices in the past. It's as if she gave signs to her sister.
The Lesson From Leah and Rachel's StoryEverything we've talked about 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. 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 "eilai tavo," you're coming to me tonight. What is she saying? "Sachar sicharticha b'duda'im," I've rented you for the night. There was 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, Jacob, on that night you didn't know who I was. I was veiled. You think I think I deceived you because of that you harbored resentment against me for all these years. There was a second reason you resented me. There was a transaction you think I got in the middle of. You'd work for my father, for seven year, for Rachel and unintentionally I was made to get in the way of that transaction and because of that there has been all this resentment that has gotten in the way of you feeling like a companion for me.
You know what? We're going to replay that night. Way back on that original night, you had said to my father, "havai et ishti v'avo eileha," bring 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. Now, I'm going to use those same words; come, be with me. Way back when you first bargained for my sister, Rachel, father had said to you "mah maskorteich," what's your price for her and you had said seven years and now, I say to you "sachor sicharticha," 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 am Leah.
We're replaying the whole thing and this time when there's 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, Jacob, have to banish the ghosts of that terrible night.
That's in fact how it is. No more do we ever hear those words that Leah is a s'nu'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've found a new beginning.
What Rachel's Crying Really AchievedTishah B'Av is the great holiday of Jeremiah. We know that principally because he's the author of Eichah, 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.
Do you know what Jeremiah's 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's going to 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, when things were hardest, most painful for her she reached out and saw the perspective of her sister who she had 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.
A Tisha B'av Lesson Hidden in Rachel's StoryReach 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 Tishah 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, coworkers, 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.