VAYECHI (Genesis, 47:28-50:26) — “Mama’s Tears”

I studied for several years in Israel.  Shortly before our first child was born, almost 26 years ago, we left Israel and returned to the U.S.  For twenty years, Israel was a memory from my past, and a some-day hope for my future.  Finally, about five years ago, when my daughter was studying there, I had cause to go back for a short visit.

It was a stroll down memory lane.  I visited my old Yeshiva, and saw some of my old teachers.  (One teacher, sitting in his old seat that I remembered from two decades previously, eyed me curiously.  I could see that he knew that I looked familiar, but that he couldn’t place the face.  “Sholom Aleichem, Rebbe.  I’m Yerachmiel Seplowitz.”  His face brightened.  “Oh, you look the same – just a little older.”  “Yes,” I said to my beloved teacher, whose beard had gone from black to white.  “So does the Rebbe!” [I always addressed him in third person.])

Jerusalem was very much the same, yet very different.  I looked up some of my old friends and went to some of Jerusalem’s holy sites.  I also went to a few cemeteries.

Judaism does not, of course, believe in worshiping the dead, G-d forbid.  Rather, we go to the graves of the righteous and pray to G-d, with the hope that the merits of those pious people will cause G-d to respond favorably to our prayers.  Also, we request that the righteous people whose souls live on in Heaven will intercede with G-d on our behalf.

I brought along our “Mi Sheberach” list, a list of sick people for whom we pray in my synagogue every Shabbos.  Why not pray for them in some of these holy places?

One of my stops was Rachel’s Tomb, in Bethlehem.  Rachel’s Tomb is one of those places in Israel that HAVE changed since my last visit.  That famous little building, with its little domed roof has served as a model for illustrations of all sorts of Judaica for well over a century.  Today, it looks different.  Due, in part, to the murderous intentions of many of our Arab cousins in Bethlehem, Rachel’s Tomb is a security risk.  Busses that go there have bullet-proof windows and armed guards.  The entire building is now inside a larger building.

My daughter and I got off the bus and approached the building.  I was aware of the new architecture, so I wasn’t surprised by the Tomb’s new appearance.  However, I wasn’t prepared for what met me inside.

I walked into the smaller, famous building.  There I saw the large monument, with a large velvet cover draped over it.  People all over the room were praying, the men on one side and the women on the other.  I took leave of my daughter and joined the men.  I reached into my pocket and took out my list of names.  I reached into another pocket and took out a Book of Psalms.  And then it happened.

The floodgates opened up.  My eyes filled with tears and I started crying uncontrollably.  I couldn’t stop.  I was standing at the grave of Mother Rachel and I couldn’t stop crying.

Now, I am not what you would call a particularly emotional person.  What was it that caused me to react in that way?  There was nothing in my particular prayers that would normally have led me to cry.  So what was it?

It was Rachel.

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Jacob spent the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt.  He did not want to spend his “afterlife” in Egypt. His dying day was approaching, and he wanted to make sure that his sons would do the right thing.  He made Joseph promise to return Jacob’s body to the land of Canaan for burial.  He wanted to be buried in the Cave of Machpela, along with Adam & Eve, Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebecca, and Jacob’s own first wife, Leah.

However, there was a concern.  Where was Joseph’s mother, Rachel? Why wasn’t there a place for her in the family plot?  Why had Jacob buried her by the side of the road right where she died, giving birth to Benjamin?  Why didn’t Joseph’s father give Joseph’s mother a decent burial?  And now, Jacob expects Joseph to go to the trouble of transporting his father all the way back to Canaan?!!

Jacob suspected that Joseph was plagued by these questions.  Therefore, he felt that his son was entitled to an explanation:

“But, as for me, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, where there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrat; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrat which is Bethlehem.”  (Genesis, 48:7)

Our Sages explain that there was a specific reason why Jacob left Rachel right there, by the roadside.  A protective mother never goes to where she can’t keep a watchful eye open for her children.  Jacob left Rachel in that spot because he knew prophetically that that is where she needed to be.

Centuries later, after the destruction of the First Temple, the Babylonians led our people away into captivity.  The souls of Moses, Abraham, and others pleaded with G-d, but to no avail.  As the Babylonians led their captives past the Tomb of Mother Rachel, she cried to G-d for mercy:

A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone.  G-d says, “Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears… they will return from the enemy’s land… there is hope for your future… your children will return to their border.” (Jeremiah, 31:14-16)

The Talmud (Berachos 32b) tells us that at the time of the Destruction of the Temple all the gates to Heaven were sealed, with one exception.  The Gates of Tears always remain open.  Rachel’s tears opened those gates.  There are no tears more potent than those of a mother.

For as long as our People have had access to Rachel’s Tomb, it has been a place that Jews go to pour out their hearts to G-d, with Mother Rachel joining in with her tears.  It is told that when Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz used to pray at Rachel’s Tomb, he had a special request for our Matriarch.  He understood that G-d responds to Rachel’s tears.  He wanted to make sure that Rachel’s tears, a key to G-d’s compassion, would continue to flow.

“Mama Rochel,” he would say in Yiddish.  “G-d says, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears.’  But your son Chaim says, ‘Cry for us, Mama Rochel!  Keep crying to G-d for us!”

And so, Mama Rochel continues to cry for us.  She cried to G-d as her children were led to Babylonia.  She cried for us when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, not far from her tomb.  She cried when her children went up the smokestacks of Auschwitz.  And she cries when our enemies, living all around her sacred tomb, plot their unholy plans to blow her children to pieces on busses and in Pizza shops.  Mama Rochel cries, and G-d will listen.  He promised he would. “… There is hope for your future… your children will return to their border.”

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Can you now understand my tears as I prayed at Rachel’s Tomb?  I couldn’t help it.  Mama Rochel was crying; we cried together.

It was time to go.  I must confess that I felt a bit self-conscious.  I dried my eyes and composed myself.  I left the men’s section and went out to rejoin my daughter.

She looked at me and handed me a tissue.  She understood.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

P.S. After I wrote the above article, I found this one: “Tears at Rachel’s Tomb” I could certainly relate.

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From the Archives

 

“A Grandfather’s Blessing” (2009)

 

G-d has sent a bundle of blessing to our family.  My daughter, Chaya Miriam Goldenberg, just gave birth to a little boy.  We have now been blessed with two grandsons, בלי עין הרע…

Read more.

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“Any Maccabees Around Here?” or, “Father Knows Best” (2008) 

We recently completed our celebration of Chanukah. The heroes of the Chanukah story are the Maccabees.  Have you ever met a Maccabee? Actually, a more accurate question is, have you ever met a Hasmonean? … 

The Hasmoneans were a family of Kohanim – Priests who overthrew the Syrian Greeks who had defiled the Temple and tried to destroy Torah Judaism.  Nachmanides writes that the Hasmoneans were “pious and lofty men, without whom the Torah and Commandments would have been forgotten from Israel.” (Nachmanides’ Commentary to Genesis 49:10) 

No, you have never met a Hasmonean.  And you never will.  The family is extinct… 

Read more.

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“Forgotten but Not Forgiven?”  (2006) 

Someone I know was attending Services in a crowded synagogue in Jerusalem.  While taking the required three steps back at the end of the prayer, a fellow accidentally stepped on his toes. 

Slichah!,” (literally, “forgiveness,” in other words “I’m sorry”), said the toe-stepper. 

Since it was during a part of the Service when it is preferred not to speak, the fellow simply nodded in a way that indicated, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” 

Well, it WASN’T okay, and he DID worry about it. “Tagid ‘Salachti!’” (“Say, ‘I forgive you!’”) 

Only after the “aggrieved party” officially forgave the toe-stepper did he relent.  “Salachti,” he said, and the incident was over… 

… all’s well that ends well, right?  Everyone recognizes that the sale of Joseph was part of G-d’s divine plan to provide for the People of Israel during the famine.  Yes, they did something wrong, but it was G-d’s will, and Joseph wasn’t angry.  Everything’s okay, right? 

Well, not exactly.  There is one thing missing.  As the rabbi in Jerusalem told my friend, “Tagid ‘Salachti!’”  — “Say, ‘I forgive you!’”…

Read more.

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“Mama’s Tears” (2005) 

… For twenty years, Israel was a memory from my past, and a some-day hope for my future.  Finally, about five years ago, when my daughter was studying there, I had cause to go back for a short visit… One of my stops was Rachel’s Tomb, in Bethlehem… I wasn’t prepared for what met me inside…                   

Now, I am not what you would call a particularly emotional person.  What was it that caused me to react in that way?  There was nothing in my particular prayers that would normally have led me to cry.  So what was it? 

It was Rachel… 

Read more .

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“Payback Time” (2004) 

Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. 

… Joseph had been very patient.  His brothers, who had sold him as a slave nearly four decades ago, were now under his control…  in the presence of their father Jacob, Joseph had treated his brothers well.  But now, Jacob was dead.  It was payback time.  

Joseph’s brothers … had reason to be concerned.  Joseph just wasn’t acting the same….  Clearly, Joseph was not happy with his brothers.  What could he be planning?  Had he taken his cue from their Uncle Esau, who had designated the anticipated demise of his father as an opportune moment to kill his brother? 

The brothers felt that they had to do some damage control… 

Read more.

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“Put on a Happy  🙂 Face!” (2003) 

… The days of Jacob’s life were 147 years.  The time drew near for Israel to die… (Genesis, 47:27-28) 

 …Jacob … lived a shorter life than his father did.  Isaac lived until the age of 180, while his son Jacob only reached 147… the Pharaoh was taken aback by Jacob’s appearance.  While the early chapters of the Torah describe people living for several centuries, this phenomenon was no longer common at that time.  The king had never seen anyone who looked so old!  Jacob explained that he wasn’t as old as he looked… 

Read more.

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“When Angels Came Early To Monsey” (2002) 

… As I sang “Shalom Aleichem,” I looked across the room at Miriam. She was mouthing the words as I sang … I felt like crying. Could it be, I wondered, that the angels came early today?!… 

Read more.

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“Promises, Promises” (2001) 

… Jacob had lived a long life, and it was time to pre-arrange his funeral. The Egyptians held Jacob in high esteem, and the last thing he wanted was to end up under a pyramid…

Read more.

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“Kindness and Truth” (2000) 

… If I visit you when you are not feeling well or help you jump start your car when the battery dies, I know that there is a possibility that when the tables are turned, you will be there for me. This does not apply in the case of the dead. If you put yourself out to attend someone’s funeral, you can be sure that he won’t come to yours!… 

Read more.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2012 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 11, 2006 at 7:53 am  Leave a Comment  

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