Skip to comments.OUR MATRIARCH... BY THE ROADSIDE
Posted on 11/01/2011 5:14:52 PM PDT by SJackson
For millennia, our matriarch Rachel has held a special place in Jewish hearts. Already the prophet Yirmiyahu, who predicted and experienced the fall of the First Temple with the Babylonian conquest of Eress Yisrael, described mother Rachels tears over the banishment of her beloved children from their homeland.The sages of the Midrashteach that after Rachels death, Yaakov, her bereaved husband, foresaw the time when his descendants would be driven to exile, and buried Rachel along the travel route so her soul would pray on their behalf as they passed by. Rachel, as only a mother could, tearfully prays to Gd for the wellbeing of her children, desperately petitioning Him to protect them during their tumultuous exile and to bring them home to the Land of Israel.
According to tradition, Rachel died on 11 Marheshvan (which this year falls on November 8). This tradition is rooted in a comment of the Midrashthat Binyamin, the youngest of Yaakovs sons, was born on this date. The Torahrelates that Rachel died as she delivered Binyamin, and thus 11 Marheshvan, the day of Binyamins birth, is also the day of Rachels passing.It has become an annual custom among many Jews in Israel to visit Rachels gravesite on this day and pray in memory of her soul.
Kever Rachel, the site traditionally identified as our matriarchs burial place, is located in the predominantly Arab city of Bet Lehem (Bethlehem), a mere three-minute drive from the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. And the history of this revered site is both fascinating and enlightening, from references to the burial site in Tanach, through the writings of our sages and to the modern-day upheavals that have directly impacted upon this vital part of our national spiritual heritage.
A Roadside Burial
The Torah relates that Rachel died a kivrat eress (a certain measure of distance) from a place called Efrat, and that Yaakov buried Rachel along the route to Efrat; that is Bethlehem. Meaning, she was buried along the road to Efrat, which is another name for Bethlehem. To get a sense of where precisely this is, we must recall that this incident occurred as Yaakov and his family traveled southward from Bet-El (which lies north of Jerusalem) to Hebron. The ancient north-south road used for this route passes along the peak of a mountain ridge, through Jerusalem and Bethlehem, southward through what is today Gush Etzion and then to Hebron.(The road then continues southward to Beersheba.)
According to the straightforward implication of the Torahs description, Rachel was buried along this road, on the way to Bethlehem, just a kivrat eress from the city. Modern-day Kever Rachel is indeed situated along this route, in what is today the northern edge of Bethlehem, slightly to the north of the ancient city. The earliest references to the site of modern-day Kever Rachel south of Jerusalem and just north of ancient Bethlehem, on the right side of the road when traveling southbound appear in Christian sources. The site is mentioned in the Christian gospels written in the first century C.E., and in the writings of the early Christian historians Eusebius and Jerome (late 3rd-early 4thcentury C.E.). Additionally, the site of Kever Rachel is marked on the 6thcentury Madaba Map, the oldest surviving original cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. This floor mosaic, discovered in an early Byzantine era church in Jordan in 1884, places Kever Rachel in the same location, south of Jerusalem.
The great Spanish sage Ramban (Rabbi Moshe Nahmanides, 1194-1270), in his Torah commentary, writes that when he arrived in Eress Yisrael he saw the site marked as Rachels tomb just north of Bethlehem, and this led him to reject his previously-held view that Rachel was buried much further north. He was apparently convinced that the common identification of this site as Rachels tomb was rooted in authentic Jewish sources, and this is the tradition he accepted.
A Puzzling Prophecy
The sages in the Toseftanote a seeming contradiction between the description of Rachels burial in the Book of Beresheet and a verse later in Tanach, in the Book of Shemuel I.After the prophet Shemuel named Shaul as the first king over Israel, he sent him home and told him of several incidents that he would experience along his journey. In predicting the first of these experiences, the prophet mentions Rachels gravesite: When you take leave of me, you will encounter two men near Rachels grave at the Binyaminite border, in Tzeltzah Shemuel speaks of Rachels grave as situated at the Binyaminite border, and not in the Judean city of Bethlehem. Whats more, the prophet tells his visitor Shaul that he would pass by Rachels tomb on his way home. Shemuels home was in Rama, which is in what is today Samaria, and Shaul lived in the Binyamin region, which lies in the area just north of Jerusalem, south of Samaria. There is no conceivable reason why Shaul would reach Bethlehem as he traveled from Rama to his home in Binyamin.
Indeed, Rabbi Meir, representing the minority view among the sages, claimed that Rachel was buried in the Binyamin region.In his view, Rachels tomb is situated north of Jerusalem, as implied by the verse in Shemuel, and not in the Judean city of Bethlehem, as is widely assumed.
The Tosefta, however, reconciles Shemuels prophecy with the commonly accepted view that Rachel was buried in the city of Bethlehem south of Jerusalem. When Shemuel predicted that Shaul would meet two men near Rachels grave at the Binyaminite border, he meant that he would encounter at the Binyaminite border two men who at that momentwere visiting Kever Rachel. Through his prophetic vision, Shemuel saw these two unnamed men praying at Rachels burial site, and predicted that they would be traveling northward and meet Shaul at the Binyaminite border. This also explains the apparently redundant description of the location site, which is seemingly described by Shemuel three different ways in the verse. On the Way to Exile
Another question arises concerning the aforementioned Midrashic tradition with respect to Rachels prayer at the time of the Jewish peoples exile. After their capture of Jerusalem, the Babylonian marauders led the Jews from their capital city to Babylonia, which is east of Eress Yisrael, in modern-day Iraq. There would be no reason to travel south from Jerusalem to reach Babylonia. And, in fact, from the story of the Babylonian conquest told in the Book of Yirmiyahu, it clearly emerges that the Babylonians led the Jewish exiles northward, stopping at a way station in the city of Rama. Why would the Jews pass by Kever Rachel south of Jerusalem on their way to Babylonia?
One possible solutionrelates to the tragic story of Gedalya, which we commemorated last month by observing the Fast of Gedalya immediately following Rosh Hashanah. The Babylonian emperor left a small population of Jewish farmers in Eress Yisrael, and appointed a man named Gedalya as their governor. Shortly after Gedalyas appointment, a Jew named Yishmael, hired by the king of neighboring Amon, assassinated the governor, a clear and intended affront to the Babylonian regime. The Jews in Eress Yisrael naturally feared the repercussions of the assassination. The prophet Yirmiyahu conveyed to them Gds command to remain in Eress Yisrael, and His guarantee of their safety, but they tragically disobeyed the prophecy and left for Egypt. This marked the final end of the First Commonwealth, and for this reason we observe the day of Gedalyas assassination as a day of fasting, mourning and introspection.
We read in the Book of Yirmiyahuthat as the Jews headed toward Egypt in the aftermath of Gedalyas assassination, they made a stop near Bethlehem, where they consulted with the prophet for guidance (though in the end they ignored his instructions, as mentioned). Quite possibly, it was at this point that they passed the grave of their matriarch, who, seeing the last remnants of her children leaving their homeland, erupted in tearful prayer before the Heavenly Throne. Rachels tears were shed not as the Babylonian conquerors led the Jews from Jerusalem to Babylonia, but rather several months later, when the remaining Jewish population headed southward toward Egypt, passing by the gravesite of Rachel Imenu. This journey marked the end of organized Jewish life in Eress Yisrael, and this tragedy prompted our matriarch to cry before Gd on behalf of her children.
Kever Rachel in Modern Times
Over the centuries, as Jews began returning to Eress Yisrael, Kever Rachel became an important site of prayer. An Italian Jew named Meshulam da Volterra documented his experiences during a trip to the Holy Land in 1488, and described how Jews from Jerusalem would pray at the site of Kever Rachel. The Jews of Jerusalem were granted permission to enclose the site in the early 17thcentury, and the book Darche Sion, which describes Jewish life in Jerusalem at that time, tells that special prayers and celebrations were customarily held at Kever Rachel by large crowds of Jews during Hol Hamoed Succot and on Lag Baomer.
With the large waves of Jewish immigration to Eress Yisraelin the 19thcentury, Kever Rachel received greater attention, becoming, along with the Western Wall in nearby Jerusalem, one of the most important holy sites. Legendary Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) visited the tomb with his wife and prayed there in 1839, and would later sponsor the expansion of the building to accommodate the growing numbers of frequenters to the holy site.
Jewish prayer at Kever Rachel came to a screeching halt with the United Nations partition plan in 1947, which assigned Judea and Samaria which includes Bethlehem to the Arabs. On April 3, 1949, following Israels War of Independence, the fledgling Jewish State signed an armistice agreement with Jordan, the nation that occupied the West Bank, which explicitly guaranteed Israelis safe travel along the Bethlehem highway and access to holy sites.Jordan, however, failed to honor this agreement, and throughout the 19 years it controlled the West Bank, it barred Jews from visiting Kever Rachel.
During this period, the Jordanians developed the area around the tomb, constructing homes and expanding the road, until eventually the area of Kever Rachel became the northern section of Bethlehem. And thus, the serene, pastoral setting of Rachels gravesite gave way to the commotion of a bustling Arab city.
Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan during its stunning victory in the Six Day War of 1967, seizing the city of Bethlehem on the second day of the war, on June 7. Throngs of Jews began flocking to the holy site, and it was reported that 45,000 visitors visited Kever Rachel on one day during Hol Hamoed Succot in 1967.
During the ensuing decades, numerous Jewish communities were built in Judea, and the road from Jerusalem to these towns passed directly in front of Kever Rachel. Meanwhile, the city of Jerusalem underwent a major building boom, and the southward expansion brought Kever Rachel within just a kilometer or so from the citys southern neighborhoods. All this combined to make Kever Rachel a major site of prayer. The Rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces renovated the site and turned it into a synagogue, where scores of visitors would regularly come and pray.
An MKs Tears for Mama Rochel
On September 28, 1995, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed the Oslo 2 accords, granting Palestinians full control over all major Palestinian cities, including Bethlehem. A bypass road was constructed so that Jewish motorists traveling south of Jerusalem would avoid the Palestinian-controlled territory.
The agreement cast a dark shadow over the future of Kever Rachel as a place of Jewish prayer, and sparked public outrage over the prospect of handing our matriarchs tomb to the control of the Palestinians, effectively denying Jews access to the sacred site. The effort to lobby against the move was led by two religious MKs (members of Knesset) Rabbi Menachem Porush (1916-2010) of United Torah Judaism, and Rabbi Chanan Porat a.h. (1943-2011) of the National Religious Party. It was reported that Rabbi Porat was unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Rabin to keep Kever Rachel under Jewish control, and it appeared that the Prime Ministers decision was final. But Rabbi Porush then secured a meeting with Rabin, at which he grabbed the Prime Minister by the shirt and, with tears pouring down his face, cried, Mama Rochel! Mama Rochel! Rabbi Porushs outburst of genuine emotion moved the Prime Minister, and led him to add a provision to the accords leaving Kever Rachel under the control of the Israel Defense Forces.
The city of Bethlehem was transferred to Palestinian control on December 21, 1995, the fourth day of Hanukah. Shortly thereafter, the IDF began working to fortify the site to protect it against possible terror attacks. Jewish worship at Kever Rachel unfortunately came to a near halt once again in September, 2000, with the outbreak of the deadly Second Intifada. IDF soldiers guarding the shrine came under frequent gunfire and stone attacks from local Palestinians, and tragically, two soldiers lost their lives defending the holy site. The Israeli army had no choice but to severely restrict access to Kever Rachel, and for several years, Jews were able to visit the site only in armored vehicles in coordination with the IDF. In light of the difficult and life-threatening circumstances, very few Jews visited the tomb during these years.
In response to Palestinian violence, Israel began constructing a controversial security fence to prevent the infiltration of terrorists. Near Bethlehem, the construction of the fence also involved a major project to fortify the area around Kever Rachel, which included a new stretch of road from the southern border of Jerusalem to the site, with tall stone barricades protecting motorists, and a fortress around Kever Rachel itself. In 2008, the Israeli army announced that Kever Rachel could be safely accessed by ordinary vehicles, and today, large crowds of Jews can be seen praying at the sacred site at virtually all hours of the day. They come either by public transportation, taxi, or private vehicles, taking advantage of the sites close proximity to Jerusalem (approximately 15 minutes from downtown), the new, secure road, and the spacious parking lot available for all visitors.
Our Mother Still Weeps
As the prophet Yirmiyahu describes, Gd responded to Rachels weeping by instructing her not to cry: Retrain your voice from crying and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your efforts and they shall return from the enemys land.
But our matriarch is not necessarily bound by this command. Rabbi Porush, in an interview with the Israeli Arutz Sheva website, recalled a visit he made to Kever Rachel with the great sage Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz z.s.l. of the Mir Yeshiva (1901-1978). Upon arriving at the site, Rabbi Shmuelevitz broke out in tears, and cried, Mama Rochel! Gd says, Restrain your voice from crying but I am telling you to keep on crying! Indeed, in light of the many challenges facing the Jewish people, it is hard to imagine that our devoted mother has stopped crying. Now more than ever, her soul is undoubtedly standing before the Almighty and tearfully petitioning on behalf of her beleaguered children, begging for His compassion and for the final redemption of the Jewish nation.
Yirmiyahu 31:14. Cited by Rashi to Beresheet 48:7. Yalkut Shimoni, beginning of Parashat Shemot. Beresheet 35:16-19. From Rashis comments to Beresheet 48:7, however, it appears that Rachel died during the summer, and according to Beresheet Rabba 82:7, this occurred during the springtime. Regardless, the widely accepted tradition is that Rachel passed away on 11 Marheshvan, as indicated by the Yalkut Shimoni. Rashi. This route roughly parallels the modern-day Route 60, which runs north-south through Judea and Samaria. Beresheet 35:16. Sota, chapter 11. 10:2. Sifrei, Devarim 352. 40:1. This theory was proposed by Rabbi Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion, at www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/9-parsha/14vayechi.rtf. 41:17. The Hebrew text of the armistice agreement is available online at the official Knesset website http://www.knesset.gov.il/process/docs/armistice_jordan.htm. Yirmiyahu 31:15. http://www.inn.co.il/Special/Content/Tours.aspx/v/157.
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Needless to say UNESCO will soon declare Rachel's Tomb a muslim site, Jews never have been in the region.
(Book of Isaiah)
For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.
But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create; for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.
And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people; and the voice of weeping shall be no more heard in her, nor the voice of crying.
This might interest you. I read it and still have tears.
SJackson, thank you very much for posting this. One day in Jerusalem. It won’t be next year. But it WILL be.
I have been there. It is Jewish.
I remember an old Czech story (?) about mother Rachel weeping and praying for her children.
ping for later careful read