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A Jewish Mother
The Jewish Woman. Modest, yet proud. Unassuming, yet confident.
Our paradigm: Mama Rachel, the quintessential mother. Mama Rachel, the mother of all Jews. Her life was one of hardship, yet she rose above it all. A true Jewish woman. Mama Rachel, the mother of us all.
Young Rachel was raised by men of deceit. Her father Laban learned his deceitful tricks from his father. He carried them out with professional ease, cheating and fooling whoever came his way. Rachel’s mother passed away when she was but a small child. Somehow, Rachel managed to grow into a refined and charming woman.
Rachel was so special that from the start Jacob knew that she was his destined. Their first encounter was at the well, where Rachel was attending her father’s flock. But her beauty and dignity were unmistakable.
It didn’t take long for the decision to marry. The only obstacle: Laban, Rachel’s devious father. The young couple feared, not illogically, that at the last possible moment, Laban would insist on Leah as the bride, arguing that “it would bring lasting shame to our family to marry off Rachel before her older sister Leah. Here, we don’t marry the younger before the older.” So Jacob and Rachel devised a secret code between them. At the wedding, when Jacob would approach his veiled bride, she would give over the signs, thereby ensuring that she was indeed the right sister.
The wedding finally arrived. True to form, Laban couldn’t let things go as planned. He made all the elaborate preparations for the wedding -- with Leah as the bride. Rachel learned of the change of plans. Her concern was not for herself. She tossed aside all her hopes and dreams, her plans for her marriage, her commitment to her betrothed. “What will be of my sister?” she thought, “Jacob will approach Leah, ask for the secret signs -- and Leah won’t know what he’s referring to! Yes, I’ll be saved; Leah won’t be married to my groom. But the shame! The disgrace that Leah will feel! The embarrassment in front of the entire town!”
In a selfless act of love, Rachel taught her sister the private signals that she and her betrothed had arranged, finalizing the destiny. Jacob, of course, eventually discovered the deception. And some time after the wedding, an identical one occurred, only this time Rachel was the bride. Yet for the rest of her life, Rachel would not be her husband’s only wife.
As great as this act of sacrifice was, Rachel would perform yet a greater one. Years later, Rachel gave birth to her second son. It was a difficult childbirth, one that Rachel sacrificed her life for.
Our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, and even Eve, were buried in a hallowed cave in the hills of Hebron -- the Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat Hamachpela). Buried alongside them were their husbands Abraham, Isaac, and Adam. Eventually, Jacob and Leah would also be laid to rest in this holy spot. Rachel would have loved to lay beside Jacob in this holiest of spots for all of eternity. As Jacob’s primary, and most beloved wife, it was within her rights to be buried beside her husband in place of Leah.
Yet Rachel, the ultimate Jewish mother, gave up this privilege for the future of her children.
Rachel, a righteous and holy woman, had the ability to foresee events in the future. She saw before her eyes a vision of her children, the Jewish people, some 1,200 years hence. At that time, the Jewish people would be living in the holy land, Israel. Alas, she saw, they would sin. And sin. And sin repeatedly, compelling G-d to punish them. G-d would destroy the magnificent temple, and banish his people into exile.
Rachel envisioned the route her children would take. In her mind’s eye, she saw hundreds of thousands of Jews, shackled and broken in spirit, being led by the Babylonian general Nevuzaradan back to his homeland. There he’d be able to show off the success of his battles. This sad procession, Rachel saw, would lead the weary Jews directly past the road where she lay now, on her final moments on earth. “If I am buried here,” she thought, “my children will be able to stop at my grave and pray to the One Above. Maybe, in my merit, He will answer their heartfelt prayers.”
And so, for the sake of her sinning great-great grandchildren, many years in the future, Jews who would sin so greatly that they would need to be exiled, Rachel asked not to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah, with her husband and illustrious ancestors. No! She would give all that up, and stay here alone, where she’d be able to help her children.
Her husband Jacob heeded her request. Rachel was buried at the side of the road, and a monument was set up, marking the spot for posterity.
G-d saw Rachel’s selfless sacrifice. Epitomizing the quality found in all women, she focused only on her children. Standing in the background, she let others get the honor and the credit, while doing what was required. G-d watched proudly, and took note.
Years later, Rachel’s prophecy came to pass. The Jewish people, indeed, unfortunately succumbed to their evil inclinations. They worshipped idols and ignored the pleas of the prophets. G-d, indeed, sent the Babylonians to destroy the temple and bring the Jews back with them to Babylonia. And just as she had foreseen, the broken, desperate Jews crowded around Rachel’s grave and cried their hearts out.
In heaven, a huge tumult ensued, as our holy ancestors pleaded before G-d to save the Jewish people. Yet G-d remained silent, and turned a deaf ear to their pleas. Suddenly, amidst all the noise, a wail pierced through the heavens. Mama Rachel, hearing her children’s cries, began weeping bitterly for her children. She was inconsolable. Her children were in pain! Yes, they had sinned. Yes, they even deserved what was coming to them. But they were her children. Rachel, the epitome of a Jewish mother, could not relax until her children were helped.
And G-d, who ignored the requests of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob -- G-d, who didn’t listen to Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah -- when he heard Rachel’s pleas, could no long remain hard-hearted. “Enough!” he lovingly ordered Mama Rachel, “Dry your tears. You requested not to be buried in Hebron, where you’d be able to lay in peace and holiness for all times. Since you relinquished your rightful place in the Cave of Machpelah in order to help your children, I, too, will relinquish My honor and help them too. Your children will not remain exiled forever. They will, eventually, return to their land.” With these words, G-d altered His holy plan, rescinding his initial decree. And stillness reigned in heaven once again. Mama Rachel, our ever-loving mother, could now relax. Her children were being looked after.
Mama Rachel. She gave birth to only two of the twelve tribes, yet in our eyes, she is the mother of all the Jewish people. Mama Rachel, our loving mother, still lays buried near Bethlehem. Today, her grave is included in the city proper, yet it is still far from the grave of her husband. And today, Jews come daily to pour out their hearts to our dedicated mother. Because Mama Rachel is listening, and always pleading before G-d on our behalf.
This feature -- to do what is necessary for the sake of one’s children -- this is the mark of a Jewish mother. She may stand on the sidelines, yet she remains the true hero. She has no need for public displays of honor. It is for this reason that a mother passes down the Jewish heritage. If a Jewish man marries a non-Jew woman, his children will not be Jewish. But if the opposite occurs -- if a person has a Jewish mother, no matter the lineage of his father -- he is Jewish. Because a mother gives life to a child, to his essence, and the title “Jew” is a description of essence.
May Mama Rachel continue to cry for us, to plead our case before the Holy One in heaven, and may we be redeemed once more, this time for all eternity, so that we can unite with our mother Rachel forever.
How the Light Gets In
Why Jacob? That is the question we find ourselves asking repeatedly as we read the narratives of Genesis. Jacob is not what Noah was: righteous, perfect in his generations, one who walked with G‑d. He did not, like Abraham, leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house in response to a divine call. He did not, like Isaac, offer himself up as a sacrifice. Nor did he have the burning sense of justice and willingness to intervene that we see in the vignettes of Moses’ early life. Yet we are defined for all time as the descendants of Jacob, the children of Israel. Hence the force of the question: Why Jacob?
The answer, it seems to me, is intimated in the beginning of this week’s Parshah. Jacob was in the middle of a journey from one danger to another. He had left home because Esau had vowed to kill him when Isaac died. He was about to enter the household of his uncle Laban, which would itself present other dangers. Far from home, alone, he was at a point of maximum vulnerability. The sun set. Night fell. Jacob lay down to sleep, and then saw this majestic vision:
The True Heir
When Jacob outsmarted Esau and received his father Isaac's blessings, Esau was outraged. "He cried out a great and bitter cry, and he said to his father, 'Bless me too, O my father!'… And Esau raised his voice and wept." Esau had been anticipating these blessings for many years, and for decades long Esau had feigned religious observance because he wanted his father to believe that he was worthy of these blessings. He was utterly devastated when he realized that he, the on-the-ball, worldly hunter, had been outwitted by his religious "goody-goody" brother.
It is remarkable that this person who was a murderer, rapist and glutton was so eager to receive the blessing of a tzaddik (righteous person). Esau wasn't out for a large inheritance; after all, Isaac was an elderly, blind person who had nothing to offer other than his blessings. Rather, as someone who was raised in the households of Abraham and Isaac, he was well aware of the value of a tzaddik's blessing. Esau was a Jew who was born to a Jewish mother, and therefore possessed a Jewish soul which imbued him with a strong belief in G-d and the super-natural. His "Jewish heart," however, did not manifest itself in his immoral lifestyle, which was contrary to all he had learned in his father's home. He knew what was right, but was unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to live an ethical, spiritual life.
The Divine plan determined that Jacob, not Esau, receive the blessings. For Jacob was a Jew not only at heart, but in practice as well. With faith alone we cannot accomplish the mission of revealing G-dliness in this world, and transforming ourselves and the world around us into a Divine abode. Only through actually practicing Torah and mitzvot can this goal be achieved.
In microcosm, many can relate to Esau's dilemma. Most people know what is proper, but oftentimes lack the strength and willpower to implement that which is proper into their daily lives. We must always remember that only the practice of Torah and mitzvot makes us a worthy receptacle for Divine blessings. Faith isn't a product of our labor; it naturally exists within every Jew due to our G-dly soul which was instilled within us. Blessings must be earned. Only the hard work of applying the faith in everyday life makes a person worthy of all of G-d's blessings.