The little girl had been playing raucously, but now tears were streaming down her plump cheeks. She had fallen, scraped her delicate knee, and was bleeding slightly. Her sobs came in heaves, more due to the shock of her fall than the intensity of her pain.
There were several onlookers. Their responses were varied.
“Why was the child playing in such an unsafe setting?” criticized one.
“Who was supervising her?” demanded a second.
“Look at her lovely outfit, all crumpled and dirty now!” commented a third.
“Isn’t that the uniform worn by students of that school—the one that our children don’t go to?” huffed another.
“That explains her loud behavior . . .”
The comments continued, addressing the child’s age, the color of her hair and eyes, the school she attended, the friends she played with, the appropriateness of her clothing and playing location.
And meanwhile the child sobbed.
One woman’s behavior differed. She lifted the child in her arms, consoling her with soothing words and hugging her closely.
This woman did not pay heed to the gossip around her. She overlooked the tears and blood that might stain her own attire. She ignored the voices of criticism, focusing only on comforting the child.
She didn’t care about any of the other issues that were being raised. Those would be dealt with, but not now. Not when the girl was in tears.
For now, her mind was simply on soothing the child. After all, she was the child’s mother. She was holding her own child.
On his deathbed, addressing his much-loved son Joseph, Jacob expresses his desire that his remains be transported to the Holy Land, to be interred alongside his ancestors in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron.
“Do true kindness with me,” says Jacob to his son, “and do not bury me in Egypt. Let me be with my fathers. Carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” He even asks Joseph to take a solemn oath to fulfill this request.
A few verses later, Jacob clarifies to Joseph an event that occurred decades earlier: the burial of Joseph’s young mother, Rachel, who died suddenly while giving birth to her second child, Benjamin.
Jacob recalls that painful moment: “And I, when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road, a short distance away as we came toward Ephrath. I buried her there, alongside the road to Ephrath, near Bethlehem.”
Jacob was a short distance, about two-thirds of a mile, from Ephrath. Yet he did not bring his beloved Rachel there, nor did he carry her to the more distant Hebron, but laid her to rest alongside the road.
Jacob now explains his actions. “This was not during the rainy season, when I could claim that it was because of the mud that I did not bring her to Hebron. The roads were dry and good. Still, I buried her alongside the road to Ephrath.
“Not only did I not bury your mother in our family plot in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron, I did not even bring her as far as Bethlehem, a nearby village.
“Let me explain the reason,” Jacob says to Rachel’s eldest son. “I did it because G‑d commanded it.
“I will reveal to you a mystery regarding the future,” Jacob discloses. “There will come a time when your children will go into exile, driven from their homes by Nebuzaradan, marched in chains to the distant land of Babylonia.
“On the way, they will pass your mother’s grave. Rachel will come out and cry and beg G‑d for mercy. G‑d, in turn, will respond to her, ‘There is reward for your actions . . . Your children will return to their borders.’”
Thus the prophet Jeremiah declaims: “A voice is heard on high, lamentations and bitter crying; Rachel is weeping for her children . . .”
Of all the great leaders of Israel, it was Rachel who waged war against the heavenly accusers, demanding from G‑d that He have mercy on her children. Only she was capable of eliciting G‑d’s compassion.
The Midrash relates: As the Temple lay in ruins and the Jews were being led into exile as slaves, Abraham came before G‑d and said: “Master of the universe, when I was one hundred years old, You gave me a son, and when he was thirty-seven years old you told me, ‘Raise him as a sacrifice before Me.’ I overcame my natural mercy and bound him myself. Will You not remember my devotion and have mercy on my children?”
Next, Isaac approached. “When my father said, ‘G‑d will show us the lamb for a sacrifice, my son,’ I did not hesitate, but accepted my fate and extended my neck to be slaughtered. Will You not remember my strength and have mercy on my children?”
Then Jacob beseeched: “I worked for twenty years in the house of Laban, and when I left, Esau came to harm me. I suffered all my life raising my children. Now they are being led like sheep to the slaughter in the hands of their enemies. Won’t You remember all my pain and suffering, and redeem my children?”
Moses rose up and said: “Was I not a loyal shepherd of Israel for forty years? I ran before them in the desert like a horse. When the time came to enter Israel, You decreed that I would die in the desert. Now they go into exile. Won’t You listen to my crying over them?”
Before all these virtuous defenders, G‑d remained silent.
Then Rachel lifted her voice. “Master of the Universe, You know that Jacob loved me intensely, and worked for seven years in order to marry me. When the time of my marriage came, my father substituted my sister for me. I did not begrudge my sister, and I didn’t let her be shamed; I even revealed to her the secret signs that Jacob and I had arranged.
“If I, a mere mortal, was not prepared to humiliate my sister, and was willing to take a rival into my home, how could You, the eternal, compassionate G‑d, be jealous of idols, which have no true existence, that were brought into Your home? Will You cause my children to be exiled on this account?”
Immediately, G‑d’s mercy was aroused and He responded, “For you, Rachel, I will bring Israel back to their place.”
Jacob revealed the essence of Rachel’s character and self-sacrifice.
More than anyone, Rachel understood the spiritual merit and pleasure of being buried in a place as blessed as the Machpelah Cave—a place so sacred that, on his deathbed, Jacob instructs Joseph to vow to bring his remains up from Egypt to there. Yet Rachel was willing to forgo the immense benefit of being buried there together with Jacob. Instead, Rachel readily accepted a burial in solitude and loneliness, on the side of a deserted road.
During her lifetime, Rachel forfeited her own happiness in order to spare her sister, Leah, embarrassment. She didn’t hesitate, despite the fact that Leah’s marriage to Jacob might have prevented her from ever marrying her intended. Not once did she pause to consider the effect of her actions on her own plight.
After such immeasurable sacrifice in her lifetime, surely, in her death, Rachel was entitled, as Jacob’s primary wife and first love, to be buried next to her rightful husband for all perpetuity.
Surprisingly, though, Rachel relinquishes this privilege in order to be buried alongside a deserted, forlorn road.
She does this for the sake of her children—descendants of Jacob, who would live centuries later.
Were these children special? Did they possess endearing qualities or exceptional merits?
These children were sinners. Sinners who were exiled from the Holy Land due to their reprehensible behavior. Sinners, by the cause of whose wicked deeds the Holy Temple—G‑d’s home and the source of the most intense divine light shining forth for the world—was destroyed.
These were sinners who engaged in the worst possible sins, committing acts of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder.
Was Rachel not aware of the deeds of these far-off descendants? Did she not know to what spiritual lows they would descend?
A woman of Rachel’s stature knew far better than we to what depths of lowliness these children would reach. But when she looked far ahead into the future, Rachel was determined to sacrifice her eternal pleasure so that these children could pass by her gravesite, and she would pray on their behalf.
On no other occasion had Rachel pleaded to G‑d mentioning her own merit of enabling Leah to marry her intended husband. At the lowest point in her life, after years of aching barrenness and keenly feeling that her life was worthless without offspring, we do not find Rachel citing this meritorious act.
But now, as she pleads on behalf of these children—sinners who were dragged out of their homeland due to their iniquity—Rachel begs G‑d to consider her deed.
For centuries, Rachel waited patiently, in utter solitude, on the wayside of a forlorn road, simply so that these pitiful sinners would find encouragement as they passed by her gravesite and as she beseeched G‑d on their behalf.
Why? What compelled Rachel to such sacrifice?
Because to Rachel, these were not simply evil sinners. They were her children.
Children who may have strayed. Children who may have fallen. But, nevertheless, her children, who were worthy of love and compassion.
Rachel is the quintessential Jewish mother, sacrificing for the sake of her children. With her boundless wellspring of mercy and compassion, Rachel saw beyond their iniquities to the innocence of their essence, to the inherent goodness and beauty of their souls.
No matter how low they would fall, they were unconditionally her children and the children of G‑d.
Unlike the destruction of the First Temple, the Second Temple’s destruction was not due to sins of immorality or idolatry, but rather due to the sin of senseless hatred.
Can we, Jewish mothers, spiritual heirs of Rachel, learn from our matriarch’s sacrifice?
Can we look beyond the sins, faults or inadequacies of our fellow Jews, and envision what our matriarch saw—children of G‑d, deserving of His mercy and compassion?
As we search deep within ourselves for that vision, embodied by our quintessential mother, Rachel, we have G‑d’s promise, “Your children will return to their borders.”
Rachel died in childbirth on 11 Cheshvan of the year 2208 from creation (1553 BCE), while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.