At the Grave of a Mother

I was standing in Bethlehem at the grave of the matriarch Rachel, our nation’s mother. I was praying for myself, my family and our nation. I poured my heart out on this still sunny morning to a mother I had never met. Swept up in the inspiration of the moment, I visualized my mother looking at me and listening to me.

My son, who was barely two years old, was resting comfortably in his stroller beside me, when something stirred him out of sleep and he let out a long wail, “MOMMY!” I nearly jumped out of my skin as his cry penetrated my thoughts—and expressed them too. That was precisely what I had been thinking, Mommy, Mommy, your child has come to see you. Look out for me, listen to my prayers and intercede on my behalf before G‑d.

My son settled peacefully back to sleep, but my equilibrium was not so easily restored. All day, I couldn’t shake the haunting image of a child, shaken from sleep, startled out of complacency, crying instinctively for his mother.

And I kept thinking about our mother’s presence in Bethlehem, and how it demonstrates her absolute love and devotion.

On the Side of the Road

When Jacob was elderly and ill, he asked his son Joseph to bury him in Hebron in their ancestral plot. Jacob told Joseph that he was aware he was asking Joseph to do what he did not do for Joseph’s mother, Rachel. When she passed away in Bethlehem, Jacob buried her along the side of the road rather than bringing her to Hebron, and here Jacob was asking Joseph to transport him from Egypt to Israel.

Jacob did not explain why he buried Rachel in Bethlehem, but the question asks itself. Since the burial plot housing Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, had space for only two more, why did Jacob not choose to be buried beside Rachel, his first and true love? Why did he choose Bethlehem?

A People in Chains

Jacob never answered that question, but our sages taught us something that sheds light on it.1 When the Babylonian army conquered Israel and destroyed the Temple, they transported many of the Jewish survivors to Babylon in chains. As they trudged along the road near Bethlehem, they stopped at Rachel’s grave and prayed.

At that time, Rachel’s soul appeared before the heavenly throne to pray for her children, but she found herself last in line. Ahead of her were Abraham, Isaac, Moses and her own husband, Jacob. Each begged G‑d to forgive the Jewish people, and G‑d turned them all down. If only you knew how grievous their sins were, G‑d told them, you would not ask me to forgive them.

Then it was Rachel’s turn. Dear G‑d, she began. On my wedding night, I watched my father dress my sister in my wedding gown and hide her face behind my veil. I knew that my beloved Jacob would discover the ruse because he had anticipated it and arranged a secret code with me that only he and I knew. Jacob was my true and only love, as I was his. I knew that if he were deceived, he and I would suffer for the rest of our lives.

Yet, I could not allow my sister to be humiliated in public when the ruse would be found out. To protect my sister’s dignity, I betrayed my beloved’s confidence and shared the code with her. I stood by in agony as my sister married my beloved.2 The next morning, when Jacob discovered the ruse, it was too late. The deed had been done.

Although Jacob married me a week later, I spent the rest of my life playing second fiddle to my sister, who was always jealous of my special bond with Jacob. Yet I accepted my lot because it was the right thing to do. If I could give up my love for the sake of my sister, can’t you set aside your anger for the sake of your children?

To which G‑d replied, Rachel, I have heard your cry, you may dry your tears. I will forgive your children, and they shall return to their land.

Indeed, 70 years later, Jews returned to Israel and rebuilt the Holy Temple.

A Mother’s Vision

This tale provides insight into why Jacob buried Rachel in Bethlehem. If Jacob buried her there, it would have been with her consent. And if it was with her consent, it could only have been because she foresaw that her children would pass through this location in chains and would need a place to find solace.3 They would need a mother on whose shoulders to cry. They would need a matriarch who could secure a promise of redemption from G‑d.

Consider what this mother gave up so that she could become the one to intercede on behalf of her children. She had lost her husband in life. She was secondary to her sister her entire life. Now, she would give up her chance to be buried beside her husband in the afterlife. She would once again surrender her coveted spot to her sister, who would be buried beside Jacob in Hebron.

Rachel, lonely in life and in the afterlife, is utterly selfless and wholly devoted. In life, she set herself aside for her sister. In the afterlife, she set her interests aside for her children.

That is a true mother. That is why G‑d pays attention to her entreaties, and why I was so moved when my son awakened from sleep at the foot of Rachel’s grave, giving voice to my internal cry.

A Mother In Israel

In Hebrew, each letter doubles as a number. When you add up the numeric value of Rachel, you get 238. When you add up the numeric value of Eretz Yisrael, Hebrew for “the Land of Israel,” you get 832. Rachel is the inverse of Israel. When Rachel’s life ended, she put herself in a position to secure her children’s residence in Israel.

May our mother come through for us again and beseech G‑d for protection and blessing for our brethren in Israel and for our people throughout the world.4