It’s been a rough past couple weeks.
The attacks in Paris, Mali, a father and son killed on their way to their daughters wedding celebration, followed by the most deadly day in the recent wave of terror – 5 innocents were killed by terrorist attacks in Israel.
Two men were praying the afternoon service.
One was a beloved Rebbe, teacher of Torah.
Another was an 18 year old American boy, Ezra Schwartz from Sharon, Massachusetts. He was on his way back from delivering snacks and moral support to Israeli soldiers when his car was rammed by an Arab driver.
Although all of the losses are equally tragic, the last two hit particularly close to home.
The Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Don used to be a teacher at my seminary, Midreshet HaRova. My Rosh Midrasha, Rav David Milston, writes: He came around to help me with my heating on Sunday evening with his big smile and friendly manner, I could not have known that this would be the last time we spoke. I saw him from a distance Wednesday morning as I left my house and that was it. Yaakov was a good person, a בן תורה, an educator, a loving husband and father. So much positive energy, so happy, so easy to get along with; we have been neighbors for over 16 years and now he has gone to join our millions of other Tzaddikim in OlamHaEmet.
Ezra Schwartz was my friends’ classmate. He grew up with them, sat next to them on the bus to school, played basketball with them, posed for prom pictures with him, and loved him. His family, friends, and mentors described him as an incredible team player, loving friend, and playful caring brother with “boundless energy” who was “capable of making friends with anyone”.
In times of despair, we turn to G-d. So after this past week’s tragedy, I turned to this week’s Parsha, Parashat Vayishlach, for some reconciliation, comfort, or message. I found that in this week’s Torah reading is the premature death of Rachel Imaynu (“Mother Rachel”).
Genesis: Parashat Vayishlach: Chapter 35:
טזוַיִּסְעוּ מִבֵּית אֵל וַיְהִי עוֹד כִּבְרַת הָאָרֶץ לָבוֹא אֶפְרָתָה וַתֵּלֶד רָחֵל וַתְּקַשׁ בְּלִדְתָּהּ:
יז וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ בְּלִדְתָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמְיַלֶּדֶת אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי גַם זֶה לָךְ בֵּן:
יחוַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ בֶּן אוֹנִי וְאָבִיו קָרָא לוֹ בִנְיָמִין:
יטוַתָּמָת רָחֵל וַתִּקָּבֵר בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם:
16And they journeyed from Beth el, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult. 17It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth, that the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid, for this one, too, is a son for you.” 18 And it came to pass, when her soul departed for she died that she named him Ben oni, but his father called him Benjamin.19 So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.
Rachel Imaynu, Jacob’s favorite wife, his soul mate that he worked 14 years in the house of Laban to be able to marry, whose sons he favored over all the others, dies.
I would have thought that Jacob would want to bury her in the Cave of Mechpaleh, where his family was buried and where he would be buried too one day. And if not that, then at least we’d see some emotional reaction – torn clothes, crying, etc. But the psukim describe –
כוַיַּצֵּב יַעֲקֹב מַצֵּבָה עַל קְבֻרָתָהּ הִוא מַצֶּבֶת קְבֻרַת רָחֵל עַד הַיּוֹם:
כאוַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה מֵהָלְאָה לְמִגְדַּל עֵדֶר
– Jacob builds her grave and then moves on with journey toward Eretz Yisrael.
Why doesn’t Jacob burry her in the Cave of Mechpaleh, which was but a short distance away – let alone mourn her a little?
Rashi: Genesis: Parashat Vayechi: 48: 7:
ואקברה שם- ולא הולכתיה אפילו לבית לחם להכניסה לארץ, וידעתי שיש בלבך עלי [תרעומת], אבל דע לך שעל פי הדבור קברתיה שם שתהא לעזרה לבניה כשיגלה אותם נבוזראדן, והיו עוברים דרך שם, יצאת רחל על קברה ובוכה ומבקשת עליהם רחמים, שנאמר (ירמיה לא יד) קול ברמה נשמע רחל מבכה על בניה וגו’, והקב”ה משיבה (ירמיה לא טו) יש שכר לפעולתך נאם ה’ ושבו בנים לגבולם.
Rashi explains that even though she died but a short distance to Bethlehem, G-d commanded Jacob to bury her by the roadside so that she could help the Jewish people when Nebuzaradan, the chief general of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon would lead the Children of Israel into captivity after the destruction of the First Temple. When the Jews were passing along the road to Bethlehem, tormented, hungry, and exhausted, Rachel’s soul came to her grave, and wept, beseeching G-d’s mercy upon them [see Jeremiah 31:14] G-d heard her plea. As the prophet relates,
A voice is heard on high, the sound of lamentation…Rachel weeping for children…[G-d replied to her] Withhold your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded, says Hashem…and your children will return to their borders.
To this day, the Artscroll Chumash elaborates, the tomb of “Mother Rachel”, once a lonely site by the road but now in the middle of Bethlehem, is a place of prayer were Jews come to pray and ease their grieving hearts in times of personal and national need.
But the question is, why? Why was Rachel specifically chosen to cry over her sons? Why was Rachel selected, that in her merit, G-d promises that the Children of Israel will return to Eretz Yisrael?
Perhaps the answer can be found earlier in Parashat Vayeitzei, Chapter 31:
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל יַעֲקֹב שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ: ד וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב וַיִּקְרָא לְרָחֵל וּלְלֵאָה הַשָּׂדֶה אֶל צֹאנוֹ: הוַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶן רֹאֶה אָנֹכִי אֶת פְּנֵי אֲבִיכֶן כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ אֵלַי כִּתְמֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם וֵאלֹהֵי אָבִי הָיָה עִמָּדִי: ווְאַתֵּנָה יְדַעְתֶּן כִּי בְּכָל כֹּחִי עָבַדְתִּי אֶת אֲבִיכֶן: זוַאֲבִיכֶן הֵתֶל בִּי וְהֶחֱלִף אֶת מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים וְלֹא נְתָנוֹ אֱלֹהִים לְהָרַע עִמָּדִי… יאוַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי מַלְאַךְ הָאֱלֹהִים בַּחֲלוֹם יַעֲקֹב וָאֹמַר הִנֵּנִי: יב וַיֹּאמֶר שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה כָּל הָעֲתֻּדִים הָעֹלִים עַל הַצֹּאן עֲקֻדִּים נְקֻדִּים וּבְרֻדִּים כִּי רָאִיתִי אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לָבָן עֹשֶׂה לָּךְ: יג אָנֹכִי הָאֵל בֵּית אֵל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁחְתָּ שָּׁם מַצֵּבָה אֲשֶׁר נָדַרְתָּ לִּי שָׁם נֶדֶר עַתָּה קוּם צֵא מִן הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וְשׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתֶּךָ:
יד וַתַּעַן רָחֵל וְלֵאָה וַתֹּאמַרְנָה לוֹ הַעוֹד לָנוּ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה בְּבֵית אָבִינוּ: טו הֲלוֹא נָכְרִיּוֹת נֶחְשַׁבְנוּ לוֹ כִּי מְכָרָנוּ וַיֹּאכַל גַּם אָכוֹל אֶת כַּסְפֵּנוּ: טז כִּי כָל הָעֹשֶׁר אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֱלֹהִים מֵאָבִינוּ לָנוּ הוּא וּלְבָנֵינוּ וְעַתָּה כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמַר אֱלֹהִים אֵלֶיךָ עֲשֵׂה:
In verse three, G-d commands Jacob to return to Eretz Yisrael. Yet in the very next verse, Jacob goes to ask Rachel and Leah if they will go – Why is he asking them? If G-d tells you to go do something, you don’t go ask your wife for permission first?
In addition, why do the psukim highlight Rachel’s name first, both when Jacob asks them and when they answer?
Ramban (Parashat Toldot) Genesis 26:5:
The Ramban asks how it is possible that Jacob married two sisters, when the Torah explicitly forbids it? According to the knowledge of Rabbis, at that time the Torah laws applied in the land of Eretz Yisrael, and when Jacob married the two sisters, he was outside the land, in Chutz La’eretz.
Thus implied, is that if Jacob had been in Eretz Yisrael, he would not have been allowed to marry two sisters.
Now we can understand what it means that Jacob asked Rachel, his second wife for permission to go to Eretz Yisrael – he had to ask, for it was a matter of Pikuach Nefesh!
When Jacob asked her about going to the land of Eretz Yisrael, Rachel understood that only one sister would be allowed to remain with him there, and she understood that because she married him second, she would the one to be “left behind”.
Rachel knew that by going to Eretz Yisrael, she would have to be Moseret Nefesh in the most literal way, and yet the pasuk says “וַתַּעַן רָחֵל וְלֵאָה” – Rachel answered first. “We have no place in a father’s house… But all the wealth that God separated from our father is ours and our children’s. So now, all that God said to you, do.”
Rachel was Moseret Nefesh for Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, who is more appropriate to comfort the Children of Israel on the way to Galut, than Rachel who was Moseret Nefesh for Eretz Yisrael?
So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children for they are not. ידכֹּה | אָמַר יְהֹוָה קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ:
I can imagine Rachel Imaynu said something along the lines of “Hashem! I gave up my life for Bnei Yisrael to enter Eretz Yisrael – and now you’re sending them back anyway?!”
Thus G-d responds, promising her that Bnei Yisrael will return to their homeland.
So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. טוכֹּה | אָמַר יְהֹוָה מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם יְהֹוָה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב:
16And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border. טזוְיֵשׁ תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם יְהֹוָה וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם:
Who is more appropriate to be promised that Bnei Yisrael will return to Eretz Yisrael, then Rachel Imaynu who was Moseret Nefesh for Eretz Yisrael?
It is in this vein that I believe we can understand why the Torah does not spell out that Jacob mourned for Rachel.
We assume he did, but that is not the point.
When Jacob got up and continued with his journey to Eretz Yisrael, it wasn’t disregarding Rachel’s death, G-d forbid. Rather, Lehefech, it was because of her death!
To honor her sacrifice, to complete her mission – Rachel died for Eretz Yisrael, so Jacob didn’t sit there and mourn for her; he honored her by continuing to do what she could not.
This gives me comfort for Ezra’s soul. For Ezra is not forgotten as we continue living our lives by learning Torah, doing chessed, reading Harry Potter (he was a big fan), playing sports, and having fun with friends. No the opposite, we honor him by doing so.
One of the stories that Ezra Schwartz’s Rosh Yeshiva told at his funeral was how, a few days before he was killed, he had made a promise to learn the whole of Tanach by the end of the year. Now there a multiple groups of people all aiming to help Ezra finish that goal, by taking upon themselves to learn it. In addition, there a multiple groups of people who are arranging to continue sending food packages to Israeli soldiers. By doing so, they continue to elevate Ezra’s neshama, and give him life in this world.
The Parsha has taught me that one way to give meaning to the life of another is to learn something from them, and apply it to our lives.
On a personal level, I learnt that Ezra was incredible brother, and that has inspired me to strengthen my connection with each of my siblings. It is my hope and prayer that as I continue to grow in my relationships, Ezra will live on through my actions.
For the message I have learnt from this week’s Parsha is that when we live, what they lived for – they live on.
Good Shabbos, may we only have Besurot Tovot.
Student studying in Harova