Exploring Babylon Chapter 8.2
The last episode of #ExploringBabylon focused on the biblical Rachel and her connection to “back home” for the family of Abraham and Sarah, as described in Vayetze (last week’s Torah portion, Gen 28:10-32:3); Rachel’s death and burial on the road, as related in Vayishlach (this week’s portion, Gen 32:4-36:43), was also raised (See “The Babylon Road.”) There is so much more to explore on the road to Ephrath (Gen 35:16-21, Jer 31:14-16). This post begins with one contemporary commentary on one ancient midrash.
While the Jacob/Israel clan is still traveling — away from “back home” for Rachel and Leah, and toward the new home for the extended family — the time for Rachel to give birth arrives. Rachel labors with her second child and dies just as her son is born and named: first by his mother, Ben-oni [son of my pain, son of my strength]; and then by his father, Benjamin [son of right, or south, side].
Rachel thus gives birth to the only child of Jacob/tribe of Israel born in “the Land.” But she doesn’t live to participate in the life of the land. Jacob buries Rachel on the side of the road, rather than in the family burial property which is not too far away (Gen 35:16-20). As noted in Chapter 8.1, this burial spot is interpreted as prescient on Jacob’s part, in terms of later exile of his descendants. And the death and burial leave Rachel in a particularly evocative position.
“Bodies Performing in the Ruins: The Lamenting Mother in Ancient Hebrew Texts,” by Galit Hasan-Rokem, describes one midrash which links Rachel’s separation from her child in death with Israel’s separation from future children in exile. Hasan-Rokem summarizes one of the long proems opening Lamentations Rabbah (5th Century CE). In it Moses shows the patriarchs the death and destruction in the aftermath of the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem.
“After the patriarchs and Moses have failed to move the heart of the angry father God,” she says, “a remarkable scene is acted out.” Hasan-Rokem then quotes Lam. Rabbah (I am cutting her quoted text into paragraphs for easier reading):
At that moment Rachel leapt before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said:
“Lord of the universe, you know that Jacob your servant loved me exceedingly, and toiled for my father on my behalf for seven years. And at the end of seven years, when the time of my marriage arrived, my father advised that my sister should replace me, and I suffered greatly because his counsel became known to me. And I informed my husband and I gave him a sign so that he might distinguish between my sister and me, and my father would be unable to replace me.
“Later, I repented and suppressed my desire, and took pity on my sister so that she would not be shamed. In the evening, they substituted my sister for me with my husband, and I gave my sister all the signs that I had agreed on with my husband, so that he would believe that she was Rachel. More than that, I went under the bed upon which he lay with my sister, and when he spoke to her and she remained silent, I gave all the answers so that he would not recognize my sister’s voice.”
Up to this point, the narrative follows the tale in the Babylonian Talmud Baba Batra 123a, explicating the enigmatic line, “And it came to pass in the morning, behold! it was Leah” (Gen 29:25). Then comes Rachel’s contribution to the pleading before God, followed by God’s response:
“I was gracious, I was not jealous, and spared her shame and dishonour. If I, only flesh and blood, dust and ashes, was not jealous of my rival and spared her shame and dishonour, why should you, the everlasting and compassionate King, be jealous of idolatry, which is insubstantial, and exile my children who were slain by the sword, and let their enemies do with them what they wish?”
Forthwith, the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, was stirred, and He said: “For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place. And so it was written:
Thus said the Lord:
A voice was heard in Ramah
lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more
And it is written:
Thus says the LORD:
Refrain your voice from weeping,
And your eyes from tears,
For your work shall be rewarded, says the LORD,
And they shall come back from the land of the enemy
And it is written:
There is hope in your future, says the LORD,
That your children shall come back to their own border
–Lam. Rabbah proem 24, quoted in Hasan-Rokem
For another translation, and much more about Rachel in midrash, see Jewish Women’s Archive
Partner in Redemption
Hasan-Rokem comments that Rachel is offering as token “not her premature death…but rather her life, the enduring of the burning passion of the added seven years of longing between her and Jacob” (p.57). The burning passion is significant, in this context, as an illustration of
the transformation of stored-up erotic energy into the power that can produce a lament so effective it will move even the angry and despotic Divine Majesty….Rachel emerges almost as a weeping goddess, and certainly as a partner to God in the act of redemption.
— “Bodies Performing in the Ruins,” p.57
The author’s thesis in this paper involves the “Babylonian legacy of lamenting gods and especially goddesses,” which will have to be a topic for another day. But her description of Rachel offering “not her premature death…but rather her life” can also point us to the significance of another aspect of this midrash.
Rachel tells God, “I was gracious, I was not jealous, and spared [my sister’s] shame and dishonour,” arguing that, if she, with her limited human resources, managed to behave without jealousy, God should davka be able to overlook idolatry. How many lessons are here for people struggling to function with integrity and flexibility in a diverse, often contradictory, world? This model is at least as important, I think, as Rachel’s lament in moving God and serving as partner in redemption.
Galit Hasan-Rokem. “Bodies Performing in Ruins: The Lamenting Mother in Ancient Hebrew Texts.”
IN Perspectives on Jewish Texts and Contexts, edited by Vivian Liska.
Volume 2: Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives
Ilit Ferber and Paula Schwebel eds. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014)
This article is available through Academia (dot) edu.
This article offers a number of insights relevant to #ExploringBabylon, which will have to await another day.