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RACHEL WEEPING
ROSH HASHANAH 2006/5767
(SECOND DAY)

The end of this morning’s haftarah contains a striking image:

Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone. 1

This image was taken up by the Midrash. In Eikha Rabbati 2, we read how, after Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and even the angels of Heaven failed to stir God’s mercy at the time of the Babylonian exile, Rachel succeeded in doing so.

As Jewish tradition developed, and especially in the mystical tradition, Rachel was identified with the Shekhina, God’s presence on earth, the last of the 10 sefirot, emanations, which bridge between the ineffable God and us. Based on that identification, and on a passage in the Talmud Berakhot 3, in which God is presented as roaring in grief in the middle of the night over the destruction of the Temple and the Exile, the institution of Tikkun Hatzot, the midnight vigil, arose. That Tikkun took two forms: the Tikkun Rahel, the vigil of Rachel, which was held at midnight, and the Tikkun Leah, the vigil of Leah, recited near the end of the night. The Tikkun Rahel consisted of Psalms 137 (“By the waters of Babylon”) and 79 (“O God, heathens have entered Your domain, defiled Your holy temple, and turned Jerusalem into ruins”) and some petitionary prayers. It addressed the reality of galut, Exile. In the following story, we see again the connection between Rachel, the Shekhina, and the Exile, and in a form which anticipates future events:

Rabbi Avraham Berukhim was a disciple of Rabbi Isaac Luria, Ari Hakadosh. Every night, he walked through the streets of Tsefat, crying out, ‘Arise, for the Shekhina is in exile, and our holy house is devoured by fire, and Israel faces great danger.” He longed, more than anything else, to bring the Shekhina out of exile.

On the instruction of his teacher, the Ari, Rabbi Avraham went to pray at the Kotel Hamaravi. First, he fasted for three days and three nights, and then he set out on foot for Jerusalem. When he reached the Kotel and stood there in prayer, he had a vision of an old woman, dressed in black. He recognized that this was the Shekhina, grieving over the suffering of her children, the children of Israel, scattered to every corner of the earth.

Rabbi Avraham fainted, and then he had another vision, in which he saw a young woman, dressed in a robe woven of light. She said to him: ‘Do not grieve so, My son Avraham. Know that My exile will come to an end, and My inheritance will not go to waste. “Your children shall return to your country and there is hope for your future.”’

These images, and this outlook, were part of the worldview of Jews for centuries. When I was young, the Kotel Hamaaravi, the Western Wall, actually the western retaining wall of the platform on which the Temple stood, was known as the Wailing Wall. The 19th century Jewish historian Leopold Zunz, wrote this:

If there exists a ladder in suffering, Israel has reached the highest rung. If the duration of sorrows and the patience with which they are borne may ennoble, the Jews may challenge the aristocracy of every land. If a literature is called rich which possesses a few classical tragedies, what place then is due to a Tragedy lasting 1,500 years, written and acted by the heroes themselves?”

And Zunz wrote before the Holocaust! Now, historians since Zunz have pointed out that Jewish history was not all negative. Still, this traditional conception, and the accompanying image of Rachel, the Shekhina, weeping for her children, had enough plausibility to hold onto the imagination of Jews, and, for that matter, of non-Jewish observers. Let me give one more example of this imagery, which will also serve as a transition to a new world-view. At the turn of the last century, the poet Naftali Hertz Imber wrote:

As long as pure tears
Pour from the eyes of my poor people,
And, bewailing Zion at the changing of the watch,
People still get up at midnight,
Then our hope is not yet lost …

This is, of course, one of the lesser-known stanzas of the poem Hatikvah. The Zionist movement, the re-establishment of Jewish independence in the Land of Israel, was supposed to change the life of the Jews, to end the litany of Jewish suffering. Yet, things have not been so simple. Rachel still weeps for her children, albeit with a difference. A few decades after Imber, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote these words, which I cite with some reservations, which I shall explain later:

From Dan to Beersheva,
From Gilead to the sea,
There is not an inch of our land
That has not been redeemed by blood.
The fields, mountains, and valleys,
Are saturated with Hebrew blood,
But, through the generations,
There has never been shed blood as pure
As the blood of the tillers of Tel Hai.

(Tel Hai was a settlement in the northern part of the land, where, in 1920, Joseph Trumpeldor and seven other Jews were killed by Arabs.) In the 1948 War of Independence, 6,373 Jewish soldiers (1% of the total Jewish population of Israel at the time) were killed. In the Sinai Campaign of 1956, 231 were killed. In the Six Day War – 776. In the “War of Attrition,” which extended from 1967 through 1970, an additional 1,424 Israeli soldiers were killed. In the Yom Kippur War – 2,688. In the 1982 Lebanon War and its aftermath – 1,216, and in the second Lebanon War this year, 119 members of the IDF died. These numbers do not include civilians killed by terrorists. Certainly, Rachel still has cause to weep.

If we have moved from the suffering of Jews helpless in Exile to the deaths of Jews defending their homeland, we have to move on once again. We must look forward to another stage of Jewish history.

I said, when I quoted the poem by Jabotinsky, that I did so with some reservations. I now want to explain the reservations. The connection of blood and soil, which is at the heart of the poem, has a very problematic history. The combination is usually referred to in German, as Blut und Boden, and it was very important to 19th century Romantic German nationalists, and, later, to the Nazis. The term currently in vogue in our government, “Islamofascism,” is, of course, being used for political purposes, but I must say that it is not without validity. A strongly authoritarian political and social outlook that subordinates the individual to group norms, which emphasizes the use of force, and which scorns universal and humanitarian values, preferring its own, “authentic” values, can be called fascism.

That description fits the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and similar groups. However, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If there is Islamofascism, there can also be Judaeofascism, and we should beware of it. Now, I am not saying that Jabotinsky was a fascist; I believe that he was too strongly connected to the values of European liberal democracy to merit that designation. However, I would say that Meir Kahane, who greatly admired Jabotinsky, was a Judaeofascist, and there are other Jews today who come close.

For all the resonance that the theme of Rachel weeping for her children has had in Jewish history and has for many of us today, I say that we must take up that theme but then go beyond it. So far, my point of view has been totally ethnocentric. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of ethnocentricity; Judaism and the Jewish people would have not survived without it. However, at some point, we have to look, and extend our concern, beyond our own people. Golda Meir is supposed to have said to Anwar Sadat, “We can forgive you for killing our sons, but not for making us kill your sons.”

Whether or not Golda really said that, the thought can be found as far back as the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 4.  In the Torah we read that Jacob, anticipating meeting his brother Esau, became frightened and distressed. According to the Midrash, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, in the 2nd century said that he was frightened that he might be killed and distressed that he might kill. Rachel weeps for her children, and so does Rahil. It is proper for us to be concerned first for our own people, but it is not proper to be concerned first and last for our own. For the traditional mind-set which I have presented, war and conflict are inevitable parts of Jewish life, and I say that we must not accept them as inevitable.

Another reason that we ought to move beyond the arresting image of Rachel weeping for her children is that mythic thinking, of which this is an example, has its limits as well as its benefits. In May, 2002, at the height of the second intifada and the wave of suicide bombings, a time which many Jews compared to the onset of the Holocaust, Leon Wieseltier wrote an important article in The New Republic entitled “Hitler is Dead,” in which he wrote that “the analogy between the Passover massacre [at a seder in Netanya] and Kristallnacht is not really a historical argument. It is a political argument disguised as a historical argument. It is designed to paralyze thought and to paralyze diplomacy”.

I am not against myths, stories whose significance is more symbolic than literal. We invoke them every year when we say, “It was not just one who rose up against us to destroy us, but, in every generation, people rise up against us to destroy us, but God saves us from their hands.” This kind of symbol helps us look at the world and deal with the world. However, it can also paralyze thought. The framework that myths provide can become a constricting cage, and say that we should not imprison ourselves in such myths.

It may seem as if I have introduced the theme of Rachel weeping for her children only to reject it. I think not. That theme can account for a large part of the Diaspora Jewish experience and of the Israeli experience, and we cannot understand or be part of the Jewish people without sounding that theme ourselves. But we must not let it drown out all other themes. I mentioned historians who have corrected Leopold Zunz. It was Salo Baron who criticized what he called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” and his 18 volume Social and Religious History of the Jews (which goes only as far as 1650!) gives a fuller and more balanced picture of Jewish history. I don’t know how the American Jewish experience fits into previously known patterns.

Finally, for all the discouraging intractability of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, I do not believe and I cannot believe that the conflict is eternal. I do not intend this morning to speak on the Israeli-Arab conflict in an analytical way. In Friday’s news, some people said that a Palestinian unity government will recognize Israel, and other people said that it would not. What can I say about that? I don’t know when there will be peace between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs, but I believe that there will be peace.

In the mystical tradition, the lachrymose Tikkun Rahel is succeeded by the more positive Tikkun Leah, which includes Psalm 126 and these words: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in gladness.” To return to our original text from Jeremiah, verse 15 portrays the weeping Rachel, and verse 16 says: “Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor – declares the Lord. [Your children] shall return from their enemies’ land, and there is hope for your future.”

1 Jeremiah 31:15
2 Eikha Rabbati Proem 24
3 Berakhot 3a
4 Bereshit Rabbah 66

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