The Matriarchs Rachel and Leah:
Tears of the Jewish Mothers, Part 2
In our last class, we explored the inner meaning and greatness of Leah's
tears. This week we look at Rachel's tears.
To begin our inquiry into the unique impact of Rachel's tears on the Jewish
people past, present and future, we turn to a Midrash from the beginning of
the Book of Lamentations. The Midrash tells us that God sends the prophet
Jeremiah to the Patriarchs, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to Moshe - all of
whom have left the world - to ask their participation in mourning and
pleading for a better future for the Jewish people. Each advocates for
Israel, attempting to appease God by asking Him to reciprocate for his past
Avraham reminds God of his willingness to have sacrificed, Isaac, his only
son. In essence he says to God, "When You told me to sacrifice my son, I
became like a cruel person. I did not pay attention to my merciful feelings
as a father. I put Isaac on the altar and tied him down in order to sacrifice
him. Why will You not reciprocate by having mercy on Your children, Israel?"
But God does not respond.
Next, Isaac reminds God of his willingness to have allowed himself to be
sacrificed by his father, Avraham. He asks that God reciprocate by having
compassion for and saving the Jewish people. Again there is no response.
Then Jacob comes forward and essentially says, "When I came out of Laban's
house where I had worked for twenty years, I was with my family and we met my
brother Esav along the way. Esav intended to kill me, and I was ready to
have myself killed, in order to save my children. Please remember my deed
and, in return, save Your children the Jews." No answer.
Finally, Moshe speaks. "Wasn't I a loyal shepherd to the Jewish people for
forty years? I led them in the desert and, finally, when they were poised to
enter Israel, You told me I was to remain in the desert and die there. I was
not allowed to enjoy the fruits of my labor and, now, You call upon me to
join You in mourning for something I never had? Please remember my efforts
and have mercy on Your people." Again, no response.
Each of the Patriarchs, along with Moshe, argues that along with the justice
God exacts by exiling the Jews from Israel, He should also show mercy and
ultimately save them. But God does not respond.
Back to Rachel. The Midrash tells us that she appears in front of God and
reiterates to Him how difficult it was for her to have participated in the
plan of replacing herself with her sister, Leah, under the bridal canopy.
Rashi from Megillah 13b, gives us a background to this event: "Living up to
his reputation as a deceitful rogue, Laban substituted Leah for Rachel on the
wedding night. Jacob and Rachel expected Laban to attempt such a deception,
and they prepared against it by arranging a secret signal between them.
Seeing that they were about to substitute her sister Leah for her, however,
Rachel confided the sign to her sister so that Leah would not be put to
shame..." Rachel buries her desire to marry Jacob, and gives the signals to
Leah. What's more, Rachel also buries her jealousy, in order to be able to
carry out her plan with the purest intentions. Rachel asks God the following:
"If I, as a flesh and blood mortal, was able to transcend my jealousy and
anger, how much more so should You, an immortal King, find compassion for
The Midrash tells us that, as soon as she says this, God responds to Rachel's
tears. He promises, for her sake, that He will ultimately redeem the Jews
from their exile: "Rachel recalled her own magnanimity to her sister, Leah.
When Leah was fraudulently married to Jacob in place of Rachel, Rachel did
not let jealous resentment lead her to protest. Why then, should God be so
zealous in punishing His children for bringing idols into His Temple? God
accepted her plea and promised that Israel would be redeemed eventually, in
As it is written in Jeremiah (31:14), "Thus said Hashem: A voice is heard on
high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to
be consoled for her children, for they are gone. Thus said Hashem: Restrain
your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is reward for
your accomplishment - the word of Hashem - and they will return from the
enemy's land. There is hope for your future - the word of Hashem - and your
children will return to their border."
Why is it that God responds to Rachel and not to the Patriarchs or to Moshe?
Certainly these were men of greatness and inordinate dedication to the Jewish
people. Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin proposes that the difference lies in
the initiative Rachel takes, without first having to be commanded by God.
From this perspective, we can say that the Patriarchs and Moshe perform
acts of self-sacrifice in response to God's command. Rachel, on the other
hand, takes it upon herself to mastermind a plan that will save her sister's
dignity, without any prior directive from God.
Had Rachel followed through with her own marriage to Jacob, God would not
have held her responsible for Leah's embarrassment. This is because Leah's
predicament would have been Laban's fault, since the plan was his.
Nonetheless, Rachel takes it upon herself to act above and beyond her
obligations. Accordingly, Rachel comes to God with a very strong argument
for why her own actions should be a model for God in His treatment of the
exiled Jewish people. She is able to say to God, "According to "halacha"
(Jewish law) there is no reason why You should save Your people, since they
have clearly transgressed. But, inasmuch as I acted with compassion to save
my sister, You should do the same." And God accepts.
What we learn from Rachel's tears is that, when a person's actions surpass
his or her obligations, God will reciprocate in kind - which is to say,
beyond what they deserve according to conventional justice. Our sages tell
us that if we want God's favorable judgement, say, on Rosh Hashanah, we
should go an extra mile for someone else, even if we are not obligated to do
so by Jewish law. This will enable us to convincingly advocate for ourselves
in His presence.
In general, tears have a negative connotation, since we associate them with
pain and difficulty. On the contrary, tears are the soul's response to a
profound experience. We can now understand why, in order to appreciate Rachel
and Leah, we have to examine the source of their tears. Leah cries out of
fear that she may not be able to participate in building the Jewish Nation.
Rachel cries for Israel her exiled children. Both Matriarchs teach us how
tears express the essence of a Jewish woman.
We should always ask ourselves, "What do we have to care about to the extent
that we'll cry?" This question will help us to define our values, set our
priorities and direct our spiritual growth.
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2001 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.