In last week’s column I described some of the nerve-wracking aggravation inherent to travel. Going to Eretz Yisrael, however, is different. There, everything is different, because Eretz Yisrael is our land. Hashem gave it to us to be our eternal inheritance. So no matter how long we may have been away from her, the land remains as close to us as it was thousands of years ago. We have a teaching, “Whatever happened to our forefathers is a sign for us, their children. In other words, everything is replay.
When our father Jacob, after many years of exile, returned to Eretz Yisrael, he sent a message to Esau that he had been delayed, but was now coming – meaning he had never relinquished ownership of the land, but was merely delayed.
Similarly, for almost two thousand years, we too have been delayed, but throughout, the land was engraved on our hearts and souls. So yes, going to Eretz Yisrael is different, and that which we would find aggravating in other countries somehow does not affect us in the same way in the Holy Land. It’s not that I have some Pollyanna outlook. I am fully aware of the challenges that come with living there, and yet I still maintain that it is different.Allow me to share with you just one example:
Whenever I speak in Israel, I am careful to set time aside to visit the gravesites of our ancestors. So we engaged a taxi and asked the driver to take us to Kever Rachel and to wait for us. Now, taking taxi in Israel is, in and of itself, an experience. Nowhere else can you have a conversation with a driver as you can in Israel.
I am in the habit of asking the driver his name and this usually leads to a big discussion. When I asked this particular driver his name, he replied, “Benjy.”
“You mean Binyamin,” I said.
“What’s the difference, Binyamin or Benjy?” he asked.
“There’s a huge difference,” I responded. “Binyamin has a history; Binyamin has roots. Binyamin represents glory and splendor – the Holy Temple itself was in the territory of Binyamin. But what is Benjy? What history does a Benjy have?”
So we got into a whole discussion about Torah and Judaism, something that can only happen in Israel, and in the end he conceded that Binyamin does represent a legacy that Benjy does not have. Where else but in Israel can this happen?
Before we knew it, we had arrived at Kever Rachel and designated a spot where he should wait for us. There were about a dozen women at the Kever, each engrossed in her individual prayer, shedding tears and pleading for G-d’s mercy. What better place can there be to make such supplications? Regarding Rachel it is written, Kol b’Ramah nishma – a voice is heard above…Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be consoled, and Hashem assures her, “Cease your weeping; wipe your tears. There is reward for your labor. Your children shall come home….”
When we pray at the grave of Mother Rachel, when we shed tears there, we know Rachel is praying with us. She feels our pain and weeps with us, and even as she does so, she gathers our tears and places them in front of G-d’s Throne. Mother Rachel refuses to be consoled until our salvation comes, and that knowledge fortifies us. So I found a place for myself right near her catafalque and started to pray.
I was pouring out my heart – I was in another world – when suddenly I was jarred. A busload of Sephardic women arrived. They made their way into the small room in which we were praying, and as more and more of them entered, I felt as if I were being crushed. I couldn’t move – neither to the right nor to the left.
Since I am slight of build, it doesn’t take much to knock me over, and here I was, being pushed and shoved until I felt I was on the brink of falling. If this had happened to me in any other country, in any other place, I would have been outraged…. At the very least, I would have said, “Ladies, watch where you are going. You are crushing me!” And I must admit that my natural reaction was to voice my protest here as well.
But then I started to think about where I was, and all the pushing and shoving took on a different dimension. I recalled the teaching of our sages that when the Jewish people gathered from throughout the land and ascended to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals, no one ever complained “Tzar lee hamakom – there is no room for me here.” This despite the fact that there were multitudes of people gathered there. So here we were, thousands of years later, at Kever Rachel, and we could not move – but even as our forefathers did, we all found room and prayed as one.
“Mama Rachel, ” I whispered, “behold your children. Millennia have passed since you ascended above and during those thousands of years we, your children, have been cast to the four corners of the world. We were tortured and oppressed. We experienced the barbaric savagery of the nations. Our children were torn from our arms, our blood flowed freely all over the world, and the skies became dark from the smoke of the fires that consumed our people, but despite it all, we, your children never forgot you. We kept your memory alive in our hearts and souls. We knew exactly where you were buried, and now, when Hashem in His infinite mercy allowed us to return to our land, we fought and gave our lives to be able to come to your resting place to pray, to thank you for your endless tears that testify that you never gave up on us.
So, Mother Rachel, just behold these women coming from different parts of the land, pushing and shoving – not for a bargain on a sales day, not to see a rock star, or any of the other attractions that have become synonymous with the 20th or 21st century. None of that would bring these women out. They all came to give you honor and to ask you to pray with them and intercede on their behalf in front of Hashem’s Throne.
It was those thoughts that ran through my mind as I was jostled to and fro in a sea of women. And as if by magic, annoyance turned into inspiration, aggravation into appreciation. And then I whispered yet another prayer: “Who is like Your people Israel, Oh G-d?”
“Hashem,” I prayed, “look down upon Your people and remember that, despite everything, we never forgot You! We never forgot that You commanded our father Jacob to bury our mother Rachel on the roadside so that she might always be accessible to us, her children. And now, thousands of years later, here we are, pouring out our hearts. Yes, “Who is like Your people Israel?”
I finished my davening and tried to make my way out, but no sooner had I emerged from the crowd than another lady approached me. “Come,” she said, “let’s say Nishmas together.”
We had already stayed an inordinate amount of time and were very much behind schedule. The taxi that had brought us and was supposed to be waiting had left long ago. Here we were in Bethlehem (not the friendliest of towns) and we wondered how we would get another taxi – but we could not resist such an amazing invitation, to say Nishmas on the way out of Kever Rachel – “Nishmas kol chai – The soul of every living being blesses and praises You.”
Can there be a more spectacular, meaningful prayer to recite on taking leave of Kever Rachel?
To be sure, if I had been delayed at any other place I would have politely declined. “I’m sorry,” I would have said, “but there is a meeting I have to make.” But here I had all the time in the world and instead of being annoyed my heart was filled with joy. What a zechus – merit – to say Nishmas at Kever Rachel with a group of women who had come from the four corners of the world, who spoke different languages, but who all united as one because they were all the children of Mama Rochel.
It was late when we finally got into another taxi, but I felt like singing with joy. What a magnificent day it had been – to pray as one with Am Yisrael and to be immersed in the fervor that has kept our people alive throughout the centuries.