Throughout the centuries, following the Jewish people’s exile from the land of our forefathers, when the name Rachel was evoked, the word “Imeinu”- our mother -was attached to it.
Traditionally, Jews cry out to “Mother Rachel,” one of the nation’s four matriarchs, asking for her help in alleviating whatever woes we are enduring; beseeching her to petition Hashem on our behalf for relief and succor. Many have risked their lives to visit her burial place, known as Kever Rachel, in Bethlehem.
We are like distressed children who run to their mother for comfort and soothing, knowing that she loves us and that our well being is her all consuming priority.
Mama Rachel, we call her.
Yet ironically, she actually isn’t.
Rachel technically is our step-mother. And aunt.
The Jewish people, as we have been called for thousands of years, are the descendants of Leah, Rachel’s sister. The name “Jew” – Yehudi – in Hebrew is derived from the name Leah gave her son, Yehuda. Those of us who are Leviyim or Kohanim are the offspring of another of Leah’s sons, Levi. There were 10 others tribes, two of which were of Rachel’s seed (Ephraim and Menashe) but they disappeared. These tribes broke away from the kingdom that was headed by the House of David (who was from the tribe of Yehuda) and created their own. The Kingdom of Israel as it was called, was eventually invaded and many of its residents were exiled. With the passing of time, the inhabitants of that break-away kingdom disappeared and are known as “The Ten Lost Tribes.” There are many theories about what happened to them – but the fact is the only recognized descendants of Avraham, Itzchak and Yaacov are Leah’s progeny. (Another tribe that came from Rachel, Benyamin, was almost decimated and its remnants blended into Yehuda.)
Yet despite the fact that Rachel is not the biological ancestress of the Jewish people, the Torah says Rachel weeps for her children and advocates for them in Shomayim. Why does it not say that she petitions Hashem on behalf of her nieces or nephews, or stepchildren?
From their end, Jews worldwide embrace her as a mother, calling her Rachel Imeinu, instead of Tante Rachel. Why have generations of Jews poured their hearts out to a woman we call mother, rather than qualifying that she is in fact a maternal aunt – and/or a stepmother.
Perhaps it’s to remind us that DNA isn’t the be all and end all; that blood isn’t the only pertinent criteria in defining someone as a mother or father – or a son or daughter. You don’t have to be biologically connected to be someone’s parent – or someone’s child.
In today’s world, death and divorce and second or even third marriages have created what is known as blended families.
In these atypical families, husbands and wives raise their own children, their spouse’s, as well as the offspring they have together. This means that not everyone in the family is actually gene “related.” There are step-siblings whose DNA is completely different; half-siblings with a common parent and full siblings.
In addition to blended families whose members have various degrees of kinship, there are infertile couples unable to conceive or carry a pregnancy who create their family through adoption. In these situations, the parents and children (unless siblings are adopted together) are not “flesh and blood” at all.
Unfortunately, while the various members of these non-traditional families consider each other as one family, some of their relatives do not share these same sentiments.
Over the years I have heard of situations where grandparents favored their “real” grandchildren over those they viewed as being “collateral damage” of a remarriage or adoption. At family gatherings, the “real” grandchildren were showered with expensive gifts while the “not real” ones received a small token gift at best – or nothing at all, at worst.
And it hurts. The children, who no doubt experienced so much pain, turmoil and trauma due to a death or a divorce, must endure even more when they are treated as outsiders by their step-parent’s or adopted parents’ relatives. They feel like outsiders and their inevitable resentment and bitterness can undermine the shalom bayis of the whole family, which already is tentative as each member struggles to adjust to a new reality.
It may be hard for a grandmother to hug her daughter’s adopted son with the same enthusiasm as she hugs her biological grandson. After all, she may see her own face or that of her beloved husband or parents reflected in the features of the tiny face smiling up at her. It is only human to be attracted to or reach out to the familiar (root word is family).
But the Torah teaches us that we are in fact one big family and should treat each other as such. Rachel Imeinu cries for who she views as her children. She doesn’t say, “Hey Jews, children of Judah and Levi, you are Leah’s offspring. Go to Hevron, go to Ma’aras Hamachpeila where your “ema” is buried and cry to her. I’m not interested in your problems.”
A woman I know frequently criss-crosses the United States, often flying off to Israel for a grandchild’s bar or bat-mitzvah celebration, a vort or a wedding. A divorcee with kids, she married a man with several children of his own.
Between the two, there are many simchas to celebrate and she told me that she goes to every one, and will continue to do so if her health allows it. When I commented that it must be difficult to wait in airports, eat airplane food, and endure all the hassles that traveling entails, she told me “They are all my grandchildren, how can I not go?”
Rachel Imeinu couldn’t agree more.