On Tisha B’av we remember and mourn the tragedies of Jewish history. We take pains, literally, to feel this mourning in an immediate and personal way. We sit barefoot on the floor as we read Eicha and recite kinot. In the afternoon we may watch sad and emotional movies. Above all, we fast, refraining from food and drink for a full twenty-five hours. What exactly is the purpose, or end goal, of this intense grieving? Is it merely to feel the pain of past tragedies? To remember the fallen? Wouldn’t an appropriately somber memorial meal accomplish that just as well? Why do we need to embody the mourning process itself year after year? What does putting ourselves through this accomplish? Can it help us repair what’s been lost or actually lead us a bit closer toward restoration? And if the answer is yes, how?
It turns out that there is actually a Biblical figure who can help answer these questions: our matriarch Rachel. The prophet Jeremiah immortalizes Rachel as the quintessential mourner. He writes: “There is a voice heard on high – a wailing, bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children… for they are gone.” But Jeremiah also tells us about the powerful effect Rachel’s mourning has on God: “Thus said Hashem, hold back your voice from weeping, dry your eyes from tears, for there is reward for what you have done… there is hope for you in the end… your children shall return to their rightful borders” (Jeremiah 31:15-17).
Rachel’s mournful cry drew a response from God, and a Divine promise to put an end to Israel’s long and bitter exile. Jeremiah is the same prophet who witnessed the destruction of the First Temple and penned Megillat Eicha. If there’s one person who can express the pain and longing that we experience on Tisha B’Av, it’s him. In these words, Jeremiah describes our matriarch, Rachel, as the embodiment of this pain, as she witnesses the children of Israel being forced out of their land by the Babylonian armies. It’s a dramatic, passionate portrayal of Rachel’s undying love for us – her children – and how this love compels God to reassert His ultimate promise of reward, return and redemption.
But there’s something strange about the promise God makes to Rachel. God tells her: “There is reward for what you have done.” It sounds as if God is going to bring her children home because of her actions. But what, exactly, has Rachel done? She is crying; she cares and cannot be consoled. But is that really an action? If anything, it seems like more of a re-action, an unanticipated outpouring of raw emotion. But God seems to be treating Rachel’s weeping as an intentional act deserving of the reward of redemption. How can we understand this image from Jeremiah? How is it that Rachel’s tears evoke such a powerful response from God? If we can make sense of this passage, it may be able to shed light on our process of mourning on Tisha B’Av, and help our tears and grief become a catalyst for action.
Rabbi David Fohrman grapples with these very questions in Aleph Beta’s Tisha B’Av video – “The Power of Rachel’s Tears.” In this hour-long journey, Rabbi Fohrman takes a deep look into the life and story of Rachel to search for her great merit and the heroic moment that Jeremiah is speaking of. This search leads us into the heart of Rachel’s tense relationship with her sister Leah, one that is fraught with jealousy and hurt.
The tension begins on the night that Rachel is intended to be married to Jacob, only to be replaced by her older sister, Leah, at the last moment. It then builds over the years, as Rachel witnesses her sister give birth to child after child, while she herself remains barren. At the same time, Leah, who is becoming the family matriarch, struggles with experiencing herself as the unwanted wife, always in comparison to Rachel.
As Rabbi Fohrman reveals, the critical turning point in this relationship comes at an often overlooked moment in the Biblical narrative: When Rachel requests some mandrakes that Reuven picks for Leah. What seems like a banal exchange between these sisters is actually the culmination of the tense and strained relationship between them.
With the help of a Rabbinic Midrash, Rabbi Fohrman shows that, in this moment, all of the pain and anger that Rachel and Leah have been carrying inside comes to the fore. Rachel finally understands that beyond her own tortuous pain from being childless, there is another pain that she doesn’t recognize – Leah’s pain of feeling forever unloved. And it’s at this moment that Rachel acts – not with drama and fanfare, but with a moral heroism that has a lasting impact.
When Rachel realizes her sister’s perspective, she shifts into a stance of radical empathy that not only allows for deep understanding to emerge between them, but ultimately sets the course for the promise of redemption generations later. In a sense, it is an act of understanding and reconciliation that both heals the past, and affects the future.
This is the moment that Jeremiah was referring to. This is the action of Rachel’s tears, this is the merit that brings her children home. It is her ability to see beyond her own pain to recognize and hear the pain of her sister, and to choose to heal their relationship from years of misunderstanding and resentment. This act of Rachel becomes the model for reparative action, for turning grief into healing, and it is a model for how our tears on Tisha B’Av can become a catalyst for action.
If you want to understand what steps you can take towards greater healing and reconciliation, if you want to understand the woman who is portrayed as the model of transformative action, watch this video and let it enter your heart.
To view Rachel’s Tears, visit alephbeta.org.