The Tomb has become a shrine for thousands of pilgrims, just as Rachel herself has become the religion’s ultimate matriarch. Why?
In 1995, when the Oslo process was in full swing, then-Prime Minister Yitzḥak Rabin was planning to hand over several West Bank cities to the Palestinian Authority. Among them was Bethlehem, where the site venerated by Jews as the tomb of the biblical matriarch Rachel is located.
Disturbed at the thought that Israel would relinquish the tomb, Rabbi Ḥanan ben Porat, an influential settlement activist, met with Rabin to convince him to leave it under Israeli control. On the way to this meeting, Porat was unexpectedly joined by Rabbi Menachem Porush, a Knesset member for the ultra-Orthodox, and formally non-Zionist, United Torah Judaism party.
At the meeting itself, Porat put forth a series of arguments, most of them security-related, to persuade Rabin that handing over Rachel’s Tomb would be a mistake. But Porush, to Rabin’s surprise, began to weep and grabbed the prime minister’s hands: “Yitzḥak, it’s Mama Rachel, Mama Rachel!” In Porat’s telling, Rabin was so moved that he changed the agreement so that the site would remain under full Israeli control—a decision in which the Palestinians concurred.
The biblical accountof Rachel’s death can be found in this week’s Torah reading of Vayishlaḥ (Genesis 32:4–36:43), which begins with Jacob’s tense reunion with his brother Esau. After years of enmity, the two embrace and weep and then go their separate ways. Shortly afterward, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel dies while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. She is not buried in the family tomb in the Makhpelah Cave, where Jacob will be buried alongside his other wife—Rachel’s sister Leah—and where Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and Rebecca were already interred. Instead, Jacob buried her “on the road to Ephrath, now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.”
In 2016, a hefty new Artscroll biography was published whose cover stands out in the sefarim store among images of bearded rabbis. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is the story of the late Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, whose Jerusalem home was legendary for welcoming hundreds of guests each Shabbos, providing them with home-cooked meals as well as a deeper nourishment they may not have known they needed. The book is written by Sara Yoheved Rigler, author of Holy Woman and a frequent contributor to Aish.com. Rigler writes with a unique appreciation for holy Jewish women. While her books would probably not pass the academic smell test, she is able to convey the passion and fire of a great individual in her writing in a way that tends to escape her more polished peers. Henny Machlis as well as her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis were truly great individuals who stretched themselves beyond their individual egos to leave a remarkable legacy. Rigler writes in the book that when Henny was younger she used to say that she wanted to have 20 children and introduce Judaism to the entire world. She ended up having 14 children (with nine c-sections!) and inspired tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews alike. She was, as the book jacket describes, “a virtuoso in chesed,” someone for whom the normal boundaries separating oneself from others is effaced.
This month, a new Spanish volume was published about Jorge Luis Borges’s relationship to Judaism—timed to be released 50 years after his first visit to Israel at the personal invitation of David Ben-Gurion. The book, titled Borges, Judaísmo e Israel, explores the great Argentinian writer’s various Jewish connections.
A lapsed Catholic with an interest in many religions, Borges (1899-1986) was particularly fascinated by Judaism, especially Kabbalah, and surprisingly erudite references to Jewish texts make their way into several of his stories. Even more unusually for a literary figure, especially one who traveled in avant-garde circles, his appreciation of Judaism translated into enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Indeed, the 1969 trip to Israel affected Borges profoundly, prompting him to write a trio of poems in praise of the young state and the Jewish people more broadly. “Long live Israel,” he declares in one poem, published in that same year; in another he marvels at how “a man condemned to be Shylock” has “returned to battle/ to the violent light of victory/ beautiful like a lion at noon.”
Written shortly after the Six-Day War—just when much of the literary world was beginning to turn against the Jewish state—these poems celebrating the Jews’ return to martial glory also stand in stark contrast to their cosmopolitan author’s own general suspicion of nationalism.
A half-century since the poems were written—and on the eve of Jerusalem Day, which this year falls on Sunday—its well worth revisiting the story behind them and the place of the Jews in Borges’s worldview.
As a particularly raucous Israeli election season enters the homestretch, a recent Israeli film, now making the Jewish film festival circuit with subtitles, provides some perspective. It’s called The Unorthodox (Ha-bilti Rishmiyim, literally “Those Without Permission”) and tells the little known story of the founding of the Shas political party, a punning acronym for “Torah observant Sephardim.”
Lately it seems to be the season of haredim on screen. My immersion in this very particular oeuvre began with Shtisel, the 2013 runaway hit Israeli TV series, which depicts a haredi family in Jerusalem in all of its complicated, charming dysfunction. (The first two seasons are now available with English subtitles on Netflix.) More recently, Autonomies (2018) presents a dystopian division of Israel into separate secular and religious states. In the United States, two recent documentaries showcase radically divergent ways of understanding the New York Hasidic community and the experience of marginal figures within it. Haredi Jews are not always interchangeable with Hasidic ones, and Israeli soap operas are different than American art-house documentaries. Yet in considering all of these offerings, certain patterns inevitably emerge. Counterintuitively, the more serious offerings in this genre are the ones with a lighter touch.
In his essay on the poet Raḥel, Hillel Halkin offers a fascinating study of her too-brief life (1890-1931), her poetics, and the unique place she occupies in the Hebrew literary landscape. Certainly, against the background of the pioneering Zionist ethos of her time—nationalistic, idealistic, and collectivist—the intense individualism of Raḥel’s verse stands out. No less deeply committed to the Zionist enterprise than other poets cited by Halkin, notably Uri Tsvi Grinberg and Avraham Shlonsky, she devoted herself mainly to the exploration of such seemingly inward emotions as sadness, longing, humility, and self-doubt.
The study of poetry on its own terms is a noble literary ideal, but it is difficult to read the poetry of Raḥel without also ruminating upon the personal circumstances, especially the disease to which she would eventually succumb at the age of forty, that may account for the themes of suffering, loneliness, and longing that run through her work. It is perhaps for this reason that Halkin in the end deems her to be, with emphasis on both adjectives, a “great minor poet”: that is, one who deals with localized themes, seemingly without obvious public import, but who nevertheless addresses them with a clarity and virtuosity that ensures he or she will never be forgotten—as, in Israel, Raḥel has indeed never been.
Yet might this major/minor distinction, which Halkin applies with subtlety and generosity, ultimately be something of a false choice?
At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading of B’ha’alotkha (Numbers 8-12), the Bible gives instructions for the daily kindling of the menorah.
The menorah has long occupied a prominent place in the Jewish imagination. From the time of its placement in the inner courtyard of the Tabernacle in the desert and later of the Temple in Jerusalem, to its rekindling after the Maccabees’ defeat of the Seleucids, to its central position on the Arch of Titus in Rome, to its modern repurposing as the emblem of Jewish revival by the state of Israel, few Jewish symbols have been as familiar or as evocative.
And yet the Bible leaves unstated the significance of the menorah and its seven branches, its importance to the Temple, or its meaning and purpose with respect to the relationship between God and His chosen nation and perhaps beyond. On these matters, an examination of five key scriptural passages can shed light.