In challenging times, sorrow becomes hope

The Western Wall in Jerusalem was one of the last standing remnants of the Temple that was destroyed by our enemies. For anyone who witnessed that event, it must have been a symbol of tragedy and defeat. As time passed however, the meaning of the Western Wall shifted, and it became a symbol of hope. Throughout the centuries, pilgrims came from all over the world to pray there. They envisioned a time when our people would be gathered from the four corners of the Earth and return home to Israel. How do symbols of sorrow become symbols of hope?
This week, in Parashat Vayishlach, there is another symbol of sorrow that will become a symbol of hope: Rachel’s grave. Rachel dies and is buried in Beit Lekhem. It’s odd that she is buried there, because the other patriarchs and matriarchs are buried in Hebron. Why wouldn’t Jacob bury his beloved wife with the rest of their family?
According to the Midrash, Jacob chose that site for Rachel’s tomb rather than the family cave in Hebron because he had a prophecy. When she died, Jacob foresaw her tomb would become a symbol of much-needed hope in a time of desperation. The midrash teaches us that Jacob predicted the Israelite defeat at the hands of the Babylonians. He foresaw that, as they would be led into exile, they would walk along the very route where he was destined to bury Rachel. The exiles would walk past her tomb in their moment of defeat, and Rachel would rise from her grave to see them leaving in chains. She would begin to weep, and God would comfort her saying, “Still your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears. There is hope for your future. Your children shall return to their borders.” If these words are familiar to you, that is because they are from Jeremiah, Chapter 31. At Rachel’s death Jacob was blessed with hearing the very words that Jeremiah would prophesy centuries later.
In other words, Jacob buried Rachel in Beit Lekhem instead of Hebron because he knew in the future, during a time of national tragedy for our people, her tomb would become a seed of hope. The exile was a dark time for our people, and who better to give them hope than our ancestor Rachel, who knew the suffering of being a sister-wife and the longing to bear more children? If the exiles heard God comforting her and saying her children would return, then her image would strengthen them. Rachel’s tomb would become a symbol of hope in dark times and the eternal possibility of returning from exile.
Over the years Rachel’s grave has been used as a symbol of hope much like the Western Wall. Even today Rachel’s grave is a pilgrimage site where people pray for a better life and a better world. Couples with fertility problems go there to pray for help. Maybe her grave is in Beit Lekhem and not in Hebron to remind us that in the most challenging of times there is still reason to hope.
Rabbi Elana Zelony is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson.

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