Mother Rachel's Yahrtzeit
Sunday, October 28 - the 11th of Cheshvan - was the 3554th anniversary of Matriarch Rachel's death.
Rachel, the beloved wife of the Patriarch Jacob died in childbirth. Jacob chose to bury his wife in Bethlehem rather than at the Patriarchs Tomb in Hebron because he foresaw that his descendants would pass this site during their exile into Babylon and that Rachel would pray for their safety and ultimate return.
For millennia, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel's Tomb, considered the third holiest shrine in the Land of Israel. The site has absorbed countless tears of barren women beseeching G-d in the merit of Mother Rachel, who herself had been barren for many years. Jews have poured out their hearts there, praying for everything from world redemption to a suitable marriage-partner.
This year's Yahrtzeit coincided with the Israel Defense Force's entering of Bethlehem in an attempt to wipe out terrorist factions who have been regularly shooting at the surrounding Jewish neighborhoods.
Bullet-proof Egged buses were allocated for hopeful visitors, leaving Jerusalem for Rachel's Tomb on an hourly basis on Saturday night, the eve of the Yahrtzeit, and throughout Sunday. In addition, the Gush Etzion Municipality volunteered its own bullet-proof buses on a half-hour basis. Though government officials were skeptical about whether the buses would be filled, thousands of Jews disabused them of their doubts. Saturday night, instead of stopping at midnight as scheduled, the buses continued transporting the steady tide of worshippers back and forth from Rachel's Tomb up until 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning.
In 1995, Bethlehem was handed over to the Palestinian Authority. This resulted in many changes. A fortress was erected around the Tomb to protect Jewish worshippers from Arab snipers. Bullet-proof buses now pull up to the Tomb and discharge their passengers behind a concrete wall closing off the Bethlehem street from the Tomb. For the past seven years, two yeshivot have been established at Rachel's Tomb, ensuring a continuous Jewish presence at this holy site.
When the current Intifada broke out last September, access to Rachel's Tomb was denied. The Barak government seemed willing to relinquish the holy shrine as it had Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, after Palestinians destroyed holy books and turned the Tomb into a mosque. It was indeed a difficult and dangerous site to protect.
What was not taken into account, though, was the strong spirit of the People of Israel, who were simply unwilling to give up the holy place.
A group of Jewish women from Hebron set up a tent at the Gilo-Bethlehem junction, remaining there until the Tomb was reopened. Last year, shortly before Mother Rachel's Yahrtzeit, a group of 20 women from Hebron, including grandmothers and mothers with babies in strollers, stood at the IDF barrier at the entrance to Bethlehem, with the intention of holding prayers there since they had been denied entrance to Rachel's Tomb. The group decided to walk through the IDF guarded barrier and enter Bethlehem by foot and walk to Rachel's Tomb. The guard was taken aback by the determination of these Jewish women.
"It took us a little over ten minutes to walk to Rachel's Tomb", says Shelly Karzan from Hebron. When we arrived there, an Israeli soldier was standing guard. 'Shalom', we said. 'We are here to pray at Rachel's Tomb'. The soldier rubbed his eyes in amazement and assumed that we must have received authorization to have gotten this far. He opened the door and we entered. We were greatly moved at the thought of actually being at the tomb when, for over a month, Jews had been denied entrance. Tearfully we prayed with the utmost devotion, imploring Mother Rachel to once again intercede and make the Land of Israel safe for her children."
This incident, along with pressure from Jews around the world, had their desired effect, and entry to Rachel's Tomb was officially granted. The holy site had been closed for forty one days. In Hebrew letters, the number forty one equals the word "eim," or Mother.
This year, I joined the thousands of Jews who visited Rachel's Tomb on her Yahrtzeit. On the bus was a mixture of men and women in Chassidic garb, North African women wearing colorful headcoverings, and residents from the neighboring settlements who regularly visit Rachel's Tomb to help ensure Jewish presence at the site. After driving through a Bethlehem overrun with tanks and soldiers, we arrived at the Tomb. We quickly got off the bus and were ushered in by the IDF.
The Tomb was packed with people. I entered the women's section of the shrine where Psalms and private prayers were being recited. Some of the women wailed out loud while others silently wept into their prayer books. The men's section likewise reverberated with sounds of sobbing and prayer. Rachel's resting place seems to evoke heartfelt tears.
" . . . lamentation, bitter weeping; Rachel weeps for her children;"
I left Rachel's Tomb strengthened. The spirit of Am Yisrael is stronger than the harsh world outside the Tomb. Throughout the ages, Jews have come here to pray at the most difficult times. The thousands of Jews who chose to come on October 28 to commemorate Mother Rachel's Yahrtzeit are proof of the continuity and determination of Am Yisrael, and a reaffirmation of our faith in our Jewish heritage.
"Thus says the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from tears; your work shall have its reward, says the Lord; they shall return from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord; the children shall return to their land." - Jeremiah, chapter 31."
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Sara Bedein is a writer and translator who lives with her husband David and their six children in Efrat, Israel.