The Story of Two Sisters and Its Redemptive Aftermath
(Based on a Ti’sha B’Av teaching by Rabbi Fohrman)
The reference point even in Talmudic midrashim (“midrashes”) to Tish’a B’av is (curiously) drawn from Jeremiah 31:15-16: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children refusing to be comforted for her children, because [literally] he is no more. Thus says YHVH: ‘Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded’, says YHVH, ‘and they shall come back from the land of the enemy’”.
Since Jeremiah lived through the Babylonian siege and finally the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, leading to the Jewish exile, the ‘usage’ of Rachel in the above text is of one who intercedes for those “children” who were vanquished, humiliated, and banished from their land. Rabbi Fohrman analyzes the text based on Hebrew words that are used here and ALSO, primarily in story of the life of Joseph, Rachel’s firstborn, who like the present people of Judah, experienced suffering and exile. The association of the two episodes is connected by the theme of loss and grief.
“A voice was heard in Ramah”, takes us to Genesis 39:15 where Potiphar’s wife who wronged Joseph in every account says: “when he heard that I lifted my voice” – both “heard” and “lifted” (rooted in “ram”) are used in both excerpts (“Ramah”). Rachel’s mourning is compared (or even directly associated by the rabbi) to this very difficult moment in Joseph’s life.
Now going back chronologically to Joseph’s life, his father Jacob is said to have “refused to be comforted” (37:35), with the same expression being used by Rachel in the Jeremiah 31:15 text, to which is added “for he is no more”. These very words were used by Reuben when he found out that his brothers had sold Joseph (37:30). And again going back to Jacob, who, like Rachel, was “weeping”. However, YHVH, in His words of promise to Rachel says that her sons will eventually return, adding that her “work” (or “action”) will be rewarded. Rabbi Fohrman stressed that it is not the mourning and grief that YHVH is addressing, but Rachel’s action or work.
The question is - what action? This takes us even further back in the time chronology of Jacob’s family, way before Joseph’s “calamity”, and into a relationship of two sisters who were wronged and deceived by their father when he switched the oldest for the youngest at the wedding night, thus making each of them a victim and not through their own fault, also a victimizer.
So what was Rachel’s action that resolved that situation and for which, according to Jeremiah 31:16, she is to be rewarded? Genesis 30:14-15 tells the story of the mandrakes that Leah’s firstborn brings to his mother, a plant that Rachel is asking her sister to give to her (presumably because of its aphrodisiac properties, though the rabbi doesn’t take that into consideration in his teaching). When Leah retorts by saying: "Isn't it enough that you have taken away my husband? Do you have to take my son's mandrakes too?" Rachel surprisingly isn’t defensive, but instead says: "Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son's mandrakes." Take notice of the validating “therefore”. Rachel for the first time is able to see her sister’s point of view. Her eyes are opened to what her sister had gone through, rather than focusing on her own situation and how she was wronged at the very start of the marriage, and then on top of that being barren.
Leah, now relieved, goes out to the field and greets Jacob with the words: "You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son's mandrakes." It is as it were, the redeeming of that first night of their marriage, where bitterness, disappointment and a sense of loss were felt by all involved. This “second marriage night” yielded Issachar, whose name means “to hire”, but also “reward”. And while Leah’s association at first may have been the “hiring” aspect, when she gave birth it was the reward that she focused on: "Elohim has given me my wages/reward, because I have given my maid to my husband" (Gen. 30:18). But the story doesn’t end there.
We go back now to Jeremiah 31:16 where YHVH says to Rachel: “For your work shall be rewarded…” Again, what work or action is He referring to? In Hebrew the reward that is spoken of is: “yesh sacar” – there is reward. The two words “yesh sacar” together spell the name “Yisaschar”.
Let’s end with a quote by Rabbi Fohrman: “Tisha B’Av is the great holiday of Jeremiah. We know that principally because he’s the author of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations. He’s the one who teaches us how to mourn. But Jeremiah himself points us to Rachel if we really want to learn how to mourn. Look at her tears and what they did. But do you know what Jeremiah is really telling us? He’s really telling us that it wasn’t Rachel’s mourning that saved us, that made God say that the Exile was going to be over, all of your children are going to come back. It wasn’t because she cried, it’s because she fixed something that she could fix. It’s because when she was at her rawest, things were hardest, most painful for her, she reached out and saw the perspective of her sister, who she’d seen as a rival; that somehow made peace with her.
What, then, is Jeremiah really telling us? He’s saying beyond reading Lamentations, beyond mourning, if you really want to emulate the heroine of tears, then pay attention to the real reason why God listened to her. Reach out empathetically to your sister and brother with whom you may be in conflict. If we follow Jeremiah’s advice, the highest thing we can do on Tisha B’Av is not just be sad. Rachel’s sadness didn’t move God as much as her heroism did. Can we be heroes? Would that be even greater than sitting on the floor and being sad?
What would it even mean to be heroes? We all get into conflict with others, it’s part of life. We even get into conflict with people that we should be getting along with: Family members, co-workers, neighbors. Being a hero doesn’t mean never getting into a fight; it means having the strength to get out of one once you’re in it. And the key to that is to do what Rachel did.
At your greatest moment of pain, can you step back and ask yourself, what does this situation look like from my opponent’s point of view? Do I really have the only perspective here? What does it look like from his point of view? Her point of view? That kind of curiosity is heroism. It’s the way out of vicious conflict. If we can emulate her heroism, feel their pain too, and respond, then maybe, like Rachel, God will be unable to deny us our deepest wishes, just like her.” End quote.
How pertinent are these words and their conclusion to the sons of Rachel (and Leah) and to their eventual coming reconciliation! Hearts that will face the Almighty will be empowered to act in such a way as to restore and heal the breech that has taken place so many centuries ago. Our present can redeem the past, in the Spirit of the Redeemer, “Whom Elohim sent forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of Elohim” (Romans 3:25 emphasis added).
In his teaching Fohrman mentioned that, according to the rabbis Rachel suspected that her father was planning some kind of mischief and therefore agreed with Jacob that during the wedding she would give him some kind of sign that they had agreed upon beforehand, so that he would know it was truly her that he was marrying. But when things did turn out as Rachel feared, she couldn’t bring herself to withhold the sign from Leah, and thus prevented the latter from public shaming and embarrassment. The question was raised by Rav Fohrman as to why the rabbis made up this story.
Another interesting episode that occurred later on in the life of the sisters, cum rivals (which IS recorded in the Word), involved some wild field plant that Reuben found, gave his mother who then, upon request, agreed to give to her younger sister. Apparently, the nature of that plant, “doodaim”, in and of itself did not appear to be of any significance in the rabbinic tradition, and certainly was not viewed as important by Rabbi Fohrman. But for some reason it struck me that there could be a very real connection between the alleged sign in the rabbis’ story of the wedding, and this plant, which if put together brings up a very important question for us to ask ourselves as redeemed and restored Israelites.
In most English bible translations the doodaim are defined as mandrakes. Mandrakes are known as “love-apples, exciting sexual desire, and favoring procreation”. This plant grows in North Africa, Middle East and Southern Europe, and was used by the ancient civilizations even as far back as the Bronze Age. Its flower is purple, the fruit is yellow and its root is forked and can be used for medicinal purposes. It occurred to me that this plant could have been used in a similar fashion as the wedding bouquet of today. The wedding bouquet tradition, in itself, goes far back in ancient civilizations. And so, putting two and two together I believe that there was a connection between the doodaim mentioned in Genesis 30:14 and the ‘sign’ in the rabbinical story. In other words, the rabbis’ story could have some foundations to it, based on a prevailing cultural tradition in the days of the Patriarchs.
The only other reference to doodaim in Scripture is found in the Song of Solomon: “The mandrakes [“doodaim”] give off a fragrance, and at our gates [“our openings”] a precious gift, all manner, new and old, which I have laid up for you, my beloved [“dodi”] (Song of Solomon 7:13 emphases added). Dodi (“my beloved”) and Doodaim share the same Hebrew root letters, daled, vav, daled having to do with “love” and “beloved”, while “gates” literally means “openings”.
As a shepherdess Rachel would have known where to find the plant, and in preparation for her wedding would have started collecting it, gathering the “new and old” in order to give to Jacob at the wedding night. If that indeed were part of the tradition of the ancients, then the rabbis “story” may not be unsubstantiated. Let us go back to that wedding day and its aftermath (my version): Laban rushes in and tells Rachel that she will not be the bride, but that her sister Leah will stealthily take her place. Can you imagine the shock and grief of that young girl! But for Leah too that was not a most favorable situation, as it really was not her wedding either. But if we follow the rabbinic story, although Leah herself would not have had time to collect the precious flowers to give to her husband for their “opening”, her sister, who was prepared, gave her the bouquet in spite of her own misfortune (as the “sign” that the rabbis mention). Rachel, to follow the rabbinic story, was considerate of her sister’s need at that trying time, and it was this act of kindness and compassion on her part that YHVH rewards her for: “Thus says YHVH: ‘Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded’, says YHVH” (Jeremiah 31:16 emphasis added).
Obviously Elohim didn’t need that plant in order to open up a womb, but in Leah’s case it was His compassion on an unloved wife (ref. Gen. 29:31), and His covenant promises to the forefathers of multitudes of progeny (through Jacob’s wives), that resulted in fruitfulness. Not being likewise fruitful caused Rachel to become jealous of her sister, and to build up a strong resentment toward her. She may have even tried to prevent Jacob from having relationships with her rival. This all came to a head maybe five or six years later, the day that Reuben found those doodaim and took them to his mother. It was no wonder that Rachel, in her situation, would have wanted to get a hold of this plant, and so when she saw that her sister had them she asked her if she would be willing to part with them. Leah retorted with anger and bitterness to her pleading sister: "Is it a small matter that you have taken away my husband? Would you take away my son's mandrakes also?" (Genesis 30:15). Did these words move Rachel to genuinely see, perhaps for the first time, the pain in her sister’s heart or was it just a deal that they struck? Did Rachel finally lay aside her own self-pity, resentment and jealousy towards her sister, expressing that with these words: "Therefore he will lie with you tonight for your son's mandrakes"? Rav Fohrman brought up in his teaching that at that point she no longer saw matters from her own perspective, but began to perceive her sister’s loneliness and suffering as an unloved wife. As we know, Leah complied and gave her sister the doodaim, while (possibly) rushing to greet her husband in the field, saying: "You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son's mandrakes" (v. 16). Leah may have even had some of the doodaim with her, if she held back a few for her own use. Rav Fohrman mentions that that was, in a sense, Leah’s real wedding night, and as a result she bore a son and called him Issachar (see last week’s article). After that occasion Rachel also became pregnant with Joseph. From then on there was peace between them.
All told, Jacob served Laban twenty years. After the first seven Laban gave his daughters to him for wives. Thus within thirteen years Jacob had eleven sons and one daughter.
Now to the question that we must ask ourselves as the bride of Messiah: What is it that the groom is expecting us to bring to the choopah? Do we have this precious and rare bouquet that gives off sweet fragrance and a potion that graces the time of the opening - “petach” - of the womb? After all it is the time that reveals the bride’s virginity (purity and righteousness) and the evidence of the blood covenant between her and her groom.
YHVH’s reward to this mother of Israel, Rachel, is the ultimate return of her progeny: “For your work shall be rewarded, says YHVH, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope in your future, says YHVH, that your children shall come back to their own border” (Jeremiah 31:16-17). Then the prophet continues speaking to her about the future of her children who at that moment were (still) “no more” (v.15). "Set up signposts, make landmarks; Set your heart toward the highway, the way in which you went. Turn back, O virgin of Israel, turn back to these your cities” (v.21). “Again I will build you, and you shall be rebuilt, O virgin of Israel! You shall again be adorned with your tambourines, and shall go forth in the dances of those who rejoice” (v.4). "Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old, together; for I will turn your mourning to joy” (v13). When seen as a sequel, as presented here in Jeremiah, the “root” (or original) stories begin to bear much relevance and importance for us in this day and age! It appears that the inspired prophet is deliberately shedding light on these events of long ago in order to call to attention and bring to the fore a major key for his envisioned latter-day return, repentance, and reunion of all of Jacob’s sons and the great Wedding Feast, when Israel, as a daughter and bride is pictured as a sanctified virgin.