It is Tisha B'Av – the day on which the Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed by conquerors, and the day into which we pour all our grief, all our mourning, both national and personal.
The Book of Lamentations describes in terrible detail the scene of ruin that Jerusalem and Judah have become. Psalm 137 accompanies the captives to Babylonia where, by the waters thereof, they sit down and weep and, unable to make holy music, they hang up their lyres on the willows.
The prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:14-16) adds another dimension to our vision of the destruction: not only are the exiles and the witnesses struck with grief, so is the soul of Rachel our foremother. She weeps inconsolably for her children, her sorrow stirred up as the exiles march past her grave.
Unlike the other patriarchs and matriarchs of Torah, Rachel is not buried in the Cave of Makhpelah in Hebron. Instead, Torah tells us that Jacob buried his beloved, who had died in childbirth as their clan traveled, on the road to Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19). Midrash says that Jacob foresaw that many generations later, Jerusalem would be sacked and the Children of Israel marched into captivity, passing by that very spot. He foresaw that they would need her tears and her prayers (Genesis Rabbah 82:10).
Midrash on the Book of Lamentations (Eychah Rabbah Petichta 24) allows us to sit in on that very scene where Rachel's intervention comes to bear fruit. The spot is heaven, before the Throne of Glory, where the exile of the Jews has brought passionate objection from our ancestors. First the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then our prophet Moses, all stand in turn to protest and to plead for God's mercy for the Jews. Each of them recites the litany of his own suffering; all he suffered by obeying God's will. But God maintains a stony silence.
Then something surprising happens.
בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה קָפְצָה רָחֵל אִמֵּנוּ לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְאָמְרָה רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם
At that moment, Rachel our mother springs up (literally, kaftzah - she jumped/leaped) before the Holy One, saying: "Master of the Universe, it is certainly well known to you that Jacob loved me with a great love and for my sake worked for my father for seven years. And when those years were complete and the time of my marriage came, my father told me his plan to swap my sister Leah for me, and this thing was oh so painful to me. So I told my beloved Jacob and I gave him a signal so that he could know whether it was me, to keep my father from getting away with the switch.
"But then I changed my mind. I had compassion on my sister: she should not have to face the humiliation of this! I taught her the signal that my beloved and I had agreed upon, so that it would seem to him she was Rachel. And not just that: I climbed under the bridal bed and when he would speak to her, she would remain silent and I would answer each time, so that he shouldn't recognize my sister's voice.
"I did right by her. I let go of jealousy and I made sure not expose her to shame.
"Now God, I am but flesh and blood, dust and ashes. I was hurt and yet still I acted for her dignity. And You, so much greater, are jealous of the Israelites? And for this You exiled my children? For this you have let them be killed by the sword? For this you have let their enemies have their way with them?"
And with these words, the Holy One's heart softened and opened and mercy poured forth, saying, "For you, Rachel, I will return Israel to their place." As it is written, "A voice is heard in Ramah, a voice of bitter weeping, Rachel crying for her children... But there is hope... Your children shall return to their borders."
And within a generation, the Jews were allowed to return and begin to rebuild their lives and their Temple. According to this Midrash, this is by the merit of Rachel. Rachel changed the course of history, where Moses and our forefathers failed.
We also live in a broken time. We walk the streets filled with grief. We are in exile from our highest vision. Our dreams of peace and justice lie in ruins. Now, more than ever, we need Rachel. We need to be Rachel, changing history by following her example.
First of all, we need to jump. She jumped. Without hesitation, she jumped in where she was not expected and where some might have told her she didn't belong. And we too need to act without hesitation. To be bold. To have holy chutzpah, as Reb Zalman would call it.
Once there, she spoke her truth. She spoke truth to power. You can't get more powerful than God, and still she stood her ground. Like the others, she told her tale of her suffering. We need to speak the truths of our own suffering also.
But she didn't stop at the tale of her own pain. She also spoke of how, despite her suffering, maybe especially sensitized by her suffering, she acted with compassion. She placed the dignity of others even before her own happiness. We too, need to act compassionately. We need to stand up for the dignity of others – other people, other communities, people like us and people unlike us. We need to stand up for the dignity of the planet as a whole.
Chutzpah. Honesty. Compassion. Respect. These we already possess. They are what make us ready to handle difficult times – like these times. And these are the qualities for us to explore and mine and refine in these 49 days as we head into the new year.
So nachamu nachamu ami, take comfort. The mashiach is born on Tisha B'Av. Hope arises out of calamity. And as writer Clarissa Pinkola Estés says, we are made for times such as these.