Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Posts Tagged ‘Exile and return

exiles tissot
Jeremiah has a reputation for lamentation and bringing on the bad news, but the verses we are reading are from the section called The Book of Consolation. Jeremiah’s subject is the  joyful return from distant exile of those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had been overthrown by the Assyrians.

We heard in the Torah reading about Jacob returning with his family to Canaan, the land which God promised to Abraham and Isaac, and then to Jacob himself. Jacob had a new name, Israel, a name which belonged to all his descendants, the children of Israel. When the kingdom of Israel was divided after Solomon’s time, it was the name taken by the northern kingdom, while the south was called Judah. The biggest tribe in the northern kingdom was Ephraim, and sometimes the prophets used the name Ephraim when they were talking about Israel.

So we have a patriarch with two names, Jacob and Israel, a nation with at least two names, Israel and Judah, and a kingdom, Israel, referred to as Ephraim.

We heard in the Torah reading, that, as Jacob and his family travelled south, on the road to Ephrath, his pregnant wife Rachel, whom he loved very much, went into labour and died giving birth to her second son, Benjamin.

Rachel is mentioned in the haftarah, when Jeremiah says:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.

The meaning of the verse is not absolutely clear. Some commentators thought that Rachel was weeping for the exiles, those who lost their homes when the Assyrians conquered Israel, or perhaps the later exiles when the Babylonians conquered Judah. Either way, Rachel had long been dead, and the idea of her spirit lamenting for her children could apply to any generation.

And where was Ramah actually? It would make sense if it was close to Bethlehem where Rachel was buried, and, as Ramah is a fairly common place name, there may have been such a place, on the road to Ephrath. There was a Ramah to the north of Jerusalem, in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin, so that also fits Rachel’s story. This was the birth place of the prophet Samuel, the location where Jeremiah was imprisoned and perhaps most significantly, the place where Jeremiah saw Jewish captives being assembled for deportation to Babylon.[1] This would indeed be a reason why Rachel might weep for her children.

[1]  Jeremiah 40:1

Ramah can also mean ‘on high’ which gives the sentence another meaning.

There is a bit of rabbinic folklore, a midrash, which tells that Moses and the patriarchs, Abraham , Isaac and Jacob, all interceded for the children of Israel, asking God to have pity on his children and bring them home from exile. God remained silent. Midrash plays around with chronology, so you can have the patriarchs and Moses all praying at the same time. After that, Rachel interceded, because the exiles were her descendants, through her sons Joseph and Benjamin. She referred to her own experience, overcoming jealousy of her sister Leah, who was Jacob’s other wife and the mother of many of Jacob’s children. Rachel said to God ‘You, too, should forgive my children who have sinned and are now being exiled.’

Then, the midrash tells us, ‘A voice was heard on high of lamentation, of mourning, and weeping, of Rachel weeping for her children’ and God responded ‘For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their land’. And the midrash cites the verse from our chapter of Jeremiah:

Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears… There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country.

For those of you familiar with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, you may remember that Ishmael, the sole survivor of the doomed ship the Pequod, is rescued by a another whaling ship, the Rachel. Now this is not a matter of chance; Melville chose biblical names for their symbolic meaning, and the Rachel, searching for survivors in the North Atlantic, is certainly named with Rachel weeping for her children in mind.

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