Here lies a simple Jew
Who wrote Yiddish tales for women
And for the common folk
He was a humorist, a writer
His whole life he laughed
And joined the world in it reveries
The whole world enjoyed itself
While he -oy vey - had troubles.
And even as the public
Laughed, split their sides, whooped it up
He grieved, as only God knows
In secret, so that no one should see.
-Epitaph for Yiddish humorist Sholem Aleichem
* * *
Our foremother Rachel did not live an easy life. In this week’s portion she meets her husband-to-be Jacob and the two immediately fall in love. Yet, after seven years of expectation, Rachel was unable to marry her husband on their wedding night. At the 11th hour, her father Laban switched her out for her sister Leah, forcing her to wait for another seven years until she might marry Jacob.
However, when she did marry, things were no easier for her. Leah was fertile while she was barren. For her, this struggle would define her life. ““Give me children, or I’ll die!” she once cried to Jacob (Genesis 30:1). While sometimes deep outcries of pain move Divine hearts, this cry would not be one of them. Rachel would have to settle for providing her husband her handmaiden as a wife, just as Jacob’s grandmother Sarah had done two generations before.
Helpless, Rachel would watch her servant Bilhah conceive and birth the child she so desperately wanted. Years would pass as each of the women in her tent would bear children. Rachel even traded time with Jacob for a handful of mandrakes from her sister Leah, hoping these ancient avenues to fertility would bring her success. Sadly, nothing came of this trade for Rachel, but that night her sister, using the time she had purchased from Rachel, once again conceived. Throughout all of this, Rachel was silent.
Even when she did have a son, she was not happy. After everyone else gave birth to children, Rachel finally became pregnant. Yet, this birth would not satisfy her. After years of watching those around her produce large families, she would name her firstborn Joseph, meaning “may God grant me another son” (Genesis 30:24). Rachel could not bring herself to be content with this child. He would not be named Asher (happy) or Gad (fortunate) like his brothers. Instead, he would symbolize Rachel’s emotional state at the time of his birth. No single child could make up for the misfortune she had struggled with each and every day.
Nothing in her life would be a respite for her pain. She was distanced from her husband, jealous of her sister, skeptical about her child, and abused by her father. In fact, by the time that Jacob decided to flee from her homeland Haran, she felt no connection to her ancestry at all. “Go” she would tell him:
“Do we still have any share in the inheritance of our father’s estate? Does he not regard us as foreigners? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that God took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever God has told you. ” (Genesis 31:14-16).
Soon they would leave and after years Rachel would be granted her wish. She would conceive again and birth a child who she would attempt to name “Ben-Oni” the son of my trouble. Even he could not fill that hole left from the utter loneliness of her existence. In pain from complications of childbirth she would breath her last breath. Jacob would bury her along the side the road and move on. He would set up a pillar for her that remains until this day, a wordless epitaph to her grief and isolation.
Throughout her life, no one saw Rachel. In the noise of childbirth and joy, her pain was masked by sisterly duties, daughterly commitments, and marital responsibilities. No one in her life saw her, but God did. Like Shalom Alechem did so many years later, she “grieved, as only God knows, in secret, so that no one should see.”
Yet, her pain was noticed in heaven. God had paid attention.
According to legend, after God destroyed the Temple God was so distraught that God wanted to withhold mercy from the people (Lamentations Rabbah Proem 24). Though they had met exile, God was ready to finish the task. Soon a parade of history’s greatest voices would parade before God to ask for God to change his mind. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses would all come before God to plead for compassion. They would remind God of past injustices done to them and of merits their actions had accrued. Yet, God would pay them no heed.
Then Rachel would rise before God. Do you remember, she would say, how my father switched my sister and I on what supposed to be my wedding night? Do you remember how in order to save my sister from humiliation, I taught my sister how to better pretend to be me? Did you know that I lay under the bed that whole night, answering for her so Jacob would not suspect he was with Leah. Did you see my love and courage? Did you feel my openness and compassion? If that was worth anything, then stop this charade!
And God listened to Rachel as he had been listening her whole life. He had been with her on that night, as God has been with her at every moment of pain. God had noticed her struggle. Inspired by her, God vowed to stop the bloodshed and restore the House of Israel.
Rachel was lonely and misunderstood, but God saw her pain. Sholem Aleichem put on a smile everywhere he went but God knew the truth. We may feel lost, adrift, forsaken, or abandoned but our pain echoes throughout the cosmos. We just have to trust that when no one notices them, at least God does.