Rachel Bluwstein, known throughout Israel simply as Ra’hel, was one of the most prolific poets in the period of Hebrew revival. Born on September 20, 1890 to a wealthy Russian family, Ra’hel took courses on painting and literature in high school and planned to pursue an arts and philosophy degree in Italy upon matriculating. She changed paths at the age of nineteen, however, after visiting Palestine and meeting A.D. Gordon, an influential labor Zionist who founded the socialist-nationalist youth movement, Hapoel Hatzair. Under Gordon’s guidance, Ra’hel travelled to France to study agriculture and drawing, and joined a small kibbutz, Degania Aleph, in her late twenties. But, tragically, she contracted tuberculosis only a short while later and was ultimately forced to move to the city. It was at this time that she began to focus exclusively on poetry.
One of the most salient features of Ra’hel’s poetry is the starkly Biblical backdrop against which much of it is set. Though she led a secular life, Ra’hel was an avid reader of Tanach, and often incorporated its narratives into her poems. “Jonathan,” “Michal,” and “Elijah” are three obvious examples of poems that Ra’hel wrote with Biblical characters in mind; “On Mount Nevo,” about the Biblical Moses, is a fourth; “Sheep of the Poor,” about Uriah the Hittite, is a fifth.
Still, it is the matriarch Rachel who appears most frequently in Ra’hel’s poetry. In “Barren,” for instance, Ra’hel—who never had children—promises that “I will continue grumbling, like our mother Rachel did” before the latter finally conceived. In another poem, “Rachel,” Ra’hel identifies even more explicitly with her namesake: “Rachel, mother of mothers/ who shepherded Laban’s sheep—/ it is her blood that flows in by blood/ and her voice that sings in me.”
A third poem in which Ra’hel alludes to the Biblical Rachel is entitled “Take in a Clasp of Brotherhood:”
Take in a clasp of brotherhood
my hand in your two good hands.
Both of us know: this ship’s been torn asunder
it will never come safe to land.
Dry my tears [דמעתי] with words of comfort [נחמה], my cherished one—
my soul’s in bitter pain.
Both of us know that the wandering son [הבן הנודד]
will never come home again.
In this poem, Ra’hel sheds “tears” over a “wandering son” whom she fears “will never come home again.” She seeks solace in “comforting words,” but has found none thus far.
There is a distinct connection between “Take in a Clasp of Brotherhood” and the Haphtarah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah. This Haphtarah is drawn from the thirty-first chapter of the Biblical book of Jeremiah, and it imagines the pain experienced by Rachel the matriarch as the Israelites languish in exile:
So says the Lord: A voice is heard on high—lamentation, bitter weeping! Rachel is weeping for her sons; she refuses to be comforted for her sons, for they are gone absent. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears [דמעה], for there is reward for your effort, says the Lord—they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord—the boys shall return to their own border. I have indeed heard Ephraim pacing with grief [מתנודד]: “You have chastised me, and I was chastised as an unruly calf. O lead me back, and I will return, for You are the Lord, my God…” I will surely have compassion on him, says the Lord (Jer. 31:14-19).
The parallels between “Take in a Clasp of Brotherhood” and Jeremiah 31 are both thematic and linguistic: Rachel and Ra’hel are each moved to “tears” by the absence of a “son” who is “wandering” (נודד) / “pacing with grief” (מתנודד). Neither mother believes that she will see her son again.
Yet Ra’hel introduces an additional element into her poem: a partner with whom she can share her sorrow. “Dry my tears with words of comfort,” she calls out to her “cherished one” in the second stanza—“both of us know that the wandering son/ will never come home again.” Evidently, this man (whoever he is) understands Ra’hels agony, and experiences it personally. By contrast, nobody seems to stand in solidarity with Rachel as she cries during the Haphtarah for Rosh Hashanah.
Then again, Rachel the matriarch did have a “cherished one” of her own: Jacob, her husband. Nor was Jacob any stranger to suffering; in fact, he also cried over a child at one point in the Bible:
And Reuben returned to the pit, and behold, Joseph was not in the pit; so he rent his garments. And he returned to his brothers and said, “The boy is gone absent! And I where will I go?” So they took Joseph’s coat, and they slaughtered a kid, and they dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought it to their father, and they said, “We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son’s coat or not.” He recognized it, and he said, “It is my son’s coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up!” And Jacob rent his garments, and he put sackcloth on his loins, and he mourned for his son many days. And all his sons and all his daughters arose to console him, but he refused to be consoled, for he said, “Because I will descend on account of my son as a mourner to the grave”; and his father wept for him (Gen. 37:29-35).
This scene occurs in the latter half of the book of Genesis, after Rachel has already died. Her son, Joseph, elicits the envy of his half-brothers, and these brothers forcibly sell Joseph into slavery as a result. They then bloody his tunic and send it to their father Jacob, implying that Joseph has been mauled by a wild animal. Jacob sees the tunic, recognizes it as his son’s, and immediately begins to mourn.
What is fascinating is that the account of Jacob’s lamentation bears uncanny resemblance to the account of Rachel’s lamentation provided by Jeremiah centuries later:
- Both Joseph (Gen. 37:30) and Ephraim (Jer. 31:14) have “gone absent” (Hebrew: איננו).
- Moreover, both Joseph and Ephraim—i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel—have been sent into exile: Joseph has been taken to Egypt (see Gen. 37:28) and Ephraim has been taken captive by the Assyrians (see Jer. 31:16 and II Kings 17:6).
- As a result, both Jacob (Gen. 37:35) and Rachel (Jer. 31:14) “weep” (Hebrew: ב.כ.ה) over their missing son.
- Neither Jacob (Gen. 37:35) nor Rachel (31:14) can find any “comfort” (Hebrew: נ.ח.ם) in light of the tragedy that has befallen their children.
- In fact, Jacob (Gen. 37:35) and Rachel (31:14) both deliberately refuse comfort (Hebrew: מ.א.ן)—they are absolutely unwilling to “move on.”
Whether Ra’hel the poet was aware of the remarkable similarities between Genesis 37 and Jeremiah 31, we cannot say for sure. It is certainly interesting, though, that she chooses the metaphor of a ship “torn asunder” to describe Rachel’s lost son in the first stanza of her poem. “Torn,” in the original Hebrew, is טרופה, and טרף טרף are the very words uttered by Jacob as he comes to terms with the fate that has befallen his son, Joseph: “a wild beast has torn him asunder!” (Gen. 37:33).
At any rate, the parallels between Jeremiah 31 and Genesis 37 exist—and it is clear that the prophet Jeremiah, who authored the latter of these two texts, planted them there purposely. What was his motivation for doing so? It appears that the answer to this question lies in the one parallel between these two chapters that we have yet to discuss: the role of “brother Judah.”
Last week we looked in depth at the bitter conflict between Joseph and Judah that persists throughout much of Tanach. It turns out that this conflict is the driving force behind the drama of both Genesis 37 and Jeremiah 31 as well. In Genesis 37, Judah is the one who suggests selling Joseph into slavery:
And Judah said to his brothers, “What is the gain if we slay our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites—but our hand shall not be upon him, for he is our brother, our flesh.” And his brothers hearkened. Then Midianite men, merchants, passed by, and they pulled and lifted Joseph from the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty silver pieces, and they brought Joseph to Egypt (Gen. 37:26-8).
In Jeremiah 31, meanwhile, Rachel bemoans the exile of Ephraim, Joseph’s son. Once again, it is Judah who instigates this exile:
Then Rezin the king of Aram and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel [i.e. the northern kingdom], went up to Jerusalem to wage war, and they besieged Ahaz [the king of Judah, i.e. the southern kingdom], but could not wage war… And Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath Pileser the king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and save me from the hand of the king of Aram and from the hand of the king of Israel who have risen up against me…” And the king of Assyria heeded him… In the ninth year of Hoshea, [the king of Israel], the king of Assyria conquered Samaria, [the capital of Israel], and exiled the Israelites to Assyria, and he settled them in Halah, and in Habor, the Gozan River, and the cities of Media (II Kings 16:5-17:6).
In this passage from the book of Kings, as in the passage from the book of Genesis, Judah is careful not to “lay a hand upon” (Gen. 37:22) Joseph or Ephraim—at least not directly. Yet in both passages, Judah is the instrument of his brother’s plight: it is he who recommends handing Joseph over to the Ishmaelites, and he who invites the Assyrians to raid the territory of Ephraim.
It is no coincidence that of the three latter prophets, Jeremiah is the one who recalls (however subtly) Judah’s maltreatment of Joseph. Jeremiah resided in the province of Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin (Jer. 1:1). He spent his career warning the Judites of the terrible calamities that would overtake them if they did not mend their ways. To that end, his primary concern was the lack of consideration for others that he perceived in those around him:
Let each man beware his fellow—do not trust any kin! For every kinsman acts perversely and every friend spreads gossip. Each man mocks his fellow, and does not speak truth… Their tongue is like a drawn arrow, speaking deceit: with his mouth one speaks peace with his fellow, but inside of him he lays ambush (Jer. 9:3-7).
It is in this context that Jeremiah enters the thirty-first chapter of his book. Hashem instructs Jeremiah to prophesy that the exiled kingdom of Ephraim is “coming home”—and that, he does. Yet Jeremiah cannot accept a mere return to the status quo. He cannot predict “peace” for Joseph so long as Judah “lays in ambush;” he cannot pretend that it is the Assyrians, the Egyptians or the Babylonians whom the Israelites must fear, when he knows that it is the prospect of civil infighting that has always posed the gravest threat to his people’s national stability.
This was true in the days of Judah and Joseph, it was true in the days of King Ahaz and King Hosea, and it remains true millennia later. As Irgun commander Menachem Begin memorably insisted on the eve of Israeli Independence, at the height of his dispute with the Haganah: “Let us not destroy our home before we have even laid down its foundations; come what may, there shall never erupt in this land a war of Jews against Jews.” These are words that we must heed, or else we will bring Jacob and Rachel to tears. When we fight with each other, Jeremiah informs us, our ancestors weep for us: they “cry” because we are hurt, and they “refuse to be comforted” because it is we who have hurt ourselves.
Therefore we must reach out, as Ra’hel encourages us to do, “and take the hands of another in a clasp of brotherhood.” This is particularly important before Rosh Hashanah. “God will not grant one atonement for the sins that are between him and his fellow man, such as injuring a colleague, or cursing him, or stealing from him, until the sinner makes amends with that man himself,” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (Laws of Repentance 2:9). In fact, a community is not even supposed to approach God in prayer before its members have settled their differences (see Shulkhan Arukh 581:1 and Rama ad. loc.). Surely this Halacha applies to all Jews, on some level: secular or observant, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, right-wing or left-wing, Haredi or Reform—we are all part of one people that shares a common history and stands together in judgement on Rosh Hashanah. Let us, then, welcome each other with open arms; let us embrace each other באהבת חינם—with unconditional love; and let us work with each other to usher in a שנה טובה ומתוקה: a good and sweet new year, לכל עם ישראל, ולכל יושבי תבל.
Note: English translations of Ra’hel’s poetry are drawn from Flowers of Perhaps: Selected Poems of Ra’hel, with some modifications.