Ceremony for 11 Cheshvan
The 11th of Cheshvan, the legendary date of the death of Rachel the matriarch, falls this year on Oct. 25 and 26. This date can be used to honor our ancestors, and/or to reflect on the Divine feminine--in Jewish mysticism, Rachel represents the Shekhinah or Divine presence dwelling in the earth. Rachel, who died in childbirth, may represent the dwelling of the Deity in human frailty, and also may symbolize the transformative and sometimes painful change which is necessary for life to continue.
You will need:
- Enough candles for everyone, plus one large candle.
- Pad of large paper and markers or pastels.
- Several bottles of bubble fluid for blowing bubbles.
- A long red thread.
Begin by sitting on the floor and singing a slow niggun (wordless melody). Each participant should light a candle and say: My name is _______, daughter of ______, daughter of ______, including the names of her mother and grandmother and any other ancestors she wishes to include. When everyone has lit a candle and placed it in a circle, light a large candle and place it in the center of the circle.
at the doorway of life
you passed into another world.
Your spirit long and loose
as an umbilical cord,
you hovered over our wanderings,
a tangle of sand and willow leaves,
of blood and names. You were the candlestick
we carried long after it broke, to light our path.
When the storm pursued us
you clutched at the skirts of history
needing us to live and bear fruit.
Your were the face we searched out
in our dreams and poems,
like a little house we’d fled.
Always you wait patient as a stone
by the road of change
for the footsteps of your children.
hold open the door for us, just a crack.
Let us wind you like a red thread
and take you home.
Read the selection of Genesis about the death of Rachel.
What does Rachel want to convey by calling her son Ben-Oni? What is she saying about her life? What truth does she teach with her final words? Why does Jacob change the name? Is he right to do so?
What does it mean that Rachel is buried by the side of the road?
Read the verses in Jeremiah. Do they alter the meaning of Rachel’s story? If so, how?
Do these words of comfort apply only to the nation as a whole, or do they have a message for individuals as well?
Activity and Ritual
Rachel is associated with journeys and transitions. All transitions, positive or negative, have elements of loss and danger.
Hand out pieces of paper. Ask participants to draw one major “doorway” or transition that affected the life of their family at some point in the past (this change can have occurred recently or many generations ago). After people have been working for some time, ask everyone if Rachel can somehow fit into their picture.
Then ask participants to speak about these transitions that have shaped their families. How have those changes affected the generations? How have these transitions prepared them for change in their own lives? Who have the figures of change and transition been? Where did they put Rachel in their drawing?
Stand in a circle. Make a blessing over a glass of red wine— in the Zohar, wine is associated with the forces of gevurah: limitation, separation, and death. Ask each person to say one thing they fear about transition and change. (You can also do this without the wine.)
Make a blessing over a glass of clear water— water is associated with the forces of chesed: kindness, love, and life. Ask everyone to say one word about what aspect of moments of transition they can look forward to. (As before, you can do this without the water).
“Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Imagine that you are standing before a doorway. Rachel is standing in front of the doorway. She may look old or young. She may look like someone you know or someone you have never seen. Over the doorway there are words written. The words tell you where the doorway leads. Read the words and take them in. Let Rachel guide you through the doorway. As you pass through it, Rachel gives you a parting gift. Then she disappears. Breathe deeply and take the gift with you as you return to this room.” (People can share about the gift if they want.)
Take out bubbles (this will result in shrieks of delight). Ask everyone to form groups of three. One person will create bubbles. One person will sustain or protect bubbles. One person will destroy bubbles. Invite people to change roles if they want. After all the groups have had a chance to switch roles, ask people to discuss what they learned about creating, sustaining, and destroying, from the different roles.
Have everyone stand in a circle around the candles. Give a red thread to everyone in the room. Ask participants to tie knots in the threads to attach them to one another, so that the threads form a circle (everyone should be holding a piece of the circle). Sing a niggun while holding the circle. Ask everyone to hold onto a knot. Then go around the circle with a scissor and cut the threads evenly between each pair of knots. Everyone should now be holding two joined pieces of thread with a knot in the middle. Everyone now has a piece of their own thread and a piece of their neighbors. Ask everyone to keep this thread (they can tie it around their wrist if they want) as a connection— a doorway– between one person and another, and a reminder that change and transformation can create connection among people. Sing a closing song and blow out the candles.
Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, ritual-maker, and editor. She is senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, where she serves as editor of Journey and as a teacher of text and ritual.
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