Our Mother Rachel and Mother Earth

This reflection was written in October of 2009 just after the Sukkot holiday and just before the month of Cheshvan.

The month of holidays has passed, and the weather in New York City has turned gray and cold. I still have wonderful memories of the Sukkot harvest festival at Camp Isabella Freedman in Falls Village, CT: the beautiful sukkah decorated with vines, gourds and reeds, the wild geese and the lake, and the water ritual some of us did to welcome the rain. At that ritual, we danced the rhythms of water’s flow, gathered water from the lake, and tossed a water balloon in joyful imitation of the antics that once occurred as part of the water libation at the Temple in Jerusalem.

During one Sukkot Torah service, we invited farmers to come and open the ark as a reminder of how they open the earth for all of us. We also marched outside with our palm fronds, willows, myrtles, and citrons, praying for abundance and for the health and survival of all species on earth. I thought of all the news stories I’ve heard this year about polar bears, wolves, whales, coral reefs, and made an internal promise to fight for the diversity of life on our planet.

Soon the month of Cheshvan, will begin, the beginning of a new cycle of work, planting, rain. In Cheshvan, legend says, the matriarch Rachel died in childbirth, after giving birth to Benjamin, the second of her two longed-for children. (Rachel is a representative of the Shekhinah, the Divine presence, according to the Zohar.) In modern times, women go to Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem to pray for relief of barreness or for safe childbirth. They wind red threads around the stone that is Rachel’s grave marker, and bring them home to wear or tie around the belly, as a charm. Schoolchildren in Israel celebrate the 11th of Cheshvan as a kind of Mother’s Day, celebrating their own mothers as they honor Rachel, the mother of Israel. The 11th of Cheshvan falls forty-one days after Rosh haShanah—in Hebrew, the letters that add up to forty-one (aleph and mem) spell out “eim” or mother.

Rachel was buried by the road, near the town of Bethlehem. Jeremiah imagines Rachel’s soul waiting by the road for the exiled Jews to return:

A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, for they are gone. Thus says God, Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your labor. There is hope for your future, God says, and your children will return to their borders.
Jeremiah 31:15-17

As I think of the incredible challenges we face: drought, melting arctic regions, dwindling forests and extinctions, this passage seems to me to be about our Mother Earth. Surely she weeps for her children who are gone: the many creatures that once ran, swam, or flew on earth and now are extinct. Let us pray for her and work for the day when there is indeed hope for her future. Let us return to our borders as a species, so that we no longer endanger life on earth.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh, the co-founder of the Kohenet Institute, and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy of Jewish Religion. She has written two books: The Jewish Book of Days and Sisters at Sinai.

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