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The Incredible History and Absurd Politics of Rachel’s Tomb

In this week’s parasha, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob’s return to the Holy Land after twenty years in Charan. After some time, Jacob and the family make a stop in Beit El, where Jacob first encountered God decades earlier. God appears to Jacob once more, and promises that “the land which I gave to Abraham and to Isaac, I will give to you and to your seed after you” (Genesis 35:12). God makes it clear that the Holy Land is designated solely for the descendants of Jacob—not the descendants of Esau, and not the descendants of Ishmael, or any other of Abraham’s concubine sons. It is the land of Israel, the new name that Jacob receives in this week’s parasha.

In fact, in this parasha we see mention of many Israelite sites, both ancient and modern, such as Hebron and Bethlehem. In our day, all of these are unfortunately within the political entity typically referred to as the “West Bank”. This title comes from the fact that the area is geographically on the west side of the Jordan River. Initially, the British Mandate for Palestine included both sides of the Jordan River, before the British gave the east to the Arabs to create the state of Jordan. This was the original “partition plan” for Palestine, with the eastern half meant to serve as the Arab state and the western half to become a Jewish one. Many have forgotten this important detail.

British Mandate for Palestine – Before and After (Credit: Eli E. Hertz)

The current flags of the state of Jordan and the Palestinian movement. It is estimated that about half of Jordan’s current population of 9.5 million is Palestinian Arab.

Nonetheless, the unsuitable title of “West Bank” has stuck ever since. Some rightly avoid using the term in favour of the more appropriate “Judea and Samaria”. Truthfully, even this title is not entirely accurate, for the region is nothing less than the very heartland of Israel, the location of the vast majority of Biblical events, and the home of a plethora of Jewish holy sites. Among them is the tomb of Rachel, as we read in this week’s parasha (Genesis 35:16-20):

And they journeyed from Beit El, and there was still some distance to come to Ephrath, and Rachel gave birth, and her labor was difficult… So Rachel died, and she was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob erected a monument on her grave; that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.

Throughout history, Rachel’s tomb was one of the most venerated sites in Judaism, and is often described as the Jewish people’s third-most holiest site (after the Temple Mount/Western Wall and Cave of the Patriarchs). As early as the 4th century CE the historian Eusebius already wrote of Rachel’s tomb being a holy site for Jews and Christians. Keep in mind that this is two centuries before anyone even whispered Islam. Not that it really matters, since Islam does not consider this a particularly special place. The Arab-Muslim historian and geographer of the 10th century, Al-Muqaddasi, doesn’t even mention Rachel’s tomb in his descriptions of Muslim-controlled Israel and its holy sites.

1585 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Meanwhile, the Jewish traveler and historian Benjamin of Tudela (1130-1173) describes Rachel’s tomb in detail as being a domed structure resting upon four pillars, with Jewish pilgrims regularly visiting and inscribing their names on the surrounding eleven stones (representing the Tribes of Israel, less the tribe of Benjamin, as Rachel died giving birth to him). The earliest Muslim connection to the tomb is in 1421, when Zosimos mentions a small mosque at the site. (“Zosimos the Bearded” was a Russian Orthodox deacon famous for proposing the Moscow-Third Rome principle—which may be of great significance for calculating the time of Mashiach’s coming, as we’ve written in the past.)

The Ottomans originally transferred ownership of the site to the Jewish community (in 1615) but later reneged on the promise and even built walls to prevent Jews from going there, according to the British priest and anthropologist Richard Pococke (1704-1765). Pococke writes that the Ottomans used the area as a cemetery. Nonetheless, Jews could not be kept away from their millennia-old holy site, and continue to make pilgrimages. Christian writers G. Fleming and W.F. Geddes note in their 1824 report that “the inner wall of the building and the sides of the tomb are covered with Hebrew names, inscribed by Jews.”

1880 Illustration of Rachel’s Tomb

Six years later, the Ottomans officially recognized Rachel’s tomb as a Jewish holy site again, and ten years later the site was purchased by famous Sephardic Jewish financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Montefiore rebuilt the crumbling tomb, and even constructed a small adjacent mosque to appease the local Muslims. Around this time, British writer Elizabeth Anne Finn, who lived in Jerusalem while her husband was the consul there, wrote that Jerusalem’s Sephardic Jews never left the Old City unless to pray at Rachel’s tomb. Similarly, the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle wrote in 1868 that Rachel’s tomb

has always been held in respect by the Jews and Christians, and even now the former go there every Thursday, to pray and read the old, old history of this mother of their race. When leaving Bethlehem for the fourth and last time, after we had passed the tomb of Rachel, on our way to Jerusalem, Father Luigi and I met a hundred or more Jews on their weekly visit to the venerated spot.

Later, Jewish businessman Nathan Straus (of Macy’s fame) purchased even more land around the site that Montefiore had purchased. (Interestingly, Montefiore’s own tomb in England is a replica of Rachel’s tomb.)

Under the British Mandate, Jewish groups applied on multiple occasions for permission to repair the site, but were denied because of Muslim opposition. The Muslims themselves didn’t bother repairing it, of course. Conversely, many of them were (and still are) happy to attack the site whenever an opportunity presents itself:

Throughout the 1800s, the local e-Ta’amreh Arab clan had blackmailed the Jews to pay up 30 pounds a year or else they would destroy the tomb. In 1995, Arabs—led by a Palestinian Authority governor—attacked Rachel’s tomb and tried to burn it down. In 2000, they laid a 41-day siege on the site during the Second Intifada. In light of this, it made total sense when UNESCO declared in 2015 that Rachel’s tomb is a Muslim holy site that is “an integral part of Palestine”. The laughable resolution only confirms the senselessness and irrelevance of the United Nations.

Had they bothered to look at the historical record, they would have seen that Rachel’s tomb is, was, and always will be a Jewish holy site of immeasurable significance. Countless Jewish pilgrims have experienced miracles there, particularly for health and fertility. According to tradition, Rachel is the only matriarch to be buried outside of the Cave of the Patriarchs so that her spirit can weep and pray for her children in exile. Her prayers are successful, for we are in the midst of the exile’s final end, as prophesied by Jeremiah (31:14-16):

Thus said Hashem: “A voice is heard in Ramah, in lamentation and bitter weeping.” It is Rachel, weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not. Thus said Hashem: “Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for your work shall be rewarded,” said Hashem. “And they shall return from enemy lands. And there is hope for your future,” said Hashem. “And the children shall return to their borders…”

Mysteries of the Twelve Tribes and the Borders of Israel

In this week’s parasha, Shoftim, we read about the six “cities of refuge” that God commanded the Israelites to establish. These cities were places where an inadvertent murderer could take refuge. The Torah gives an example: two people are chopping trees when the axe of one suddenly breaks, flinging the sharp end and killing the other person accidentally. It is understandable that the victim’s family might want to take revenge and pursue the inadvertent murderer. The Torah states that the inadvertent murderer should flee to the nearest city of refuge, where the victim’s family has no right to pursue him, and where he will be protected by Levites.

Six Cities of Refuge

Six Cities of Refuge

Of the six refuge cities, three were on the west side of the Jordan River – within the proper borders of the Holy Land – and three on the east side of the Jordan, where the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled. The Arizal explains that this allowed Moses to fulfil an important mitzvah – after all, Moses himself was an inadvertent murderer! Back in Egypt, he had accidentally killed the Egyptian officer who was senselessly beating an Israelite slave. The Arizal states that Moses only wished to defend the Jew, but ended up killing the Egyptian inadvertently. While Moses was forbidden from entering the Holy Land, he was permitted to traverse the territories on the east side of the Jordan, so by establishing cities of refuge there, Moses could finally fulfil the mitzvah of an inadvertent murderer.

Tribal Border of Israel

Tribal Borders of Israel

A bigger question one might ask is why were the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe settled outside of the Holy Land to begin with? The Torah tells us the simple meaning: the Reubenites and Gadites liked the land on the east side of the Jordan, and were more than happy to settle there. Moses wanted half the tribe of Menashe to join them, perhaps to keep an eye on them to make sure they fulfil their vow in helping the rest of the Israelites conquer and settle the Holy Land.

Of course, nothing in the Torah is without its deeper meaning. If Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were settled outside of the land, there must be a good spiritual reason for it. The Arizal gives us some incredible mystical insights into the matter.

Conception in Holiness

After seven years of hard labour, Jacob was ready to marry his beloved Rachel. Instead, his father-in-law Laban tricked him by having him marry Leah. That night, Leah conceived. However, the whole time Jacob thought he was with Rachel! Thus, Reuben was conceived through trickery and deception, bringing a certain spiritual stain upon him. Later on, Reuben “mounted the bed” of his father (Genesis 35:22, 49:4), and apparently slept with Jacob’s wife Bilhah (originally Rachel’s maidservant).  Therefore, Reuben lost his status as the firstborn son. Instead, the firstborn status went to Joseph, who was meant to be the firstborn all along since Jacob intended to marry Rachel. In Torah law, the firstborn receives a double portion from his father’s inheritance, and so, Joseph had two tribes – and two territories – issue from him, that of Menashe and Ephraim.

After Reuben’s birth, Jacob and Leah had Shimon, Levi, and Judah. These three were conceived in holiness, without any deception. At this point, Rachel was still childless so she suggested that Jacob use her maidservant Bilhah as a surrogate. Bilhah had two children: Dan and Naftali.

Now it was Leah’s turn to be jealous. Seeing that she stopped having children, Leah gave her own maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a surrogate. Zilpah conceived and Leah called the child Gad. Peculiarly, the Torah states that Leah named him thus from the word bagad. This word literally means “traitor”. To avoid negative connotations, the word is traditionally split in two and read as ba gad, “luck has come”. But the Torah makes no such division. In fact, Rashi comments here that Leah said bagad because she felt like Jacob had cheated on her! Perhaps she regretted giving her maidservant to her beloved husband.

twelvetribesmosaicThe Arizal goes further, pointing out another deception based on a careful reading of the verses. The night that Gad was conceived, Jacob was supposed to be with Leah. Instead, Leah wanted children so badly that she secretly had Zilpah go in her place! Jacob was deceived yet again. This child, too, would have a spiritual stain upon him, like Reuben. Zilpah went on to have one more child, Asher. The Arizal says that this name (אשר) is an anagram of rosh (ראש), “head”, since this time Jacob was in his right mind and had the correct intentions.

After this, Leah would have two more sons conceived in holiness, and Rachel would have her own two. Of the twelve sons, we see that two came into the world through deceit, and carried a certain spiritual defect. Thus, these two tribes – Reuben and Gad – were ultimately excluded from settling in the Holy Land.

What about the half-territory of Menashe?

Spiritual Genetics

Menashe was the firstborn son of Joseph. The Torah tells us that Joseph was married in Egypt to a woman named Osnat (Asenath), the daughter of an Egyptian priest. To solve the mystery of Menashe’s territory, we need to delve further into Osnat’s origins. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134) fills in the missing details.

After Leah had six sons, she had a seventh child, a daughter named Dinah. When Jacob returned to the Holy Land after twenty years with Laban, he settled in Shechem, and Dinah went out to meet “the daughters of the land” (Genesis 34:1). A young man named Shechem (not to be confused with the city of the same name) seduced Dinah and raped her. In their rage, Dinah’s two older brothers Shimon and Levi slaughtered Shechem and his compatriots. Jacob was not very happy with his violent sons, and for this reason, neither Shimon nor Levi would inherit complete territories in the Holy Land. Instead, each tribe received a number of cities interspersed among the territories of their fellow tribes.

Meanwhile, Dinah had conceived a child with Shechem. A daughter was born, which Shimon and Levi wanted to get rid of as well. To protect her, Jacob wrote a certain Divine Name on a piece of gold and tied it around her neck when she was abandoned (or fled). The girl hid in a bush, hence her name Osnat, which comes from the root s’neh, “bush”. The angel Michael (or in other versions, Gabriel) saved the girl and brought her to Egypt, to be raised by an Egyptian priest, Potiphar (or Poti-Phera), and his barren wife (named Zuleikha, according to Sefer HaYashar). Joseph met Osnat while working as a servant in the priest’s home. He knew he was meant to marry her because of the Divine Name on her special golden necklace.

The Arizal explains that Osnat’s spiritual make-up contained a holy portion (from Dinah) and an unholy portion (from Shechem). Joseph’s spiritual make-up, from Jacob and Rachel, was entirely holy. In conceiving Ephraim, Osnat’s holy portion combined with Joseph’s holy portion; in conceiving Menashe, however, it was Osnat’s unholy part that combined with Joseph’s, making their firstborn half pure and half impure. For this reason, half of the tribe of Menashe was inside the borders of the Holy Land, and half was outside!

In this way, the Arizal gives us a beautiful explanation of why Reuben, Gad, and half of Menashe were excluded from the Holy Land. Of course, when Mashiach comes and all of the spiritual rectifications are complete, the borders of the Holy Land will expand “from the Nile to the Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18), or from the Red Sea to the Euphrates (Exodus 23:31), and the territories of Reuben, Gad, and all of Menashe will indeed be part of the Holy Land. May we merit to see this day soon.

Yehoshua and the Origins of Christianity

This week’s Torah portion is Pinchas, named after the grandson of Aaron, who stemmed the tide of immorality that followed the Moabite and Midianite ploy to bring Israel to sin. For his efforts, God blessed Pinchas with an everlasting blessing of peace. In the past, we explored the nature of this blessing, and how it resulted in Pinchas’ apparent immortality, as well as his eventual rebirth as Elijah the Prophet. This week, we will explore another critical figure in the Torah: Yehoshua, better known as Joshua.

Midway through this week’s parasha we read how God commanded Moses to officially appoint Yehoshua as Moses’ successor. Yehoshua is described as a person within whom rests the spirit of God. Although there are a number of Torah figures who are described as possessing some sort of Divine Spirit, Yehoshua is one of only two who are described as having the spirit within them. In most cases throughout the Bible, the spirit of God is said to rest upon an individual (‘alav in Hebrew), or to have temporarily filled an individual (mal’e or timal’e in Hebrew). With regards to Yehoshua, it says that the spirit was within him. The only other person in the Torah who is described in such a way is Yehoshua’s direct forefather Yosef (Genesis 41:38).

An even more peculiar detail about Yehoshua is that he is called “Yehoshua bin Nun”. Every other person in the Bible is referred to by their name, as well as by their father’s name, with the designation ben – “son of” – in the middle. Yehoshua alone is called bin Nun instead of the regular ben Nun. Moreover, a person named Nun cannot be found anywhere in the Torah, and unlike most other Torah figures, Yehoshua’s genealogy is not given (although one is provided in the Book of I Chronicles, written many centuries after the Torah). Other than the fact that Yehoshua stems from the tribe of Ephraim, nothing else of his origins is divulged.

Out of a Fish

A number of midrashim step in to fill some of the details about Yehoshua’s early life. There are a few versions of the story, with one particularly tragic variety that seems to be based on the Greek myth of Oedipus. All the versions agree that at birth, Yehoshua was left by his parents, possibly placed in the Nile River like Moses. Miraculously, a large fish swallowed him up, and Yehoshua was later saved by fishermen. In the Oedipus version, he is saved by the Pharaoh’s fisherman, and thus grows up in the palace, becoming the court executioner. He tragically ends up putting his own father to death, as was originally prophesized when Yehoshua was conceived (which is why his parents abandoned him to begin with).

I prefer to think of it more in the style of Moses, where Yehoshua was placed in the Nile just as Moses was, to avoid the Pharaoh’s decree of slaughtering all the male-born. By also growing up in the palace, alongside Moses, the two would have been well-acquainted, and that might explain why Yehoshua is so close to Moses throughout the Torah narrative.

His title of Bin Nun may come from the fact that he was taken out of a fish, since nun means “fish” in Aramaic. Thus, Nun is not the name of his father at all, explaining why he is not called Ben Nun. Rather, Bin Nun refers to his origins from the fish, with his true genealogy unknown.

Whatever the case, Yehoshua grows up to be a holy man, the personal servant of Moses, one of just two righteous spies, and the leader that finally brought the people into the Holy Land. The Sages describe him as the moon to Moses’ sun, and the key link in the chain of Jewish Oral Tradition.

The Origins of Christianity

'Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon' by John Martin

‘Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon’ by John Martin

When looking at the life story of Yehoshua, it is hard to miss the connection to Christianity. Like Yehoshua, Jesus is a Jew said to have had a miraculous birth, spent time growing up in Egypt, and was described as having the spirit of God within him. Like Yehoshua, Jesus is symbolized by a fish, and is seen as a sort-of successor to Moses (as suggested by his supposed “Transfiguration”, where he ascends to be blessed by Moses and Elijah). In the same way that Yehoshua stems from Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father is said to be Joseph. Jesus is described as a miracle-worker, just as Yehoshua facilitated a number of miracles, such as making the sun and moon stand still at Gibeon, and stopping the flow of the Jordan River. Of course, Jesus’ original name as pronounced in his day was Yeshu, the Aramaic version of Yehoshua.

The similarities don’t end there. Strangely, the Torah makes no mention of Yehoshua’s wife or children (even the genealogy given in I Chronicles ends with Yehoshua himself). Jesus, too, failed to marry or have kids. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) suggests that Yehoshua did later marry Rachav, the harlot that assisted the Israelites in the conquest of the Holy Land. Rachav had repented and become a righteous woman. Similarly, Jesus had close encounters with Mary Magdalene, also described as a harlot, and also rumoured to have possibly married Jesus!

It is important to remember that there is absolutely no evidence for the existence of Jesus outside of the New Testament. It is well-known that the New Testament was written long after Jesus would have lived, and is full of contradictions about the details of his life. Many have challenged the historicity of Jesus, with more and more scholars admitting that he likely did not exist at all.

Considering all that, it isn’t hard to imagine how early Christians would have put together the mythology of Jesus based on previous Torah ideas and narratives: a miraculously-born baby with the spirit of God, whose very name means “salvation”; celibate and childless, a humble, Godly servant bringing others to repentance, and leading the Israelites to the Promised Land… This is the story of the Torah’s Yehoshua, and the story that was adapted to fit the mold of a new religion a couple of millennia ago.

Ultimately, the Jewish Sages always saw Yehoshua as a prototype of Mashiach. After all, he is the one that defeated the embodiment of evil known as Amalek, and the one that ended the exile of the Jews, returning the people to their land. It isn’t surprising that Christians used Yehoshua as a prototype for their own supposed Messiah. Ironically, though, not only did Jesus fail to defeat evil, and fail to bring an end to the exile, he was also responsible for inspiring the murder of countless people thanks to all the holy wars, inquisitions, and crusades fought in his name. Jesus’ own message may have been peace, but his followers used him incessantly for war and bloodshed. Two millennia have passed, and the world is still far from perfect. We continue to await the arrival of the one true Messiah. May we all merit to see his coming soon.