Tag Archives: United Nations

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…”

Abraham’s Revolution & the Purpose of the Jewish People

This week in the parasha of Lech Lecha we begin reading the story of Abraham, the principal forefather of the Jewish people. Abraham is considered history’s first Jew, being the one to whom the covenant of circumcision was first given, together with the Promised Land. The most pertinent question to ask is: why Abraham? What exactly was it that Abraham did to merit being the first Jew? What was so unique about him that made him the forefather of an entire nation, not to mention a multitude of other nations, too? (This is the meaning of his Hebrew name, as Rashi explains on verse 17:5 that Avraham stands for Av Hamon Goyim – “father of many nations”.)

The most common answer that is suggested is that Abraham was the first monotheist, and introduced monotheism to the world. A quick look through the Torah negates this argument very quickly. For instance, we know that Abraham’s life overlapped with that of Noah, who was obviously a monotheist, having communicated directly with God. Jewish tradition holds that Noah’s son Shem had a yeshiva, together with his grandson Ever, where our forefathers studied, and which long pre-existed Abraham’s arrival onto the scene. Earlier, we see that Enoch “walked with God”, too. There are many more examples we can bring to show that Abraham was certainly not the first monotheist, nor was he the first to teach monotheism to the world.

We must find another answer then, and to do this it may be easier to begin with another question: why is there a Jewish people at all? Why is there a need for a “Chosen People”, and what exactly are the Jewish people chosen for?

Back to the Garden of Eden

Originally, God had created man in a perfect world of no evil. There was no Judaism in the Garden of Eden; Adam and Eve were certainly not Jews. They chose to introduce evil into the world, and man was thus “expelled” from the Garden. Henceforth, it has been our mission to return to a perfect world—to repair the damage that was done, to remove evil from our midst, and to restore Godliness to the universe. We are in the world of tikkun, “repair”, and since the time of Adam, it has been man’s mission to recreate an immaculate world of pure goodness.

Unfortunately, Adam and Eve were unsuccessful in this task, and so were their immediate descendants. By the third generation, the Torah tells us that people began to profane the name of God. By the tenth, the world was full of corruption and immorality. Instead of repairing the world, people were only damaging it further. In last week’s parasha, we read how God essentially hit the “restart” button, yet promised to never do so again. The reason for this is fairly plain: God created the world for us; an infinite God requires nothing for Himself. It makes little sense for God to continue recreating the world if Man will keep destroying it. In effect, God was saying that henceforth it is up to man to take care of our own world.

Another ten generations after the Flood, the world was corrupt once more. Since God wouldn’t be destroying it again, from where would the solution come? Who would rise to the challenge? This is where Abraham comes into the picture.

Abraham’s Revolution

From a very young age, Abraham recognized the cruelty that permeates the planet, and made it his life mission to make the world a better place. He quickly deduced that there must be one singular God, and made the effort to find the answers to life’s big questions. But it didn’t end there.

Unlike Shem, Ever, and their kind, Abraham actually wanted to do something about it. Shem and Ever could not confront the rampant idolatry and corruption of their society, so they fled and opened their own secluded yeshiva. All who were interested were welcome to join, but otherwise Shem and Ever were silent.

Abraham, meanwhile, was far more proactive. He understood that man’s mission is to perfect the world. He understood that there is nothing to wait for. Abraham actively entered the battle, fighting the immorality of the day head-on and starting a massive education campaign. Jewish tradition teaches that Abraham built his home along a busy intersection, with a door on each side to make it as easy as possible for people to enter. Food and drink were both abundant and free of charge for all who were willing to listen. Abraham is even said to have written a book of several hundred chapters outlining his arguments against idolatry, immorality, and corruption, while presenting a summary answering the biggest questions of life. Abraham was so passionate about his work that he even risked his life for it. It came to a point where his movement threatened King Nimrod, and the latter threw him into a flaming furnace.

It was only at this point that God stepped in. It is incredible that until this moment, Abraham had done all of that without ever having communicated directly with Hashem. Until then, he was in the same boat as all of us are today—in a world with no prophecy or revealed Godliness; in a world full of immorality and atheism. Nonetheless, his knowledge and faithfulness in God never wavered, nor did he abandon his mission. This is precisely why God chose Abraham. In many ways, it is more appropriate to say that Abraham chose God.

The Chosen People

And this is the true purpose of the Jewish people. We are meant to continue the work that Abraham started nearly four thousand years ago. Like Abraham, the Jews as a whole have always been on the side of righteousness, and morality, regardless of what society said, or how much we were persecuted. A “light unto the nations”, the Jews have revolutionized the world in each generation, moving civilization forward, and bringing it ever closer to a perfect world.

It is no surprise that roughly 25% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish (despite being just 0.2% of the world’s population!) nor is it surprising that in 2013, the UN passed 21 out of 25 resolutions against Israel. One of the world’s tiniest countries, with a population that makes up just 0.1% of the planet, somehow earns 84% of the world’s resolutions! The world’s eyes are constantly focused on Israel. The Jewish State is held to a far higher standard than any other. The world looks to us for moral guidance, and for higher consciousness (and they are rightly upset when we fail to uphold this ideal).

This is our task as Jews, just as it was the task of Abraham. This is why Abraham was different, and why Abraham was chosen. We are continuing his work in repairing this world and bringing it closer to the primordial state of Eden. And we are finally living in a time where this is no longer just a dream. Technology has brought the world together in a way that was never possible before. Jewish teachings say that every person on Earth will one day hear the shofar of Mashiach. This was once relegated to the category of miracles. Today, it is possible for anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. The prophets Isaiah (11:9) and Habakkuk (2:14) both state how the era of Mashiach will be one where the world is saturated with knowledge. We are indeed living in a world where we are constantly bombarded with information, and any question can be answered within seconds by a simple Web search. In other words, we are now living these ancient prophecies.

The fulfilment of man’s original mission—the one that Abraham took upon himself, and that the Jewish people have continued throughout the millennia—is nearly upon us.


For another fascinating perspective on Abraham’s unique contribution to the world, click here to read an article by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz.