Bethlehem – A Holy or Holey City?

When you think of Bethlehem, what images come to mind?  Christians associate the town with the birth of Jesus.  Muslims think of the town as Palestinian territory, deep in the heart of the West Bank.  What does Bethlehem symbolize to the Jewish people?

Although we witnessed the dramatic reunion of father and son in last week’s parsha, only this week, in the portion of Vayechi, do we truly appreciate their relationship as Yaakov lies on his deathbed.  Yaakov requests that he be buried in Hebron, parenthetically mentioning the passing of Yosef’s mother, Rachel, many years earlier.

As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died . . . on the way . . . and I buried her . . . in Bethlehem” (Genesis 48:7).

Why does Yaakov choose this moment to tell Yosef where his mother was buried?  Rashi explains that Yaakov is asking Yosef to bury him in Hebron, despite the fact that he had not afforded Rachel that honour.  However, Rashi proceeds with an idea from the Midrash: ‘I am asking you to bury me in Canaan which I did not do for your mother.  I know you’re upset about it, but it’s from Hashem.  She had to be buried at that spot, so that she will be there to intercede for Divine mercy as our people pass by her grave, after Nevuchadnezzar destroys the Temple and exiles us,’ as it says:

“Rachel weeps for her children, she refuses to be comforted, . . .  because they are not.  Thus says Hashem: Refrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded. They shall come back from the land of the enemy.  And there is hope for thy future, says Hashem, your children shall return to their own border” (Jeremiah 31).

Is that really why she had to be buried on the side of the road?  How was that meant to placate Yosef?

Let’s return to the dramatic reunion in last week’s portion.  If Yosef was in such anguish over missing his father all those years, why did he not attempt to get in touch with him?  He was viceroy of Egypt, surely he could have sent a message back to his father that everything was okay?

Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun points out that there is no indication that Yosef knew about the fib his brothers told their father about him being devoured by a wild animal. Yosef had no idea why his father hadn’t searched for him.  It almost felt as if Yaakov was the one who had orchestrated the plot to have his brothers get rid of him!  Harbouring feelings of neglect, there was no reason to attempt to escape or return home.  Because there was nobody waiting for him back home.

And those feelings of neglect were compounded by the premature death of his mother many years prior.  Where was his mother when he needed her most? She would never have given up hope of finding him.  Day in day out, she would have insisted that Yaakov continue the search for Yosef! Furthermore, if she was alive, it would have allowed him to go home, knowing that she would have been there for him; to advocate for him; to try and smooth things over.

Shifting scenes back to our parsha, we find Yaakov lying on his deathbed, sensing Yosef’s unresolved inner turmoil.   And he responds, ‘As for me,’ explains Rabbeinu Meyuchas, ‘I too never got over the fact that Rachel had to be buried by the side of the road.’  ‘I’ve missed your mother all these years, as well.  And you may be right, had she been alive, she would never have ceased to intercede on your behalf, and demand we continue to look for you!’

‘But Heaven has revealed to me that Rachel had to die while we were traveling and be buried in the middle of nowhere.  While it might appear that way today, in the future, Bethlehem is going to be a very important landmark.  That’s the road the Jewish people will traverse as they are led in chains into exile by Nevuchadnezzar.  When they pass by, she will see their suffering and intercede for Divine mercy on their behalf.’

Yaakov’s message to Yosef was not random.  He was responding to his innermost yearnings.  He missed the mother who was no longer alive and able to intercede for him.  But her passing and strange burial place were not in vain.  The Almighty positioned her, ready to intercede right when we would need her the most.

When our Sages received this tradition of Rachel’s prayers for her children, the primary period of national suffering they were familiar with was the exile of our people after the destruction of the Holy Temple.  But that event was a once-off historical happening, with little relevance beyond that period. Was her burial on side of the road just for that one time occurrence?

Bethlehem may be translated as the House of Sustenance (Bread) or the House of Battle (Milchama).  To our people, the name Bethlehem evokes memories too painful to think about.

What did Bethlehem symbolize after that era?  The next major event was the beginning of the story of a religious group that would grow out of our midst, and become our greatest persecutors.  Christianity is responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of innocent Jewish lives.  And yet, we are still here.  As a people, we have survived.  Because Rachel was there all along, interceding on High, praying for her children.  Never giving up.  Since Torah is eternal, it means that Yaakov’s message to Yosef was one of eternal hope.

What image does Bethlehem conjure up today?  It’s a place where Jews aren’t allowed to live.  If you want to visit Rachel’s tomb, you need to take an armoured bus, and you pass through high concrete walls to get there.  Because it’s not safe for Jews in the area.  The Land that the Almighty promised to our patriarchs and matriarchs, and yet, filled with dangerous individuals, many of whom will stop at nothing to make the entire Land of Israel judenrein, G-d forbid.

And Rachel dwells alone in Bethlehem, there for the sole purpose of interceding on behalf of her children.  She prays.  She weeps.  She reminds our Father in Heaven that we are still out there somewhere and He should never give up hope of finding us and bringing us all home.

Too many holes have been pierced through innocent lives, all in the name of religion.  May we merit to see the day that the battlefield of Bethlehem be transformed into a home of physical and spiritual sustenance, a place where we can live alongside one another with love and respect for all of G-d’s children.  A truly holy city.

About the Author
Rabbanit Batya Friedman is the senior rebbetzin of Hamsptead Suburb Garden Synagogue in London, UK. She was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She received her Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from Brooklyn College and her MBA from the University of Alberta. She previously served the community in Edmonton, AB Canada.
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