How could You tear a bride from her husband’s lap and send her into exile?
How could You shoo the nesting mother without caring for the fledglings?
How could You abandon Your sheep among devouring lions?
(Hakham Yehuda Fetayah)
These lines penned in 1940 could have been written today.
Newlywed widows were taken captive. Orphaned children torn from their beds, and towns consumed, blackened. Many of us have been asking ourselves and each other – How?!
The above excerpt is entitled Zekhut Rahel, ‘The Merit of Rachel,’ and our matriarch Rachel asks God, ‘How?!’
Few figures in Jewish history evoke as profound an emotional resonance as Rachel Imenu – our mother, Rachel. She exemplifies an unbreakable bond between a mother and her children, transcending time and space. Rachel stands out as the eternal mother of Israel, standing up for and protecting us through her prayer and merit. This paradigm is rooted in Yirmiyahu (Ch. 31), where the prophet depicts Rachel crying for the entirety of Benei Yisrael.
רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ
מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ
Rachel weeps for her children
she refuses to be comforted for her children because they are gone.
In the context of Yirmiyahu, baneha refers to the Jewish nation in exile, not solely Yoseph and Binyamin, her biological children. She is seen as determined and inconsolable, refusing to be comforted until her children, all of the children of Israel, are brought back from captivity and exile.
According to the Midrash, Rachel’s empathy and selflessness are first manifested when she allows her sister to marry her betrothed. She chooses Leah’s dignity over her own happiness, transcending personal desire and making real sacrifices in her life on behalf of her flesh and blood.
In the end, as Yirmiyahu notes, Rachel’s cries are heard, and her children are returned home.
כִּי֩ יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁ֖בוּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ אוֹיֵֽב׃
וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־ה’
וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם׃
…there is a reward for your efforts, says God,
and they shall return from the enemy’s land.
And there is hope for your future, says God,
and your children shall return to their border.
Rachel’s resilience continues to inspire me. These famous words of Yirmiyahu have given me hope for the fate of our brothers and sisters in captivity – those taken hostage by Hamas just three months ago on October 7th, 2023, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
In this article, I will highlight two particularly poignant poems: the first composed by the 18th-century Jewish-Italian poet Rachel Luzzatto-Morpurgo and the second in 1940 by the Iraqi kabbalist Hakham Yehuda Fetayah excerpted above.
Rachel Morpurgo is said to be the first modern Hebrew female poet. In Morpurgo’s poem, we hear the voice of our Mother Rachel, in deep pain and sorrow, pleading relentlessly for the protection and salvation of her children, the nation of Israel.
In Morpurgo’s portrayal, Rachel’s voice is not merely a cry of sorrow but a testament to the strength of maternal love, transcending the boundaries of time and space.
Morpurgo’s poem, קול ברמה נשמע, referencing Yirmiyahu, draws on the imagery of Rachel’s direct plea to God. It follows this arc of longing to reconnect with her children, ensure their safety, and their eventual return home, beginning with an impassioned, painful cry and ending with a hopeful, high note.
אֶבְכֶּה אֶזְעַק וְאֶתְחַנַּן / חוּס נָא חֲמוֹל עַל עַם נִפְעָם
I will cry, I will scream, and I will beg.
Save, please, have mercy on the startled people.
אִם יִתְמַהְמַהּ לוֹ אֲיַחֵל / וּבְשִׁיר חָדָשׁ תָּשִׂישׂ רָחֵל
Even if He is delayed, I will have hope /
And with a new song Rachel will be gladdened.
Rachel’s enduring presence in our prayers underscores her role as a constant source of strength and inspiration.
Hakham Yehuda Fetayah, too, turned to our Matriarch, Rachel, with an incredibly bold prayer in 1940. Hakham Yehuda Fetayah is my wife’s great-great-grandfather, making his poem and its history even more meaningful and personal to me.
Hakham Fetayah was born in Baghdad in 1859 and finally successfully settled in Israel in 1933. His works, especially his commentary on the Kabbalistic work of Isaac Luria, are held in high esteem. His teachings are still revered today.
In December 1939, Hakham Fetayah awoke from a nightmare that shook him to his core. He was trembling in fear, restless, and terrified at what he understood would be the great disaster unfolding in Europe, which eventually culminated in the Holocaust.
He composed special prayers in a pamphlet called asirei hatiqvah, Bound By Hope, with the intention of public gatherings for prayer and supplication. Leading up to the final prayer are three units: one for Sarah, one for Rebecca, and one for Leah. Each of these is between 5 and 9 lines. The final, Zekhut Rahel, ‘The Merit of Rachel,’ is astounding in its comparative length of 54 lines and its emotive power.
In his introduction to these prayers, he wrote:
“… Compelled by these circumstances, we published this work to ensure its accessibility to all, uniting us in a singular heart.
Together, we fervently pray and supplicate before the Divine, harboring the hope that He will extend His mercy to the remnants of His flock, preventing their blood from being shed like water…”
Throughout Jerusalem, people gathered under his guidance to recite these special prayers, along with a specific set of practices, including fasting and sitting on the floor, as well as sounding seven shofars and two trumpets that were to be sounded by kohanim.
Through the voice of Rachel, Hakham Yehuda Fetayah’s broken, anguished, and pained voice bursts forth with tears and an emotional plea to finally bring redemption and save Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, from its enemies. Rachel, in his poem, brazenly challenges God:
“אֵיךְ תִּדּוֹם לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם הַמַּקְרִיבִים מֵהֶם זְבָחִים,”
“How can You remain quiet while the People of Edom
[Germany] turn them into sacrifices?”
Hakham Fetayah’s voice, as he personally recited Zekhut Rahel, was a heart-wrenching cry that echoed the collective pain of the people. The prayer itself is a journey through the pleas of Rachel, who, unlike the forefathers in the midrash, refuses to relent and is forceful in her defense of her children.
The prayer recounts Rachel’s conversations with biblical figures, each being passive in their responses to her inquiries about her children’s fate. She moves from one patriarch to another until she breaches the heavens with her powerful plea.
The imagery is heartrending and poignant: Rachel, at the ruins of the Temple, sees no priests, Levites, or sacred artifacts. Her response is one of wrenching grief—tearing her clothes, wearing sackcloth, and wailing in agony. She then leaps to the heavens and addresses God Himself directly, challenging Him as a mother who would fight for her beloved children. Continuing beyond the lines we opened with, Rachel demands:
Were they not punished enough? Were they not engulfed by vicious waters?
Are a thousand years not enough for You?
The sun is already setting on the second millennium, and the pain is not letting.
Where is the miraculous sign? When is the Time of Times?
When will you have mercy? When will you console us?
You keep putting us away, day after day!
Almighty God, redeem us already!
Do not soothe us with words!
Rachel is not only a historical or religious personality – she is an active protester, demanding for God to end their suffering and bring them home now. God then responds, underscoring the impact of her words, and He promises:
I shall not rest until I revenge the spilled blood of my servants,
And shortly I will sever and destroy the wicked.
I will cut the stone, smash the idol, breaking it to shards.
I will open the sealed coffers and release the swallowed souls.
Rise up, shake away your sorrow, and wear your precious clothes
(Translations of ‘The Merit of Rachel’ from the original Hebrew by Rabbi Haim Ovadia)
Her prayers are not left unanswered. God allays her with soothing words and declares his commitment to justice and rectification for His people.
As Yirmiyahu noted, Rachel’s faith was in that she refused to be comforted, me’anah lehinahem, for her children that were missing, al baneha ki einenu, until they were returned. The Jews did return and then rebuilt the second Temple.
One hundred days have passed with our brothers and sisters in captivity. We will not be silent. We will continue to pray. Our cries and our advocacy, like our mother Rachel’s, will be rewarded.