Saturday, March 2, 2013

Rachel’s tears

One of the most touching stories in the Bible is the death of Rachel, Jacob's beloved wife, while giving birth to their youngest son Benjamin, and her burial on the side of the road where she died. At the time when the story was composed and written down,  and for a very long time afterwards, maternal mortality was an ever present danger hovering over the heads of women and married couples.

Did such a woman ever live in reality? And if she did, did she really die and get  buried at that point north of the city of Bethlehem (now well within the city)?  Jews - as well Christians and Muslims - have gone on pilgrimage there for at least thousand and five hundred year. Whatever the reality, so many years of tradition have a power of their own. The figure of an ideal mother, full of boundless compassion and understanding and having great influence in Heaven, sitting there inside the grave and listening carefully to all suppliants.
"Bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children” (Jeremiah 31, 14) is one of the Biblical verses very central to the Jewish religion.

For centuries the structure of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem was chosen to appear on the postage stamps of Mandatory Palestine. That  small and modest structure no longer exists. In 1995, at the time of Oslo, the Ultra-Orthodox rabbis  cried out that "Mother Rachel" must be retained under the control of the State of Israel, and Prime Minister Rabin gave in to that pressure. The outcome was to cut off the tomb from the city of Bethlehem, make it an armed enclave under Israeli control, and build around it huge concrete walls, a veritable  fortification at the heart of the Palestinian city. Ever since, it is the focus of conflicts and incidents, with Palestinian protesters marching toward the walls and Israeli soldiers shooting tear gas and sometimes live ammunition as well, while behind the soldiers Jewish pilgrims arrive in armored vehicles. Childless Muslim women, who traditionally also used to come there and ask for Rachel's help, must now turn elsewhere for help.

Two weeks ago, colorful booklets have been distributed throughout  the country, bearing the solemn news that "On Purim Day, a special Salvation Tikkun will take place at  Rachel's Tomb. The greatest Kabbalists and Righteous Sages will gather there, right next to Mother Rachel!” The booklet made an offer which cannot be refused - for a suitable financial contribution,  the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages would take care to drop in Mother Rachel’s ears also the name of the donor: "This day is your day, the day of the Purim Salvation Tikkun at Rachel's Tomb – make the most of it.  Don’t miss this date’ let your name come before Mother Rachel! What do you wish for? Health? Contentment? Happiness? Success? A good livelihood? Sons? Anything you can want, anything you can want!!! "(Three exclamation marks in the original).

And so it was. On Monday this week the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages came under military protecttion to the Tomb, and energetically embarked on the Salvation Tikkun. A few meters away, across the thick and high concrete walls,  hundreds of young Palestinians were holding a stormy demonstration. The soldiers who were stationed at the top of the wall, so as to facilitate the Kabbalists and Righteous Sages in holding their ritual, did not content themselves with the intense firing of tear gas.

A sniper stationed at the pillbox position just in front of Rachel’ Tomb asked  and got permission to use live ammunition and shoot metal bullets of 0.22-inch diameter, nicknamed “Two-Two Bullets”. Even though years ago, after several fatal cases, the military authorities forbade the use of such bullets in the dispersal of demonstrations.

The sniper raised his rifle and fired. Odai Sarhan, a 12 year old boy from Aida Refugee camp in Bethlehem, was hit by a bullet directly to the head and fell down. For some time the soldiers prevented first aid teams from approaching. When they finally reached him, they feared that it was too late. Thank God, medical teams at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem managed to stabilize his condition. Maybe Rachel was crying for him, too...