Every year on the anniversary of her untimely death, tens of thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage to the Biblical matriarch Rachel’s tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem.
Rachel, wife of Jacob, died while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin. She was buried, Genesis 35 states, “on the road to Efrat - now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day.”
The site figured prominently in Jeremiah’s account of the Jewish Exile and promise of return. “Rachel, weeping for her children, refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone,” Jeremiah 3 reads. “Thus said G-d: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears, for there is reward for your labor. They shall return from the enemy's land and there is hope for the future. Your children shall return to their own country.’”
That quote has come be associated not only with the ingathering of the exiles, but appears on posters around the country demanding that the Israeli government bring home the IDF soldiers being held in Hamas and Hizbullah captivity.
From Roadside Grave to Self-Contained Compound
The simple tomb, portrayed in old photographs and embossed on religious articles for generations, is now at the center of a large compound. Over the past year, it was enveloped in a “finger” of the Partition Wall, with worshippers making their way to and from the site in the shadow of towering concrete walls.
Though the concrete walls are distressing to some visitors, who say they remind them of a ghetto or of the roads leading to the Jewish towns in Gaza prior to their destruction, others are relieved that the tomb is now buttressed against the fate of Joseph’s Tomb, in Shechem (Nablus).
Joseph’s Tomb was overrun by Arab rioters in the early days of the Arab terror offensive that broke out in September 2000. Prior to that, Jews were guaranteed freedom of worship at both Joseph’s and Rachel’s tombs, under the 1993 Oslo Accords.
When Israel did not enforce the status quo in Shechem, attacks on Rachel’s Tomb intensified. Amid voices of regret that Israel did not annex the northern tip of Bethlehem along with the tomb following the 1967 Six Day War, pressure grew to include the site on the so-called “Israeli side” of the Partition Wall.
The thousands of visitors to the tomb now park their cars along Derech Hevron street and along the road to the southern neighborhood of Gilo. Worshippers then board buses, not necessarily bulletproof, which shuttle them to the tomb in a two-minute drive alongside the concrete wall and down a narrow corridor.
Meanwhile, a large tent is set up near where the shuttle buses disembark, serving food and beverages to the pilgrims free of charge.
The compound is packed with worshippers, with separate entrances for men and women. The women who flocked to pray at Rachel’s final resting place on this year's yahrtzeit [anniversary of death] far outnumbered the men.
Worshippers must ride a human wave toward the actual stone marker sitting at the center of the tomb. On the men’s side, worshippers crane their necks and reach their arms toward the stone as psalms are recited out loud and the occasional ram’s horn is sounded.
A young child, speaking French with his father, is passed atop the heads of those between him and the marker. “Let him touch it,” his father urges, “we just made Aliyah (immigrated to Israel) and he’s never hugged his ‘Mama Rachel.'"
(Photos: Josh Shamsi, Arutz-7 Photojournalist)