Treasure Island

gershon hepner

(5 3 38 / leipzig)

death of rachel


In Bethel he had seen the gate of heaven,
and by the sight had truly been beguiled:
the patriarch returned there with eleven
young sons, plus Rachel, who was big with child.
She’d borne a single son called Joseph, whom
his father called the son of his old age
and loved so much that he had hoped to groom
the lad to be the center of the stage.
At seventeen, he pushed his brothers’ buttons,
self-centered and extremely narcissistic,
tormenting them with technicolored mittens,
while cloaked with thoughts that made them go ballistic.
For twenty years they made him disappear
because they hated him so very much
and sold him into slavery in fear
that he’d become dictator in a putsch,
disregarding all his human rights
while fabricating falsehoods to their father.
When he was born his mother set her sights
on having one more son at least. She’d rather
have had the number that her sister Leah
had borne, a complement that grew to six.
To Jacob Rachel was the only player
with whom at nighttime he would wish to mix,
rejecting Leah, Laban called “the older”.
For that one Jacob never felt the hunger
he felt for Rachel even when, much bolder,
she traded beds with Rachel, called “the younger”.
(The terminology is also used
describing the two daughters of old Lot,
who caused him sexually to be abused
when drunk. The resonances link the plot
conceived by Laban to the one conceived
by Lot’s two daughters. Laws were violated
producing the Davidic line in Judah
and kings of Israel, Josephites created
from unions between sisters who were shrewder.
Saul thus became a product of forbidden
relations between a man and sisters, I
believe the author’s purpose, although hidden,
is abolition of all monarchy.
The story is an echo of Hosea’s
diatribe against the tribe of Ephraim;
later readers did not share his fears
and harmonizing texts helped them to be frum.)
Leah needed mandrakes to conceive.
The tale is very like the Eden story,
with Leah temptress-serpent, Rachel Eve,
both characters diminished in their glory
as were our primal parents when they lost
the paradise which was their special place;
the mandrakes Leah traded had a cost
like first forbidden fruit, I mean disgrace.
They weren’t displaced, however, for both mothers
became the matriarchs whom Israelites
remember with no less pride than their spouses;
they shared one husband’s bed on separate nights,
thus helping to produce a dozen houses,
as Eve and Adam helped produce the species
that occupies all continents except
Antarctica, which they nailed down like theses
that Luther nailed, but Catholics don’t accept.

When Rachel said to Jacob: “Give me sons! ”
God gave her what she asked, no less, no more:
a second one, since anyone who duns
will never have a truly winning score.
She’d seen how Leah’s children had disgraced
themselves while in Shechem. They seemed far keener
on harming all the neighbors whom they faced
than helping Jacob and protecting Dinah,
Leah’s daughter, who had been exchanged,
some legends claim, with Joseph in the womb.
Leah prayed that this might be arranged
because she felt that God should make some room
for Rachel to be mother of a boy––
for she had six already, did not need
a seventh. Neither brought their parents joy.
Dinah was seduced; a wicked deed
caused Joseph to be sold by all his brothers.
How strange the fate of these two cosmic twins!
Although they surely brought joy to their mothers,
they both were victims of quite different sins.
Dinah fell because she searched for love
where love for Israelites is quite forbidden;
Joseph fell by being far too tough
on siblings, therefore being by them smitten.

Rachel was with child again in Luz––
the name of Bethel till her husband saw
the angels in a dream more than a snooze––
and called with excitement and in awe:
”This truly is the place of God, although
I did not know it! ”––ready to deliver
after he’d returned again to show
his gratitude, and later crossed the river
at Jabbok where an angel tried to stem
his courage. Man and wife both reckoned
on finding midwives close to Bethlehem,
to help her bring to birth this son, her second.
It seemed so close both thought that they could reach
the little city and cried out, “Hosanna! ”
Yet sadly Bethlehem for each
was quite beyond their grasp, fata morgana.
Said Robert Browning: “Man’s reach should exceed
his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? ” Quite right,
but such an argument is hard to plead
in childbirth, in the middle of the night,
although it probably was not a mile
away when birth pangs came and waters broke.
(The Gospel authors claim that Mary too
gave birth in Bethlehem to David’s seed,
his father Holy Spirit, not the Jew
called Joseph. In the messianic creed
prevailing at the time most men believed
a Josephite would be messiah till
a Judahite messiah was conceived;
the Jesus story fills this double bill.)
Of puerperal pains she was in deep denial,
but then around her blood began to soak
the soil, and suddenly a boy was born,
and Rachel realized that she would die!
The walls around the mother’s womb were torn,
and Rachel found it futile to deny
the worst was just about to happen, though
her husband did not. He declared: “Don’t hurry,
for all will soon be well, and in my heart I know
that God has plans for you: don’t worry.”
The midwife told her: “There’s no need to fear:
your second child’s a son just like your first! ”
Rachel, when she felt that death was near
said: “Son of my affliction––face the worst! ”
Her words were bitter, but the Hebrew sounds,
Ben-oni, meaning “son of my affliction, ”
depressed her husband, who with rhyming diction
named this son Benjamin, “son of the south”
perhaps, or else “the son of my right hand.”
The words that came from Jacob’s grieving mouth
are truly very hard to understand.

(Naomi, “Pleasant, ” said her name was “Bitter, ”
since both her sons had died, but this name, Marah,
was wrong, the name of Naomi surely fitter
once Ruth, adopted avis that was rara,
bore Boaz Obed, David’s ancestor.
It sometimes happens that we’re forced to weep
with tears of bitterness not long before
with joyfulness we are allowed to reap.)

Rashbam read for nun the letter mem,
and turning north for yamim, meaning “days, ”
in ways grandfather Rashi might condemn,
which this terrible enfant wouldn’t faze,
proposed it meant “the son of my old age, ”
thus putting Benjamin upon the stage
his brother occupied. They share a fate
that’s like the other’s. Each would nearly die,
young Joseph victim of his brothers’ hate,
while Benjamin, the apple of the eye
of Jacob just like Joseph, would be saved
by brothers’ love, especially of Judah’s,
when Joseph said: “To me he’ll be enslaved! ”
and Judah said, “Take me! ”––heroic kudos!

Jacob was the cause of Rachel’s death, his oath
to Laban when he did not know perhaps
that she had stolen teraphim caused both
to suffer. When she kept them under wraps
he said: “Whoever stole them has to die! ”
thus sentencing to death his only wife,
for with her sister he was forced to lie,
reluctant conjugally all her life,
so that although six tribes were born from Leah
and only two from Rachel, in Judea
for Judahites she was the major player
when they left Babylon, a pre-Maria.

Jacob buried Rachel in a place
called Ephrath, which is almost Bethlehem,
but is not Hebron. Jacob lost much face,
and thought that Joseph later would condemn
the way that Rachel was not in the cave
where all the other matriarchs were lying,
the very cave he wished to be his grave,
as he begged Joseph, very close to dying.
He gave to Joseph, lest he felt rejected
by Rachel’s last rites, all of great Shechem,
to make up for the way he had neglected
this wife by leaving her near Bethlehem.
Shechem became the place where Joseph would
be buried with his Ephraimite successor,
Joshua––somewhat troubled neighborhood,
than Hebron’s gravesite morally the lesser.

Abandoned by this somewhat tragic deed
Rachel never lay within the cave
with other matriarchs, but she would plead
when Nebuzadran passed by to enslave
the Israelites and march them to the east:
“A voice is heard on High, and Rachel weeps,
refusing consolation! ” Though deceased,
our Rachel like the Guardian never sleeps.
It is reported that He says: “Restrain
your voice from weeping and your bitter tears.
Your children will return, do not complain:
be patient, but prepare to wait for years! ”
These are the words that Jeremiah wrote
while grieving for the matriarch’s demise,
depressed like Jacob seeing Joseph’s coat,
but certain that the Hebrews would arise
to trace their steps back to Jerusalem,
past Rachel’s grave where Jacob buried her,
restoring kings born close to Bethlehem,
in the spirit of the man from Ur.


12/4/05

Submitted: Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Edited: Wednesday, December 14, 2005

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Comments about this poem (death of rachel by gershon hepner )

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  • Esther Leclerc (3/6/2006 8:47:00 PM)

    This poem recalls for me the many years of study, going back to childhood, of the Scriptures. How I love the Old Testament/Torah with these heroes, at once larger than life yet so very human. A beautiful historical rendering with interesting additional information. Thank you, Gershon. (Report) Reply

  • Mike Finley (3/5/2006 5:09:00 PM)

    This is remarkable, gershon - I am going to print it out and read it properly, in a chair. (Report) Reply

  • Hugh Cobb (12/13/2005 9:30:00 PM)

    This is superb, Gershon. It is much longer than many of your poems that I've read, but it is a wonderful retelling of Scripture. As always, well-crafted. A solid 10 from me. I am in awe of this poem.

    Hugh (Report) Reply

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