This period of the Jewish calendar, from the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av to Rosh Hashanah, is characterized as a time of consolation. Seven Haftarot from Isaiah trace a movement from mourning to comfort, from desolation to joy, over the course of these seven weeks. The midrash, cited in the Mahzor Vitri, gestures at the shape of that transformation. These Haftarot…
“… all speak of comfort…in the way that one comforts (a mourner) slowly by stages, for someone who offers comfort too close to the time of tragedy is like one who predicts the future: “Tomorrow you will be king,” which the bereaved cannot believe… Therefore: “Comfort, O comfort” (Isa. 54:1), “But Zion said, [“The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me]” (Isa. 49:14) – although Zion is destroyed, do not say that she is abandoned [as it says, “O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted]” (54:11). Since the Lord has “comforted” her already in His mercy, He does not call for mercy again. Up until this point the prophets comfort her; from here onwards He comforts her. And once she has received consolation, we follow with: “Sing, O barren one,” (Isa. 54:1, the fifth); “Arise and shine,” (Isa. 60:1); “I shall rejoice” (Isa. 61:10).
Zion, the personification of Jerusalem, of the Promised Land, of Israel’s hope of return, does not at first accept the words of comfort from the prophets, in particular from Isaiah to whom G-d beckons: “Comfort, O comfort my people” (Isa. 54:1, the first of the Seven Haftarot of consolation). But Zion, like a tragic figure who refuses to accept that he will one day be king, does not respond to the prophets’ words (Isa. 49:14, the second Haftarah); she is storm-tossed, afflicted, not comforted (Isa. 54:11, the third of the Haftarah), until G-d finally reassures her directly in the fourth Haftarah: “I, I am He who comforts you” (51:12). From that moment onward, Isaiah’s words are full of jubilation.
In the fifth Haftarah, this transformation is likened to a barren woman who becomes a mother of many children: “Shout, O barren one [‘aqarah], you who bore no child! Shout aloud for joy, you who did not travail! For the children of the wife forlorn shall outnumber those of the espoused – said the Lord” (Isa. 54:1, NJPS). In Pesikta de-Rab Kahana, the author of the midrash adjures the reader not to be surprised by the radical shift:
R. Levi taught: Whenever it is said that “she has no…[’ayn lah]”, it implies that she will have. Thus it says, “Sarai was barren; she had no child [’ayn lah velad]” (Gen. 11:30); afterwards she did: “[Who would have said to Abraham] that Sarah would suckle children!” (Gen. 21:7). Likewise, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children [ule’Hannah ’ayn yeladim]” (1 Sam. 1:2); afterwards Hannah did have children: “And the Lord took note of Hannah, and she conceived, and bore three sons and two daughters” (1 Sam. 2:21). Finally, “She is Zion, there is no one that cares for her [doresh ’ayn lah]” ( Jer. 30:17); but then one will come who does care: “And a redeemer will come to Zion” (Isa. 59:20). (PRK, Piska 18:3)
From her state of having nothing [’ayn lah], of emptiness, the women are granted children. They endure decades of barrenness and the irksome presence of a rival, albeit less-loved wife, and eventually conceive and “have” many children. Sarah, after the birth of Isaac, nursed many at her breasts, and Hannah bore five more children after she had given Samuel, her first, up to service in the Mishkan. But I am perplexed by the simile which compares Zion to barren women in the Tanakh. Zion, that is Jerusalem, was hardly “barren” [‘aqarah]; rather prodigious, populated by many, and after the Destruction, Jeremiah lamented: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become” (Lam. 1:1). Like a widow, or a mother who has been bereaved of her children, she sits as a lone sparrow, hovering over the empty nest on the ramparts of the city. Yet she was never barren, was never really childless. After the exile, it was as though she had never conceived, as though barren for the duration of the seven decades of her children’s banishment.
The midrash, drawing on the opening line of the fifth Haftarah of consolation (“Sing, O barren one” Isa. 54:1), names seven famous barren women in the Tanakh: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, the wife of Manoah (Samson’s mother), Hannah and Zion. One woman is missing – the Shunamite (2 Kings 4:8-44, to whom Elisha, the prophet, grants a child) – and one woman, who was never overtly described as barren has been added. Leah, suggests the midrash, must have been barren for it says: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb” (Gen. 29:21). If conception for her required divine intervention with the opening of her womb, Leah must have been infertile. The text, however, states explicitly that “Rachel was barren” (ibid.). And Rachel becomes the barren woman par excellence who represents, in her lifetime and in her untimely death, the mother of mourning and consolation. The midrash goes on to engage in word-play on the term ‘aqarah; either it is related to ‘aqurah (uprooted) or, ironically, to its opposite:, ‘iqarah, the essential, primary, rooted one:
R. Abba bar Kahana said: Most of the guests assembled at Boaz’ wedding were descendants of Leah, [yet they blessed Ruth by saying “The Lord make [her] . . . like Rachel and like Leah” (Ruth 4:11), naming Rachel first, for Rachel was held to be first among the wives, as is implied by the verse: “And Rachel was barren [‘aqarah]” (Gen. 29:31). R. Isaac’s reading of this verse, led him to conclude that Rachel was the first among the wives, for he read ‘aqarah not as “barren” but as “essential” (‘iqarah), signifying that she was first. …Because so many significant matters in Israel’s past go back to Rachel, therefore the children of Israel are called by her name: “Rachel weeping for her children” (Jer. 31:15). They are called not only by her name, but also by her son’s name: “It may be that the Lord, the G-d of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15). And even by her [grand]-son’s name: “Ephraim is my dear son, the child I delight in…” (Jer. 31:20). “Sing, O barren one who did not bear” (Isa. 54:1). (PRK 20:2).
MICHELANGELO Buonarroti “Rachel and Leah”
1545 Marble San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome
Though she is ‘aqeret ha-bayit, the first chosen wife of Jacob, she suffers inexorably in her lifetime – waiting seven years before marriage, displaced by her sister on her wedding night, only to endure years of infertility while her sister bears son after son. Though loved, she is misunderstood by her husband, whom she confronts with the desperation of her barren state: “Give me children, or else I shall die! [lit. if nothing,’ayin, I die!]’” (Gen. 30:2). As Avivah Zornberg suggests, Rachel “absent on her wedding night,” is the “one who is not there” (Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, p. 304). Elusive as beauty, she cannot bear easily, and faces the interminable emptiness, the ’ayin of her existence. Through the interstices of Rachel’s pain, G-d hears her and responds, though the Torah never records her prayer: “Now G-d remembered Rachel; G-d heard her and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22).
In the end, she dies prematurely in no-man’s land. Yet, precisely because she faces that nothingness, she becomes the paragon intercessor, after her death, for her children as they are sent into exile. She is buried on the road to Ephrath, on the border of the land of Canaan; she is not buried in the ancestral Double Cave in Hebron (see Gen. 35:19 and 48:7, op.cit. Rashi). The purpose for her burial in the hinterland, according to Jeremiah, is for her to leap from her grave as her children are driven into exile. At that point, G-d hears her cries again:
Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more [’aynenu]. Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country.” (Jer. 31:15-17).
All the children of Israel are called Rachel’s children, and in the kabalistic sources, she becomes “a code word for Knesset Yisrael, the principle of cohesion in a dispersed people” (Zornberg, ibid., p. 305). Though in her lifetime, Rachel never “settled” in the Promised Land, never mothered her children to adulthood, in her weeping, her refusal to be comforted from the grave, she holds out the possibility of ingathering, drawing in her dispersed children.
The Haftarot of consolation then take us on a journey from mourning to consolation, culminating in Jeremiah, chapter 31, read on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah. According to the Talmud, Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel all conceived on Rosh Hashanah (b. Rosh HaShana 10b).– Their decades of barrenness came to an end on “Yom Harat ‘Olam – the Day of the World’s Conception” – the day of Re-creation. So too Zion conceives, after a period of barrenness of seven weeks of years, from Tisha Be’Av to the return of the exiles, which according to Jeremiah spanned seven decades (Jer. 25:11-12, 29:10 and 2 Chron.29:10). And we read on Rosh Hashanah of G-d’s promise to restore the children of Israel to their Homeland.
Today, after two thousand years of exile, we hear again “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” filling Jerusalem and its hills (Jer. 33:11). The seven Haftarot of consolation from Isaiah trace a transformation through the arc of history from Destruction to Return. Over this same arc stretches Rachel’s fate in her struggles against ‘ayin, and her plea for the return of her children from exile. She had the power to make those prophecies felt as most palpable. May we merit seeing their fulfillment in our day.
This is based on the odd plural form in Gen. 21:7: “And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children [banim
]?” See Gen. Rab.
 See the Gur Arye (Maharal) on Gen. 48:7 and Tg.-Ps.Jon. on Jer. 31:15
 See Miriam Udel-Lambert’s moving article on the piyut, Hayom Harat Olam, — Rosh Hashanah: Day of Judgment, Day of (Re-)Creation, http://www.jofa.org/pdf/Vehigadet%20FINAL.pdf.
 This a reversal of the silence to which Jerusalem was condemned, cf. Jer. 7:34, 16:9, and 25:10)