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Rachel's Lost Children

Dear Friends,

During the summer of 1970, I lived with the hippies in the East Village of Manhattan. The hippy movement was entering a new stage, and many young hippies were seeking to anchor their idealistic vision in a spiritual path. There were therefore Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious centers that had opened up in the area in attempt to attract the spiritually-searching young people that flocked to the East Village, and its neighbor to the west, Greenwich Village.

About half of the hippies were Jewish, yet no religious Jewish outreach center had opened up in the area. The secular-oriented Federation of Jewish Philanthropies did open a drop-in center where young people could go for counseling and for help with their drug problems. I visited this Jewish drop-in center, and I saw that while the social workers were able to relate to the physical and emotional needs of the hippies, they had no understanding of their spiritual needs. It was no wonder that many of these young Jews sought spiritual nourishment elsewhere.

There was a store-front Christian coffee house that became a popular place to hang out, and I would go there to meet friends. When missionaries would enter the coffee house and begin to preach the gospel, they were surprised to discover that there was a Jewish young man - yours truly - who knew his "Scriptures." The Jewish hippies in the room would enjoy hearing me quote Jewish Scriptures in order to demonstrate that the Jewish view of God and the Messiah is correct. With rare exception, these young Jews had very little Jewish education, but when the missionaries would begin to argue that only the Christians had the true understanding of Jewish Scriptures, their Jewish pride was evoked. And they were quite impressed when I would cite the universal Jewish teaching that the righteous among all the nations have a share in the World-To-Come. To my great sorrow, however, I met a few young Jews who had become Christians, as they were told that only through a belief in Jesus could they "save" their souls.

During that period, I was going through my own personal crisis, yet the pain that I experienced when I saw young Jews adopting other spiritual paths helped me to forget about my own problems. I realized that being Jewish is not just a personal journey; being Jewish is a collective journey, as the God of history had made a covenant with the entire Community of Israel. It is through collectively fulfilling this covenant that we make our universal contribution, and we therefore need the participation of all the members of our people. I met other young Jews who shared my pain, and we decided to start a Jewish coffee house in the area that would help our "lost" brothers and sisters to find their way home.

The problem of lost Jews is still very much with us, and my heart still aches. I get letters from searching Jews all over the world, and some of them live in isolated areas where there are no Jews. It hurts so much when I'm told that they are attending a Christian Church or that they have adopted an Eastern religion as their main path. We are a very small people that has been greatly diminished in numbers through genocide and assimilation, and quite frankly, the loss of any Jewish soul causes me much anguish. As a universal Jew, I believe that our small people has a Divine mandate to serve as an ethical and spiritual model for all peoples, and I therefore want to see our people spiritually thriving and strong.

There is a prophecy of Jeremiah that addresses this pain, and it is connected to a story that appears in this week's Torah portion, "Vayishlach." In Vayishlach, we are told that our mother, Rachel, died during childbirth, and that she was buried outside of Bethlehem: "Thus Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. Jacob set up a monument over her grave; it is the monument of Rachel's grave until today." (Genesis 35: 19:20).

Why was she not buried in the Machpela Cave in Hebron where the other patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish people are buried? The midrash cites a tradition that Jacob chose to bury her near Bethlehem, because he foresaw that his descendants would pass her burial site as they journeyed into exile, and that Rachel's soul would pray for them. This tradition is based on the following prophecy of Jeremiah:

"A voice is heard on high, wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeps for her children; she refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone. Thus said the Compassionate One: Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears...There is hope for your future, spoke the Compassionate One, and your children will return to their border. (Jeremiah 31:14-16)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a noted biblical commentator, explains that the above prophecy has a deeper level of meaning. The exile resulted from the people's abandonment of the Covenant; thus, Rachel is weeping for her children who have become estranged from Hashem - the Compassionate One. Even if her children are prosperous in the lands of their dispersion, Rachel still weeps for them, as long as they are alienated from their Source. The Compassionate One therefore comforts Rachel by promising her, "there is hope for your future," as her lost children will eventually return to their "border" - their spiritual home. The ingathering of the wandering Jews will therefore be a spiritual, as well as a physical ingathering.

My friend, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Freifeld, is the son of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, a noted Torah educator who helped many searching Jews find their way home. My friend told me an amazing story of a Jewish hippy who came to visit his father. The young man told Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld that he had become attracted to the spiritual teachings of the Native-Americans and had studied for a few years with some of their leading "medicine men." One day, he was told by his teachers that they had nothing more to teach him, but if he wanted to learn more, he should travel to a wise Native-American medicine woman in Canada who knew more than them. He took their advice, and traveled to her village. When he was finally allowed to enter her tent, she looked into his eyes, and said, "You don't belong here; you must return to your people." He became very flustered, and he began to tell her about all the great medicine men that he had studied with, but she kept repeating, "You must return home."

He took her advice, and he eventually decided to enter Rabbi Freifeld's yeshiva in Far Rockaway. It may very well be that this wise Native-American woman recognized that he was one of Rachel's lost children, and she therefore advised him to go back "home.""Bring us back to you, O Compassionate One, and we shall return, renew our days as of old." (Lamentations 5:21)

Shalom,Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

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