“Rachel is weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” — Jeremiah 31:14
This excerpt from the book of Jeremiah seeks to highlight the pain and anguish that the Israelites experienced upon their exile to Babylonia. Jeremiah stood in the moment of deep pathos. The poetry of Jeremiah describes Rachel weeping and her fear that there will be no more children – there will be no more future. The anguish of wondering about the future when all appears as barrenness and desolation is the fear of loss encapsulated in her very being.
Jeremiah saw the Temple burn, he saw the charred city walls, he saw an absence of the royal court, he named the names of those carried away to Babylonia. Jeremiah took note of the brutality of the Babylonians, the damage incurred to the land, the loss of life, the undervalued women damaged and focused instead on the human cost and the human heart. He saw that the exiles were not statistics on the nightly news nor numbers to appear in a book, but that each of the people who died or were captured had mothers and fathers who cared for them, who made them suppers and taught them how to tie their shoes.
The gift that Jeremiah has given us is a language to help us grieve over loss and brutality. He forces us to ask, will we have faith in the face of uncertainty and fear, and will our faith have children? I think it is only fitting that Jeremiah used the metaphor of Rachel weeping for her children. The agony of a mother who has given birth, and experiences the pain of labor only to lose her child to death is something we can relate to even today. Simply put, there is no comfort. The people who lost their lives or were exiled, have evaporated into NOT. “Your injury is incurable, Your wound severe” (Jeremiah 30:12).
The miracle of Jeremiah is that he takes the pain of humanity and causes it to become the verbalization of God’s pain over the exile: “Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me, A child that is dandled! Whenever I have turned against him, My thoughts would dwell on him still. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will receive him back in love —declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 31:20). It is not enough that we ourselves are in agony but that even God is in agony for us. Hosea touched on this briefly and other prophets dangled their toes in the water of describing God’s pain but it was Jeremiah who had the courage to do so. Instead of this being God’s punishment inflicted upon us and God judging us harshly, God was described as a grieving mother for her children and her future. Even God is described therefore as helpless. Perhaps God is wondering why history has taken such a ruthless course and expressing an enigmatic yearning for something more compassionate to be revealed during human history.
Today, Jeremiah reminds us to also recognize that as much as we are crying out and wondering why we’re in the agony of loss, God is there as well. That God is embracing us even in the darkness because God is like a grieving mother, an image we can all relate to. I hope to bring the poetry and prose of Jeremiah alive so that perhaps we can find the words to explain not only our feelings but a recognition that our feelings are not in isolation nor are we alone in them. We are at a time in our nation’s history and a point in Jewish history of both excitement and fear. This time is significant but not wholly unique. Perhaps in the study of Jeremiah we can find great comfort and inspiration.