(In memory of Talia Agler)
The solace of a gravestone is its solidity—a feature carried in the Hebrew word matzevah, meaning “firmly fixed.” But a gravestone need not merely be a solid surface that reflects the past. It can be a dynamic, translucent summons to the future. On this point an ancient story and a modern poet are in agreement.
Rachel died and was buried on the road to Ephrat— now Bethlehem. And Jacob affixed/vayatzev a fixed marker/matzevah on her grave which remains the fixed marker/matzevet of Rachel’s grave to this very day (Genesis 35:19-20).
When the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, reflected upon this verse, he deliberately avoided the term matzevah that is so well fixed in the story. Rather, he employed a term of very different character:
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught: One need not make nefashot/grave stones for the righteous. Their words and deeds are their memorials.
Nefesh certainly means grave marker, but it paints this meaning from a very different palette than that of matzevah.
Primarily, nefesh is the breath and as well as the breath’s passages: Save me, O God, for the waters have reached my nefesh, says the Psalmist (Psalm 69:2) when the waters have risen to his nostrils.
Nefesh is also the spirit (Latin for breath) which breath animates.
God, as well as the slave, draws a deep and in-spired breath—va’yinafash—on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12; 31:17).
These are the shades of nefesh as distinct from matzevah. Matzevah confirms fixity. Nefesh suggests breath and spirit, animation and rest. Rabban Gamliel teaches that the words and deeds of the righteous are their true monumental presence—features of the soul more than fixtures in the soil.
Another voice in the ancient conversation honors both the fixed matzevah of the biblical verse as well as Rabban Gamilel’s breathing nefesh of word and deed:
Another way of considering the matter: What did our father Jacob perceive that made him bury Rachel on the road to Ephrat? Our father Jacob foresaw that future exiles would pass through that place. Therefore he buried her there in order that she might pray for mercy on their behalf, as it is written: A cry is heard in Ramah—wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. [She refuses to be comforted for her children who are gone. Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears. There is a reward for your labor—declares the Lord. They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord: Your children shall return to their country.] (Jeremiah 31:14-17)
(Click here for the Midrash in Hebrew and English)
Why was Rachel buried on the road to Ephrat, rather than in the famous family plot close by in Hebron? In a prophetic moment, Jacob foresaw that a gravestone, a matzevah, fixed here would transform this road into a corridor of comfort and hope for Rachel’s children on their way to exile. This fixed place would summon the cries of Rachel still heard by Jeremiah as the exile fromburned Jerusalem began.
The matevah and the nefesh—fixed and fluid, stone and breath, soil and soul—were joined together on the road to Ephrat; not merely characters engraved, but character imparted, as the verse says, to this very day.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, might have agreed that the best features of matzevah and nefesh can be joined:
In my life are many windows
and many graves.
Sometimes they exchange
then a window is closed forever
then by way of a gravestone
I can see
Thank you, Rabbi, for this reflection. It provides comfort as we, in our congregation in Boone, NC, prepare to bury one of the beloved of our membership. Peace to you and yours now and in the coming New Year. Karl (Inter-faith Conference)