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Kinah #26: Zilpah and Bilhah Cry Out

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Jul 25, 2021

The Kinah (26) of Az Bahaloch Yirmiyahu al Kivrei Ha-Avot describes how the prophet Yirmiyahu approached the graves of the patriarchs as well as Moshe Rabbeinu to awaken them to the tragedy of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and the exile of the Jewish people. 

In the midrashic version (Eichah Rabbah, Peticha 24), we are told how Yirmiyahu was specifically sent by Hashem to beseech the patriarchs and Moshe Rabbeinu to cry out on behalf of the Jewish people to evoke Hashem’s mercy on their behalf. Based on this order, Yirmiyahu systematically evokes their pleas in defense of their descendants and their nation.

In the kinah of Tisha B’av, however, there is no mention of any such divine order, but simply a description of Yirmiyahu as a distraught prophet who desperately cries out to the patriarchs, “how can you lie down while your children have been sent into exile?” and incredulously exclaims, “what happened to the z’chut Avot that always served as a source of protection in the past?” In the kinah, the crying of Yirmiyahu is in the form of a weeping lament, consistent with the theme of Tisha B’av as a day of tears rather than one of advocacy. 

Both versions record the plaintive pleas of Avrohom, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and Moshe, recounting their own acts of dedication and sacrifice toward Hashem as a source for rescinding the verdict against the children of Israel. In both accounts, Hashem responds by pointing out the pervasive and pernicious sins of the people, thus negating any possibility for clemency. 

At the conclusion of the midrashic version, Rochel emerges, reminding Hashem of her personal self-sacrifice as she watched her sister, Leah, being given to Yaakov as a wife in her stead, then assisted Leah from underneath the nuptial bed with instructions as to how to win over Yaakov’s heart. If Rochel, a human being with fragile emotion, could so nobly bear the degradation of being subordinate to her own conjugal competition, why could Hashem not bear the competition of the idolatry toward which His people had strayed? To this argument, Hashem’s mercy was aroused, and He declared, “for your sake, Rochel, I will return this people to their land.” This account, of course, corresponds closely with the scriptural verses (Yirmiyahu 31:15-17) describing “Rochel weeping for her children” and then being consoled by Hashem with the assurance that “your children shall return to their borders.”

By contrast, in the kinah’s version, Rochel does not intercede solely on her own, but together with the other wives of Yaakov. Rochel’s cries are preceded by those of Leah, her co-matriarch, but their heartfelt cries do not carry the day by themselves. Rather, their cries are followed by those of the maidservants. “Zilpah pounds her face (in distress), Bilhah laments with both of her hands.” Only after the appearance of the maidservants does the kinah shift gears, provoking the response of Hashem, “temimim (wholesome ones) — go back to your eternal resting place, I will fulfill all your aspirations, I was sent to Bavel for their sake; behold, I will return your children from exile.” 

Zilpah and Bilhah, the maidservants of Leah and Rochel, were never given the top billing that was accorded to the four matriarchs of the Jewish people (see Berachos 16b). Although they gave birth to four of the tribes, and effectively also served as matriarchs for the Jewish nation (see Bemidbar Rabbah 12:17, noting that the six wagons brought by the princes of the tribes alluded to the matriarchal status of Bilhah and Zilpah together with the other four matriarchs), their status as such was subsumed to that of Leah and Rochel (see Pri Tzadik, Behar, n.9). After having endured so much in silence and obscurity, they cannot contain themselves anymore in this kinah. If their nation would be wiped out, there would be nothing left of their quiet and heroic legacy. Perhaps this is the import of these final lines of the kinah. “Zilpah pounds her face,” because she would have no further face to save, and “Bilhah laments with both of her hands,” because her handiwork, G-d forbid, would be extinguished.

Together with the heartfelt pleas of Rochel and Leah, this stirring awakening on the part of the least heralded matriarchs in the birth of Israel dramatically changes the narrative. The final coupling of the “wholesome ones,” highlighting their self-sacrifice and self-effacement in the formation of the holy nation of Israel, evokes the verdict from the Almighty that their descendants will surely be granted redemption. Zilpah and Bilhah, having complemented the cries of Leah and Rochel with the pathos of their pain, can comfortably return to their eternal resting place in peace.


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