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10.12.2019 16:23    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  genegis  parashah  vayishlach  

What sort of person was our matriarch Rachel?

Jacob’s love of Rachel is perhaps the most famous love story in the Bible, emphasized in many verses. For example, “Jacob loved Rachel...and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her” (Gen. 29:19-20). Even years after Rachel’s death, Jacob referred to her as his only true wife, as follows from his words to his sons, quoted by Judah: “As you know, my wife bore me two sons” (Gen. 44:27).

Alongside the unqualified love between Jacob and Rachel, the written Torah as well as the midrash describe several incidents in which Jacob and Rachel had disagreements or behaved quite differently one from the other. One such disagreement between them was mentioned in the previous weekly reading:

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel and said, “Can I take the place of G‑d, who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Gen. 30:1-2).

Another disagreement is not explicitly mentioned, but clearly follows from the text in the story of Rachel’s stealing her father’s idols. While Rachel had stolen the idols, Jacob condemned the thief: “But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!” (Gen. 31:32).[1]

The Torah notes that while Jacob did not know Rachel had stolen the idols, he condemned the theft in no uncertain terms, not considering the possibility that there might have been a positive objective might behind the theft.

A third difference between them appears in the naming of Benjamin. Rachel, in the last moments of her life, called the newborn “Ben-oni” (according to Rashi, “the son of my suffering”), but Jacob changed his name to Benjamin. Of course there was no argument here, but a different way of relating to reality, which was certainly tragic for Jacob, as well.

A fourth point of contention arises from the famous legend (Bava Batra 123a, cited in Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 29:25) recounting how, when Laban substituted Leah for Rachel at the wedding of Jacob and Rachel, Rachel passed on to Leah the private signs that she had agreed upon with Jacob, all to avoid the deception coming out and Leah being humiliated. The Sages applauded Rachel’s sacrifice for her sister. But did Jacob, too, think that the proper way to behave? Presumably not! The very fact that he worked out signs with Rachel ahead of time indicates that he had no intention of letting himself be cheated. No explicit mention is made of his response to Leah and Rachel after the fact, yet only a few verses later Scripture says: “The Lord saw that Leah was unloved” (Gen. 29:31), and the Sages (Genesis Rabbah 71.2) wrote that Jacob hated Leah for her involvement in the deception. If so, it appears that Jacob thought it had not been proper to enable Laban to deceive him, even in order to save Leah from embarrassment.

Are these separate, individual disagreements, or do they perhaps all stem from some common difference in principle?

As we see it, all the events we have mentioned have one underlying element—a fundamental difference of opinion between Jacob and Rachel regarding the correct way of viewing reality. Jacob attempted to see the overall picture, and hence at times he did not think that a problem needed to be addressed immediately. Even in certain times of stress he did not relate to what was happening as negative because he viewed the event in terms of its place in the broader context. Rachel, in contrast, was not prepared to tolerate the bad, and demanded that one fight against it immediately, doing away with it as far as possible, even at the cost of subsequent embroilment.

This difference in approach runs throughout many episodes in the life of Jacob and Rachel. When Laban substituted Leah for Rachel, and Rachel saw that Leah was likely to be humiliated should the deceit come out, she chose to save Leah on the spot, even at the intolerably high price of her losing Jacob forever. When the Lord kept her from conceiving, she was not willing to accept Jacob’s explanation that such was the Lord’s decree, but demanded immediate remedy of the situation. When Rachel was about to leave Laban’s household, she stole his idols in order not to leave her father with the contamination of idolatry when she would not have any further chance to influence him. And as she breathed her last, no name for the newborn was more fitting to describe the tragedy of her life than “child of my suffering.”

In contrast to Rachel, Jacob did not think it right to give up his future relations with Rachel in order to save Leah for the moment. He did not see an immediate solution to the problem of the barrenness of his beloved wife, yet he did not think one could forcibly demand a solution from G‑d with the words, “Give me children.” He considered that stealing Laban’s idols was forbidden, especially since, rationally thinking, the chances of such an action stopping Laban from being an idolater were small. And when Rachel died in childbirth, Jacob saw the light amidst the great darkness and changed the child’s name to Benjamin.

With this understanding, we can now explain the ostensible contradiction between the famous interpretations that deal with the question of why Rachel was buried along the road to Ephrath, and not in the Cave of Machpelah, along with the rest of our patriarchs and matriarchs. On one hand, some interpret this as reflecting badly on Rachel, as a punishment for her having been willing to give up a night with Jacob in exchange for Reuben’s mandrakes: “Since she had disregard for sleeping with this righteous man, she did not have the privilege of being buried with him” (Rashi on Gen. 30:15, based on Genesis Rabbah 72.3). On the other hand, others have said that it was necessary for Rachel to be buried en route so that she could pray for her children as they passed by her burial place on their way to exile:

Know, however, that I buried her there by the command of G‑d, that she might help her children when Nebuzaradan would take them into captivity. For when they were passing along that road, Rachel came forth by her tomb [and stood there] weeping and beseeching mercy for them, as it is said, “A cry is heard in Ramah…” (Jer. 31:15), and the Holy One, blessed be He, replied to her, “There is a reward for your labor…Your children shall return to their country” (Jer. 31:16; Rashi on Gen. 48:7, based on Genesis Rabbah 82:10).

Why, then was Rachel buried along the road? Was this to fulfill a special role that the Holy One, blessed be He, destined for her? Or was it a punishment for not having had proper regard for Jacob?[2]

As we see it, the reason for Rachel’s actions in the story of the mandrakes is precisely the reason why Rachel’s prayers would be the ones to protect her children when they were exiled.

Why did Rachel want the mandrakes? In those days mandrakes were considered a lucky charm for conceiving (and some still think so to this day). Rachel was not willing to come to terms with being barren and tried to find a solution at any price. First she asked Jacob to help out, but she was refused despite her asking with such desperation. Then, in the hope of obtaining children, she brought her rival into her home, thereby to a certain extent giving up closeness with Jacob: “She said, ‘Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children’” (Gen. 30:3).

After this step, too, proved to no avail, the mandrakes were yet another attempt to solve the problem of barrenness here and now, even if it be at the expense of temporarily giving up time with Jacob.[3] Of course Rachel did not know that as a result she would not get to be buried alongside Jacob. It is possible, however, that she would have done the same even had she known, just as she agreed to give up her entire future with Jacob in order to spare Leah embarrassment at her wedding.

The midrash (Lamentations Rabbah, proem 24) recounts how all the patriarchs in the world prayed to the Lord to have mercy on His children who had been exiled, but their entreaties were rejected, until Rachel came and beseeched that just as she had overcome her jealousy and had ceded to Leah, so, too, the Lord should forgive Israel its sin of idolatry and redeem them. Rachel’s prayer was the one that was accepted. Why were her prayers answered while those of the rest of the patriarchs were rejected? Was the sacrifice Abraham made in the binding of Isaac, which he mentions in his prayer, any lesser than Rachel’s sacrifice in revealing to Leah the secret signs she had agreed upon with Jacob?

According to what we set forth here, the prayers of the rest of the patriarchs were not accepted because they viewed the exile as part of a larger picture, and even though they bemoaned the hardship they nevertheless accepted the factors that made it impossible to bring it to an end forthwith. Rachel, in contrast, demanded an immediate solution to the hardship, requesting that just as she had been willing to give up her entire future to spare her sister even a moment’s humiliation, so, too, the Lord should redeem her children immediately. Since Rachel was willing to pay such a great personal price for the road she chose to take, therefore her prayers were accepted.

Such was the way of our matriarch Rachel—to look at the reality of the moment and not to allow the bad to persist even temporarily, rather to attempt to cope with it, even if she would have to pay a price in the future. Even though we are more accustomed to follow the way of Jacob, the midrash teaches us that there are times when only Rachel’s way can succeed.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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