We are introduced to Rachel, one of the four Matriarchs, in this week’s Torah reading Vayetzei[i]. Like the other Matriarchs, she was an outstanding individual with many wonderful qualities.
Rachel also possessed some unique characteristics that earned her the endearing title of Rachel Imenu (our Mother Rachel). This is particularly poignant given her travails in seeking to have a child with Jacob[ii]. She finally gave birth to Joseph after many years and then passed on, at the young age of thirty-six[iii], in the process of giving birth to Benjamin. It is also interesting that it was her twin sister[iv], Leah, who bore the most children to Jacob, including Judah. Indeed, the name Jews is derived from the presumptive status of being descendants of the Tribe of Judah, given that it was the most numerous surviving Tribe of Israel, after both the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, by the Assyrians and then the destruction of the First Temple, by the Babylonians. Yet it is Rachel, who is referred to as our mother; not Leah.
The Bible refers to Rachel as beautiful, employing two expressions ‘Yifat Toar’ and ‘Yifat Mareh’ to describe aspects of her charming qualities[v]. The Ohr HaChaim[vi] explains the former term refers to her objective beauty and the latter to the beautiful impression she made on those who encountered her. This may help explain why Jacob fell in love with her at first sight[vii].
The Talmud[viii] extols Rachel’s modesty and discretion. These are not just idle words of praise. The Talmud illustrates how Rachel strove to deal with her less than ideal circumstances, in a selfless and compassionate manner. When Jacob asked her to marry him, she cautioned him. She said that her father, Laban, was a swindler and would try to marry off her older sister Leah first to Jacob, in her place. Jacob responded he could deal with Laban and provided her with certain distinguishing signs to frustrate any attempted substitution. However, when the wedding night arrived and Laban planned to switch the sisters, Rachel could not abide her sister Leah being embarrassed. She provided Leah with the secret signs to avoid her outright rejection. It was only on the following morning, in the light of day, that Jacob realized it was Leah he had mistakenly married.
Rachel also had a stoical capacity to remain silent[ix]. This is no mean accomplishment. Imagine the scene depicted in the Bible[x] of Rachel asking Leah to please favor her with the dudaim Leah’s son Reuben had picked. Leah answers cynically that wasn’t it enough that Rachel stole her husband, Jacob, away from her and now Rachel was asking for her son’s dudaim too. Rachel could have vehemently responded, what Leah, are you kidding? It was Leah, who was the interloper and who masqueraded as Rachel on her intended wedding night with Jacob. Instead, Rachel was silent and remained stoic in the face of Leah’s baseless accusations. It appears she never confronted Leah on the subject to preserve her sister’s dignity and self-respect[xi].
Interestingly, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai notes[xii] that Rachel understood if she had interfered with her father Laban’s plan to marry Leah off to Jacob first, then he would not have allowed her betrothal to Jacob to proceed. She recognized that this was, in effect, the only way she would be married to Jacob. She was, indeed, very wise and determined.
The Midrash[xiii] records Rachel was the primary one[xiv] in the household of Jacob. The Talmud[xv] also reports she was a prophetess. It was Rachel, who with cleared eye perspective and resoluteness, first affirmatively answered Jacob’s call to leave Laban[xvi]. She recognized it was good for the family to do so. Beyond that, she was the one who took the additional precaution of securing her father Laban’s ancient technology, known as the Teraphim[xvii]. It functioned like a GPS tracking device, able to locate their position. Taking it frustrated Laban’s ability readily to intercept them, as they made their escape from his clutches. She may ultimately have paid for this perilous escapade to protect her family with her premature demise[xviii].
It is also interesting to note that while Rachel was her husband Jacob’s first love and the object of his affection, she yearned to be a mother. Leah, on the other hand, was the mother of most of Jacob’s children, but desired to be his most beloved wife. Each was rewarded with their most fervent desires. Hence, Leah is buried next to her husband Jacob and Rachel is not buried next to Jacob and is known as our mother[xix].
She had one final mission to protect the children of Israel, which helps explain why she was not buried in Hebron. As Jacob reported to Joseph, Rachel was buried on the road to Beit Lechem in order to fulfill a critically important function[xx]. Her gravesite had to be there[xxi], so that she could pray for her children[xxii] as they passed by, on their way into the Babylonian exile, forced upon them by Nebuchadnezzar[xxiii]. As the Midrash[xxiv] reports she was able to invoke G-d’s mercy. She argued against the concept of a jealous G-d, triggered by her children’s meaningless idolatry, granting free reign to their enemies and causing their exile. Her argument buttressed by her own personal example of selfless behavior, rather than giving into jealous instincts, was most compelling. After all, Rachel had been unwilling to disgrace her sister. Thus, as noted above, instead of jealously guarding her prerogative with Jacob, she acted with compassion to preserve her sister’s dignity. Immediately G-d’s mercy was revealed and G-d said it was because of Rachel and her compassionate behavior[xxv] that the Jewish people would be returned back to the Land of Israel from the exile. As Jeremiah[xxvi] reports, G-d declared there was reward for Rachel’s deeds and her tears and weeping would be answered with the return of her children. In this regard, it is important to note that the reference to Rachel’s children was not just to her biological progeny; rather, it was to the entire Jewish people. As a result, we too bear her name, in the sense that she is referred to as our mother[xxvii].
Is it any wonder that Rachel is hailed as Imenu? She epitomizes the qualities we treasure most in a mother, including, non-judgmental wisdom, selfless devotion, compassion, modesty and discretion.
As I reflect on the majesty of Rachel and her extraordinary character, I can’t help but remember the times my father z”l would sing My Yiddishe Mamme[xxviii], at family gatherings. He was an Auschwitz survivor, who had lost his own mother z”l in the Holocaust. As he sang, tears welled up in the eyes of those present, including my own mom and her sisters and brothers. The song was phrased in the form of a Yiddish riddle, summarized below. It begins with the question with which precious possession does G-d bless everyone; yet, it cannot be bought for any money, it’s only awarded for free. The song goes on to note when the gift is lost, many tears are shed and all the crying can’t restore it, because there’s no substitute for the original. In plaintiff tones it announces Oy, he who has lost the gift, already knows what is meant. The answer to the riddle is the precious gift of a Yiddishe Mamme; it doesn’t get much better than that on this earth. It’s bitter and dark when she passes on and wonderful and bright when she’s still alive at home. The song describes how she’d pass through water and fire for her children and not holding her in high esteem is surely the greatest sin. It concludes, how lucky and rich is the one who has such a beautiful gift from G-d; my Yiddishe Mamme.
These tales of Rachel do not glorify her passing away; they celebrate her life and enduring legacy. It is the good she did during her life that enabled her to live on. We can and should learn from how she conducted herself and be inspired to emulate the good deeds she performed. Through our good actions, as her spiritual successors, we are ennobled and she is immortalized.
We can also learn important lessons from the missteps of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, as well. That’s why the Torah takes pains to mention them. Thus, it reports that Rachel was envious of her sister Leah, who had many children, while Rachel remained childless[xxix]. The Midrash[xxx] explains that Rachel presumed this was because of Leah’s righteousness and, therefore, Rachel looked inwardly to understand why her deeds were unfavorable. She also implored Jacob to give her children; but Jacob responded angrily that he was not G-d[xxxi]. The Midrash[xxxii] criticizes Jacob for his inconsiderate and harsh response. In essence, Jacob should have consoled her and prayed for her to have children, as Isaac did for Rebecca and Abraham for Sara[xxxiii].
Rachel sublimated her emotions and took charge to find a way to overcome the challenges she faced. Thus, she followed the example of Sara, by introducing Bilhah as her surrogate. Like Sara, Rachel’s selflessness was ultimately rewarded with children of her own. Given her successful bout with overcoming her jealousy, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Rachel had still been alive at the time Jacob publicly displayed his favor for Joseph over his other children, with the gift of the coat of many colors. Might she have been able to intervene to prevent this misjudgment that caused burning jealousy and precipitated such catastrophic consequences[xxxiv]?
Rachel was the complete package, a pure soul; beautiful both inside and out. Her ability to cope with and overcome life’s challenges with graciousness and finesse is an enduring paradigm for the ages. She is the gift that keeps on giving through her prayers for our welfare and example of goodness.
We too can celebrate Rachel’s life and honor her memory, as well as, those of all our ancestors, who sacrificed so much for us to be here, by emulating Rachel’s good example and unselfishly doing good deeds and helping others. Am Yisroel Chai.
[i] Genesis 29:6, et seq.
[ii] Genesis 30:1, et seq.
[iii] Seder Olam Rabbah 2.
[v] Genesis 29:17 and see commentaries of Rashi, Radak and Ibn Ezra thereon.
[vi] Rav Chaim ibn Atar, in his 18th century commentary on Genesis 29:17.
[vii] BT Megillah 13b and Bava Batra 123a. See also Midrash Tanchuma, Vayetzei, Siman 6.
[viii] BT Megillah 13b and Bava Batra 123a, as well as, Minor Tractates Kallah Rabbati 3:18 and Derech Eretz Zuta 1:10.
[ix] Midrash Tanchuma, Vayetzei, Siman 6.
[x] Genesis 30:14-15.
[xi] Although, according to Genesis Rabbah 70:19, Leah did know, because she and Jacob had a confrontation on the subject, the next morning.
[xii] Midrash Tanchum, Vayetzei, Siman 6.
[xiii] Ruth Rabbah 7:13.
[xiv] The Midrash redefines the word ‘akarah’ (typically, meaning childless) appearing in Genesis 29:31, as ‘ikar’ (similar spelling), meaning the primary one.
[xv] JT Brachot 9:3.
[xvi] Genesis 31:14.
[xvii] Genesis 31:19.
[xviii] See Genesis 31:32 and Genesis Rabbah 74:4&9, as well as, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 10:5, Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer 36:15 and Midrash Aggadah on Genesis 31:32.
[xix] Rabbi Efrem Goldberg made this insightful observation in one of his wonderful Parsha Shiurim at the Boca Raton Synagogue attended by the author and available online at yutorah.org.
[xx] See Genesis Rabbah 82:10, Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Genesis 48:7 and the Maharal’s Netzach Yisrael 2:9.
[xxi] Rashi, in his commentary on Genesis 48:7, explains that G-d commanded Jacob to bury Rachel at this particular site, so that she could be there to pray for the children of Israel going into exile, as described above. Chizkuni, in his commentary on Genesis 48:7, provides another explanation. He offers that title to the Machpelah Cave was still in dispute at the time with Esau. However, this does not explain why Jacob did not transfer Rachel’s remains to the Machpelah, after the matter was resolved, when Jacob was buried there. HaKtav VeHaKabbalah suggests that Rachel’s burial site made sense because it was located at the intersection of the portions of the land of Israel allocated to the Tribes of Binyamin and Ephraim, her progeny.
[xxii] Jeremiah 31:15-17 and see Genesis Rabbah 82:10, as well as, Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 24.
[xxiii] See Yalkut Shimoni on Torah, Remez 136, Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 35:19 and Malbim commentary on Genesis 35:20.
[xxiv] Eicha Rabbah, Petichta 24.
[xxv] See Rashi commentary on Jeremiah 31:15.
[xxvi] Jeremiah 31:16.
[xxvii] See Genesis Rabbah 82:10.
[xxviii] Lyrics written by Jack Yellen, in 1924, in collaboration with composer Lew Pollack, sung by Sophie Tucker in 1925 and recoded by many others since, including the Barry Sisters on their album in 1957, which my dad z”l would play at home, as we were growing up.
[xxix] Genesis 30:1.
[xxx] Genesis Rabbah 71:6.
[xxxi] Genesis 30:2.
[xxxii] Genesis Rabbah 71:7.
[xxxiii] Shenei Luchot HaBerit, Torah Shebichtav, Vayetzei, Torah Ohr 77.
[xxxiv] Genesis 37:3 and Midrash Aggadah thereon. See also Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezar 38:9, Midrash Mishle 1:9, Shir HaShirim Rabbah 8:6 and Midrash Tanchuma (Buber), Vayeshev 19:3. http://gty.im/96378562