Rachel

  • Rav Amnon Bazak

PARASHAT VAYISHLACH

 

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This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Carole S. Daman of Scarsdale
 in memory of Tzvi Hersh ben David Arye z”l – Harlan Daman

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Rachel

 

by Rav Amnon Bazak

 

 

PART 1

 

            The image of the third of our national matriarchs, Rachel, seems to accompany the Jewish people throughout history much more so than the other three.  The image of Rachel crying bitterly over her children's exile (Yirmiyahu 31:14) and her impassioned plea for their return (Pesikta Rabbati, chapter 3) has become a powerful and heartwarming symbol of hope throughout the years of exile, crisis and suffering.  Her tomb[1] has become a sacred shrine where thousands of Jews have gone, and continue to go, to pour out their hearts before their Creator.

 

            However, when studying the Book of Bereishit, we have great difficulty identifying the source of Rachel's unique place in our national and religious awareness.  In all three sections directly dealing with this matriarch, we sense quite strongly the Torah's criticism of her actions.

 

1.         Our first encounter with Rachel[2] occurs in the context of her infertility.  This story brings to mind a similar saga, that of Chana's inability to conceive, as recorded in I Shmuel 1.  Both stories involve a man (Yaakov/Elkana) married to two wives, one of whom is fertile (Lea/Penina) while the other (Rachel/Chana) remains barren.  One critical difference, though, catches our attention: Chana finds herself in a far more difficult and trying situation than does Rachel[3] and, nevertheless, she reacts far more positively than her counterpart in our parasha.  Not once do we find Chana directing her frustration towards her husband.  All her emotion is released in the form of sincere, heartfelt prayer before God.  Rachel, by contrast, casts some sort of allegation against Yaakov, burdening him with the responsibility for her infertility:  "Give me children, otherwise I will die" (30:1).  Yaakov responds quite reasonably, "Am I in the place of God, Who has withheld offspring FROM YOU?"  Rashi explains, "I already have children [from Lea].  He has withheld from you, not from me."  Additionally, the very expression, "Rachel was jealous of her sister," which we do not find regarding Chana, invites strong criticism.

 

2.         The second time Rachel takes the stage occurs when Reuven, Lea's oldest, comes across "duda'im" [a type of flower, possibly a mandrake] and brings them to his mother.  Rachel deals away a night with Yaakov to her sister in exchange for these flowers.  Chazal comment, "Because she cheapened the marital affairs of the righteous man [i.e., Yaakov], she did not merit to be buried with him" (Bereishit Rabba 72:3).  Although some commentaries view Rachel's intentions as noble, in that these "duda'im" were a type of fertility drug (see Ramban), it nevertheless seems reasonable to assume that her behavior involves some wrongdoing, as evidenced by the fact that she does not conceive on account of the "duda'im."

 

3.         Perhaps the most serious critique of Rachel emerges from the third instance in which Rachel appears, when she steals her father's "terafim" (idols).  As a result of her theft, which she conducts without her husband's knowledge, she is subject to Yaakov's oath to Lavan, "With whomever you find your gods - he will not live" (31:32)[4].  Rachel's premature death is thus decreed.  We may safely assume that Rachel's punishment results not only from the indiscriminate utterance of her unsuspecting husband, but from the criminal nature of the act itself.  The text makes the point that she does not merely take the idols, but she "stole" them (31:19)[5], suggesting that her boldness in this regard constitutes outright thievery.  The question then arises, why does she steal the idols in the first place?  And, secondly, wherein lies the severity of this crime, for which she dies a premature death?

 

            Rashi writes, "She meant to lead her father away from idolatry."  His source is the view cited in Bereishit Rabba (74:5), but this explanation raises many difficulties.  First and foremost, why, then, is Rachel punished so severely for the theft (according to our earlier assumption, that her death should be seen as a punishment, not just a tragic error on Yaakov's part)?  Secondly, as the Ibn Ezra asks, why does she take the idols with her, rather than hiding them along the way?  Finally, quite simply, does Rachel really think that her father would "quit the habit" just because she stole his gods?

 

            The Radak suggests an alternative explanation, that Rachel seizes the idols because they would have magically allowed Lavan to determine the whereabouts of Yaakov and his family[6].  Obviously, this interpretation presumes that, indeed, these idols possessed the power of fortune-telling, as implied by various verses regarding "terafim".[7]

 

            But this approach, too, leaves several difficult points.  Firstly, the question raised by the Ibn Ezra on Rashi's commentary applies here, as well: why does Rachel take the idols with her, rather than simply hiding it somewhere?  Furthermore, Rachel's punishment seems unwarranted according to this explanation.  If Yaakov's escape from Lavan was wrong, then he deserves to be punished, not his wife who simply assists in the escape by stealing the idols.  And if Yaakov's flight was justified, then Rachel's assistance involves no wrongdoing.

 

            Apparently, striking as it may seem, Rachel steals the idols for her own, personal use.  Needless to say, according to this approach, her action now involves a far more serious crime than mere theft.  Belief in the power of any instrument of sorcery is strictly and severely outlawed by the Torah:

 

When you enter the land that Hashem, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations.  Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits ... For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to God ... Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, Hashem your God has not assigned the like (Devarim 18, 9-14).

 

            An explicit critique along these lines appears in the Midrash Sekhel Tov (Bereishit 35, 2):

 

Remove the foreign gods - 'remove' ['hasiru'] is written without a 'yud,' to teach us that only Rachel, from all his wives, were suspected of such, BECAUSE OF THE INCIDENT OF LAVAN'S IDOLS.[8]

 

'They gave Yaakov all the foreign gods in their possession' - referring to the hidden idols of their slaves from Shekhem's house, plus THE IDOLS IN RACHEL'S POSSESSION.

 

            On account of this, as well as Yaakov's curse, Rachel is severely punished.  Through her taking of the "terafim," Rachel demonstrates her faith in the independent powers of physical objects and the deficiency in her conviction that the Almighty alone determines the fate of mankind.[9]

 

            Our original question now becomes even stronger: why has specifically Rachel become our national symbol of motherhood?

 

PART 2

 

            It would seem that Rachel's uniqueness lies not in her ability to refrain from sin, but specifically in her ability to correct her sins and repent.  In all three instances mentioned above, we find Rachel eventually correcting her fault through the familiar stages of "teshuva" (repentance).

 

1.         Regarding her inappropriate reaction to her infertility, the verse tells us when Yosef is finally conceived, "God remembered Rachel, and GOD LISTENED TO HER and opened her womb" (20:22).  Evidently, Rachel accepted her husband's admonishment, his reminder that God alone is responsible for her inability to conceive.  She therefore resorts to sincere and genuine prayer, and her voice is heard and answered by the Almighty.

 

2.         Rachel also seems to correct her improper attitude reflected in the incident of the "duda'im."  The root of this sin relates to her dealing a night with Yaakov - an opportunity to conceive - in exchange for some fleeting benefit.  We can perhaps detect a change of heart in Rachel and Lea's immediate consent to Yaakov's decision to leave Lavan's home and go to Canaan, thus binding their future and progeny with his.  Rachel reacts to Yaakov's plan first, before her sister: "Rachel and Lea[10] answered and said to him, 'Do we still have a portion or plot in our father's home ...'" (31:14), demonstrating her desire to remain an integral part of Yaakov's household.

 

3.         Perhaps the most intriguing process of Rachel's teshuva involves the incident of her father's idols.  Regarding this sin, a simple change of attitude and behavior would not suffice.  Here we find the classic elements of repentance, confession and honest recognition of wrongdoing.  As she lies on her deathbed immediately after the birth of her second son, the Torah records, "It was, as her soul was departing for she was dying, she called him 'Ben-Oni,' but his father called him 'Binyamin.'"  What is meant by the name "Ben-Oni?"

 

            The commentaries raise various possibilities[11], but this term most likely contains unique significance in this context.  Firstly, "aven" (the root of "oni") in the Bible generally connotes falsehood and iniquity[12].  Thus, in effect, Rachel here associates her death with the realization that her new son, which has caused her premature death, is linked to her sins.  More specifically, though, "aven" here may very well relate to the incident of Lavan's idols.

 

            As mentioned, these "terafim" were likely used by the pagans for fortune-telling.  Two prophets strongly condemned the utilization of these instruments, and the same expression is employed in both instances.  The prophet Zekharia declares (10:2), "For the 'terafim' spoke delusion, the augurs predicted falsely ..." Similarly, albeit indirectly, Shmuel admonishes (I Shmuel 15:23), "For rebellion is like the sin of divination, defiance, like the iniquity of 'terafim.'"

 

            In other words, belief in the powers of these "terafim" constitutes "aven."  Rachel manages to confess and repent for this "aven" moments before her death, naming her son as a subtle reference to her wrongdoing.  We can therefore understand quite well why her husband immediately changes his son's name, from Ben-Oni to Binyamin[13].  How fortunate is Rachel, that her soul does not depart before she undergoes a thorough process of repentance!

 

PART 3

 

            From then on, Rachel - and specifically Rachel - has served as a powerful symbol for her descendants in exile.  As if Rachel says to us, her children, I - more than anyone - know and understand what you are going through.  Nobody is aware more than I of the complex workings of a person, the inner tension of conflicting interests and desires, the individual's strive for excellence and frequent moments of collapse and confusion.  I, more than anyone, can assure you that just as one has the capacity to corrupt, he has the capacity to correct.  There is hope for your future, my children, and, sooner or later, you will return to your homeland.

 

(Translated by David Silverberg)

 



[1]      We do not discuss here the well-known controversy surrounding the exact location of the authentic tomb of Rachel.  It is, however, worthwhile to point out the two most basic problems with the generally accepted assumption as to its whereabouts, near Bethlehem:

a)         Before his death, Yaakov explains to Yosef why he was forced to bury Rachel along the road rather than bringing her remains to the nearest city for a proper burial: "When I was returning from Padan, Rachel died, to my sorrow, while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short ['kivrat ha-aretz'] of Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, now Bethelehem" (Bereishit 48:7).  The simple meaning of the word "kivrat" is a large distance, as explained by the famous exegete and grammarian, Menachem ben Saruk, cited by Rashi 35:16.  (See also the commentaries of Rashbam, Chizkuni and Radak, as well as the fascinating comment of the Ramban in this context.)  If Rachel's burial site is just outside Bethlehem, he could have easily brought her to the city for burial.  It therefore seems more reasonable to assume that the site lies further from Bethlehem, somewhere along the road from Bet-El to Bethlehem.

b)         After Shmuel anoints Shaul as king over Israel, he gives him three signs to encourage him and prepare him for royalty.  The first of these signs opens with a geographical description: "When you leave me today, you will meet two men near the tomb of Rachel in the territory of Binyamin, at Tzeltzach" (I Shmuel 10:2).  In light of this verse, Rachel's Tomb is situated in Binyamin's territory (most probably near its northern border, the first border of Binyamin's plot which Shaul would encounter as he leaves the territory of Efrayim), certainly not deep in Judea, where the contemporary "Rachel's Tomb" is located.

In any event, the reader is referred to the article of Y. Elitzur, "The Site of Rachel's Tomb," Sinai, vol. 92, 5743, pp. 35-45.

[2] We also find Rachel near the well upon Yaakov's arrival, but there she plays no significant role.  She simply informs her father that Yaakov has arrived (29:12).

[3] Chana must endure the incessant annoyance of Penina, Shmuel's other wife (I Shmuel 1:6), a type of suffering from which Rachel was spared throughout her crisis.

[4] In several places, Chazal take note of the connection between Yaakov's oath and Rachel's premature death.  See Torah Shleima, vol. 5, p.1236, note 75.

[5] Similarly, "Yaakov did not know that Rachel STOLE them" (verse 32).

[6] Radak's source is Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze 12:  "Why did she steal them?  So that they would not tell Lavan that Yaakov has escaped with his wives, children and sheep."  This is also the explanation of Targum Yerushalmi, Arukh, Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni.

[7] For an in-depth analysis of this function of "terafim," see the article by this author, "The Terafim and the Mattress," Megadim, vol. 24 (Sivan, 5755), pp. 53-60.  Further discussion regarding the precise nature of the "terafim" and Chazal's approach to this parasha appears in D. Sperber, "The 'Terafim,'" in Sefer Hashana Le-mada'ei Ha-yahadut Ve-haru'ach, Bar-Ilan University, 5755, pp.371-5.

[8] See Torah Shleima, ibid., p.1337, note 9.  A negative view of Rachel's actions appears elsewhere in Chazal, as well: "Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: It is written [in the context of the creation of Chava] 'Va-yiven' [literally, 'He built,' but may also be read, 'Va-yaven,' He understood].  He understood from where to create her.  He said, she should not be created from the head so that she does not afford too much honor to her head ... and not from the hand, so that she does not become a fingerer ... nevertheless, 'You tore all My advice, and you refused My reproof:' I did not create her from the head, but she still affords too much honor to her head...and not from the hand, but she is still a fingerer - 'And Rachel stole her father's idols'..." (Bereishit Rabba Parasha 18, 2; in the Theodor-Albeck edition, pp.162-3).

[9] For a comparison between this parasha and the section dealing with the death of Pinchas' wife in the aftermath of the destruction of Shilo (I Shmuel 4), see the article by this author, "'Honor Shall Leave Israel On Account of the Taking of the Ark of God' - A Comparison Between Rachel and Pinchas' Wife," Megadim, vol. 28 (Tishrei, 5758), pp.9-18.

[10] Radak notes: "Rachel was the first to respond, for she loved him very much, as he loved her."

[11] Rashi, on the basis of Bereishit Rabba, explains, "The son of my distress."  Many other commentaries, including R. Sa'adia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Ramban, also associate this term with mourning and despair (as related to the Hebrew word "aninut").

[12] For example, see Yeshayahu 55:7, Mikha 2:1, Tehillim 36:4, Mishlei 22:8, as well as many other verses.

[13] Here, too, different interpretations appear in the commentaries: south (Rashi); days, meaning, that Binyamin was born to an elderly woman (Rashbam, Chizkuni); or strength (Ramban).