The Torah tells in Parashat Vayechi of Yaakov’s meeting with Yosef and Yosef’s two sons shortly before his death, during which he pronounced a special blessing upon Yosef’s sons. Before this pronouncement, Yaakov briefly recounted the death of Yosef’s mother, Rachel, as the family traveled after returning to Canaan, and her burial along the roadside on the way to Beit Lechem (48:7).
The commentators offer different possible explanations for why Yaakov mentioned his beloved wife’s death and burial on this occasion. The best-known approach is that of Rashi (which is followed also by the Radak), who explains that Yaakov found it necessary to justify his earlier request that Yosef bring his remains to Chevron for burial in the Makhpeila cave (47:29-30). Yaakov feared that Yosef might resent this request in light of the fact that Yaakov buried Rachel – Yosef’s mother – on the roadside. According to Rashi’s reading of the verse, Yaakov here acknowledged that Rachel died in close proximity to the city of Beit Lechem, and during the summertime, when the weather conditions allowed him to easily travel with her to the city to give her a proper burial. (This is in contrast to the Radak, who explained that to the contrary, Yaakov pointed to the long distance he would have had to travel to bury Rachel in Beit Lechem.) However, Yaakov told Yosef that he buried Rachel along the roadside “al pi ha-dibbur” – based on a prophetic instruction he received from God. Rashi cites the famous Midrash tradition that centuries later, when Benei Yisrael would be exiled from their land, they would pass Rachel’s gravesite, and her soul would beseech God on their behalf, as God would later describe to Yirmiyahu (31:14). Foreseeing these events, God instructed Yaakov to bury Rachel by the roadside, rather than bringing her to Beit-Lechem for a more respectable burial, so that Benei Yisrael would pass by her grave in their way to exile.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz is cited as raising the question as to why, according to Rashi’s understanding of Yaakov’s remarks to Yosef, Yaakov found it necessary to emphasize that there was no practical impediment to bringing Rachel to Beit-Lechem for a proper burial. As we saw, Rashi interpreted the verse to mean that Yaakov acknowledged that Rachel died not far from the city, and that weather conditions allowed him to bring her remains there. Seemingly, Rav Shmuelevitz observed, this was unnecessary. All Yaakov needed to tell Yosef was that he received a clear instruction from God to bury Rachel along the roadside. Why did he first “confess” that the practical conditions allowed for bringing Rachel’s remains to Beit-Lechem?
Rav Shmuelevitz suggested that this information was presented not as a “confession,” but rather to confirm that Rachel’s roadside burial was indeed “al pi ha-dibbur.” Very often, Rav Shmuelevitz explained, we deceive ourselves into thinking that something we want to do is “al pi ha-dibbur” – what God wants us to do. We conceal our own vest interests behind a veneer of altruism, deluding ourselves into thinking we act idealistically, when in truth we are driven by our own interests. Rav Shmuelevitz thus explains Rashi’s comments to mean that Yaakov affirmed that his prophecy was authentic by recognizing that he had little personal interest in burying Rachel along the road. If he had needed to travel a long distance to bring her to the nearest city, or if the weather conditions were inclement, he might have mistaken his own vested interest in burying Rachel along the roadside as “dibbur” – God’s instruction. He therefore emphasized that he had no such vested interest, and thus he could definitively ascertain that he indeed received a prophetic command to bury Rachel along the road.
Rav Shmuelevitz here alerts us to the pitfall of false altruism, how we ourselves can so easily be deceived into thinking we act for the sake of idealistic principles, when in truth we are motivated by our base desires and instincts. Whenever we think we act “al pi ha-dibbur,” for the sake of lofty, idealistic goals, we must carefully and honestly scrutinize our motives and to determine whether we are truly sincere.