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Ya'akov and Rachel

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Ya'akov and Rachel

By Rav Michael Hattin


More than twenty years have elapsed since Ya'akov was forced to flee home and hearth in order to escape the murderous wrath of his brother Esav. At the behest of his selfless mother Rivka, Ya'akov journeyed eastward to the family of Lavan her brother, ostensibly to find a wife from among his daughters. There Ya'akov remained for two decades, laboring for the wily and unscrupulous uncle who soon became his father-in-law as well. For seven years Ya'akov herded the flocks in order to win the hand of beautiful Rachel in marriage. But to his great dismay, under cover of darkness and the veneer of social propriety, Lavan substituted Leah in her place. Though Rachel also became his wife, Ya'akov had to first agree to Lavan's devious terms: a further seven years of dedicated labor. Thus did fourteen futile years pass.

In the meantime, Ya'akov's wives and their handmaidens gave birth, his household grew, and the thought of returning home to Canaan, prompted by Divine communications, began to stir in his mind. Six further years of labor for Lavan did nothing to dispel the latter's veiled opportunism and continuing exploitation, and so Ya'akov and his family fled. Though Lavan pursued and eventually caught up with the fugitives, a forceful dream from God prevented him from doing them harm. In the end, the two parties tensely concluded a pact of non-aggression, and went their separate ways.


Ya'akov's approach to Canaan, though, is also his confrontation with the demons of the past. His brother Esav has since established a household of his own, displacing the indigenous Chori tribes and seizing their stronghold of Se'ir, on the southeastern shores of the Dead Sea. Does his brother still harbor lethal resentment towards him for having wrested the birthright and the patriarchal blessing from their aged and blind father Yitzchak? Ya'akov prepares to meet his brother and nemesis by adopting a multi-faceted approach. While he sends him gifts to appease his ancient anger, Ya'akov also steels himself and his people for battle and anxiously implores the God of his ancestors to save: "Rescue me now from the clutches of my brother, from the clutches of Esav, for I fear that he will smite me along with the mothers and the children..." (32:12).

A tense night passes as Ya'akov divides his camp and transports them over the ford of Yabok. Alone in the ominous darkness, just as he had been that first night of exile more than twenty years earlier, Ya'akov is confronted by a mysterious and angelic apparition. Striving mightily with the furtive figure, Ya'akov is injured but unbowed. The imminent confrontation with Esav is thus foreshadowed by this painful confrontation with his own past. The triumph of Ya'akov, presaged by the promise of the rising dawn, brings with it a transformation of his destiny: "Your name shall no longer be Ya'akov but rather Yisrael, for you have struggled with angels and with men and have prevailed!" (32:29)


But Ya'akov's trials are far from over. Emerging unscathed from his encounter with Esav, crossing the Yarden safely and arriving at Shechem in the Canaanite hill country, Ya'akov erects an altar and pours out his gratitude to God, but trouble lurks just around the corner. Precious Dina his only daughter is seized and raped by the son of Shechem's governor, and the ruler and inhabitants of the town tensely rally around the criminal. Ya'akov's sons cleverly employ subterfuge to win the aggressor's trust and then they attack, freeing Dina from his clutches while wreaking havoc upon the Shechemites. But Ya'akov is not placated: "Ya'akov said to Shim'on and to Levi: you have unsettled me and disgraced me before the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, for I am few in number. They shall gather against me and strike me down, and I and my household shall be destroyed!" (34:30)

In the end, due solely to Divine intervention, Ya'akov's fears prove to be unfounded and finally he arrives at Beit El to fulfill an ancient pledge. The circle of his migrations is finally closed with his building of an altar at Beit El, just as he had sworn to do more than twenty years earlier when he had fled into the inky Be'er Sheva night alone and destitute and had eventually arrived at this very location. Then, in the comforting vision of the ladder and the angels, God had allayed his fears and promised His assistance "wheresoever you shall go" and Ya'akov in turn had undertaken to give God the only thing that he possessed: his prayers and his loyal devotion. During the course of the intervening years, God had indeed watched over him, protected him from harm, and now restored him to his land, and Ya'akov's heart was filled to overflowing.


Journeying southwards through the hill country, towards Chevron and a tearful embrace with his aged, blind father and the memory of his selfless mother, tragedy strikes once again. As the family winds its way along the crest of the range towards Beit Lechem, a short twenty five kilometers from their destination, favorite Rachel, the wife of his youth and his only true love, begins to labor and then dies in childbirth:

As her soul expired and she died, she called his name 'Ben oni' (child of my mourning/affliction), but his father called his name 'Binyamin.'" Thus did Rachel die and she was buried on the way to Efrat, it is Beit Lechem. Ya'akov set up a marker over her grave, and it is the marker of Rachel's grave until this very day...(35:18-20).

What a painful end to Ya'akov's journey, what a sorrowful and anguished conclusion! More than twenty years earlier Ya'akov had journeyed eastwards at his mother's behest and had arrived at Charan in search of a wife. He had met youthful Rachel at the well and had immediately fallen in love with her. To win her hand in marriage he had entered the service of Lavan, and for seven years he had labored mightily on her behalf. Always during that time and all through the many years that swiftly followed, he had thought of returning home to his adoring mother and impassive father, dreaming of the day when he could show them that he had remained true to their legacy, surpassed their greatest expectations and made them proud. And now this! The birth of the child, conceived enroute as an expression of the new and promising chapter about to unfold with their escape from Lavan, their delivery from Esav, and their return to Canaan, should have been an occasion for joy and gladness not unlike the arrival of Yitzchak, Ya'akov's own father. Then (Ya'akov had no doubt been told), the house had been filled with laughter and mirth, for barren Sarah had finally conceived and given birth in her advanced old age: "Sarah said: God has granted me laughter, for all who hear shall laugh with me!" (21:6). But now Rachel lay dead, the child inexplicably orphaned, with Ya'akov's most fervent hopes were shattered and broken before him.


When we consider the larger context of Ya'akov's relationship with Rachel, we discover to our dismay that it is in fact underscored with a tragic quality from its promising beginning to its untimely and heart wrenching end. Recall that when Ya'akov first met the young shepherdess, he had immediately been smitten by her beauty. Suddenly, he was filled with superhuman strength and alone was able to roll off the great stone that covered the well, all in order to provide her sheep with water. Warmly received by Lavan but entirely without means of support, Ya'akov had pledged seven years of service in order to marry her, and "they were in his eyes as but a few days because of his love for her" (29:20). Lavan, however, had other plans, and in a dastardly deed of deception substituted her sister Leah under the wedding canopy. Thus were Ya'akov's ardent dreams first dashed, and the seeds of all the later troubles in the household were unexpectedly sown. In the end, Ya'akov would marry Rachel as well, but the spirit of household harmony and concord required for every flourishing marriage would never be theirs.

The marriage to Leah introduced rivalry between the sisters, for the older one palpably felt Ya'akov's preference for Rachel. Rachel's barrenness only compounded the situation, increasing her frustrations to the breaking point. In her pining for a child, she cried out to Ya'akov bitterly, but the patriarch felt utterly powerless and even resentful: "Am I then in the place of the Lord who has withheld children from you?!" (30:2).

Finally, after many children born to Leah and more born to their respective handmaidens, Rachel conceived and gave birth to Yosef, and Ya'akov saw in that event a hopeful harbinger for the future. As Rashi (11th century, France) puts it: "When Yosef was born, Ya'akov trusted in God and wanted to return home (for Esav's adversary had now been born)" (commentary to 30:25). Six more years were to pass in Lavan's service, but the die had been cast. Fleeing Lavan's employ, Ya'akov was pursued but God intervened to save him, and after the conclusion of an uneasy detente, Ya'akov continued on his way. Encountering Esav and again escaping harm, Ya'akov then journeyed towards Canaan, now pausing for the rainy season and erecting shelter ("Sukkot") for his flocks. It was there that Binyamin was conceived in what can only be described as an act of faith and promise. God had preserved him and brought him back to his land, and that child should have been linked with the joy of homecoming. Instead, Rachel died in childbirth on the outskirts of Beth Lechem and Ya'akov was not even able to convey her body to their ancestral crypt at the Cave of Machpela in Chevron. Rather, she was buried by the way of Efrat and Ya'akov tearfully left her behind.


It should be noted that every single one of the above tragedies associated with the destiny of Rachel concerns her relationship to Ya'akov. It was their marriage that brought him into Lavan's employ, it was their union that introduced Leah to the household, it was her failure to bear him children that caused so much grief and friction, and it was her labor and birthing of his child that caused her untimely death enroute and even her inability to be interred next to him in the final resting place of the grave! And, to go one step further, as she lay dying and Ya'akov's eyes welled with tears, perhaps he could even hear the echo of the Rabbis' words concerning his own role in the matter:

When Rachel secretly hid the terafim of her father Lavan and he accused Ya'akov of theft, Ya'akov pronounced a curse upon the perpetrator: "With whomever you shall find the terafim will not live! Opposite all of our brethren recognize what things of yours are in my possession and take them!" For Ya'akov did not know that Rachel had stolen them. From this very curse, Rachel perished on the journey home... (brought by Rashi, 31:32).

What then are we to make of the only marriage in the Torah concerning which there is explicit mention of longing and love? What are we to make of the only relationship in the Torah concerning which there is explicit mention of the fact that both partners met and then chose each other? If ever there was a love that should have been profound and deep, it was theirs. And indeed it was. Perhaps the message of the Torah concerning these tragic events is precisely that: the love of Ya'akov and Rachel was sorely tested as no other love had ever been before, but they were never defeated, either in life or even in death. Cruel and spiteful forces from without and unavoidable circumstances from within conspired again and again to destroy that love, but could not do so, even as Rachel lay dying on the way to Beit Lechem. Fate may have separated them in time and space on that dry and rocky path near Efrat, but in their hearts they would be together always, because theirs was a love nurtured on the bedrock of faith and trust in God and in His ways. Their ongoing faith in the face of the many tragedies that befell their doomed relationship was not an act of resignation and despair but rather a positive act of intense religious engagement. Ya'akov and Rachel never lost faith even as he lost her under the canopy, even as she could not bear him children, and even as she breathed her last in the anguish of bringing forth new life. The words of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) are particularly poignant on the last matter, the naming of that new boy:

"As her soul expired and she died, she called his name 'Ben oni' (child of my mourning/affliction), but his father called his name 'Binyamin'" (35:18) – It appears to me that his mother called him Ben Oni and wanted to say the 'child of my mourning,' as the verse states "bread of mourning" ('onim,' Hoshe'a 9:4) or "I have not eaten from it while in mourning" ('veoni,' Devarim 26:12). But his father understood 'oni' as 'my strength,' as the verse states "the first of my strength" ('oni,' Bereishit 49:3), or "He gives power to those who have no strength" ('onim,' Yeshayahu 40:29). Therefore, Ya'akov called him Binyamin meaning the 'child of my power or strength' for the right hand symbolizes might and success... Thus, Ya'akov wanted to preserve the name that his mother had given him...but he interpreted that name for goodness and for strength" (commentary to 35:18).

Grammatically, the explanation of the Ramban hinges upon the Hebrew root 'OON (alef-vav-nun), that can be construed either as "misfortune and mourning" ('OVeN) or else "strength and success" ('OON) simply by an insertion of different vowels. But embedded in his brilliant comments is also the essence of their relationship: at every step along their winding path together, and especially when they would encounter setback or tragedy, the two were able to overcome despair by transforming it into strength. Wasn't that the real meaning behind Ya'akov's heroic deed at their first encounter at the well, when he stepped forward and somehow removed the great and adamant stone that covered it? This, then, is the truth that the Torah wishes to forcefully covey: when a couple's marriage is predicated upon true love in each other and steadfast faith and trust in the God who sustains, then not even death can do them part.

Shabbat Shalom