Candles: 4:17 p.m.
Torah readings: Genesis 32:4-36:43
Hosea 11:7-12:12 (Ashkenaz);
Book of Obadiah (Sephard)
After 22 years in exile, Jacob is coming home, weighed down by children, wives and possessions. Victorious in his wrestling match with an angel, he has grown into his new name, Israel, “one who prevails over earthly and divine beings.” Nevertheless, the death in childbirth of the woman who was his one joy in life is mentioned only in parenthesis. Upon Rachel’s wayside grave, “Jacob set up a pillar” [Gen. 35:20], to endure, says the Zohar, till the day God raises the dead.
How restrained is that farewell when compared to the great emotions of their first encounter, when “Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept,” all in a single verse [Gen. 29:11]. The mere sight of the lovely shepherdess galvanized his younger self into action befitting a knight of chivalry. In her he glimpses the dream combination of young beauty and the future mother of Israel, as signified by her flocks of sheep advancing toward him from over the horizon. After lifting the stone from the well, a stone that several shepherds could not lift, and watering her sheep, he draws closer, kisses her, and bursts into tears.
On this primal coming together of lovers is modeled the imagery in the Song of Songs, the passion between God and Israel. There, too, is the knowledge that complete union cannot be sustained; there also is separation, a yearning fraught with pain.
R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the mere sight of Rachel made Jacob’s heart melt, for she stood for all future Jewish generations and their sufferings in exile. “And he wept,” and drew down mercy from above as from some supernal well on all the souls of Israel in the whole unfolding of future history.
Rashi tells us that from the very beginning, Jacob, overwhelmed by his desire for oneness with Rachel, also sensed a separation, and that they would be buried apart. During their first meeting he already weeps for her death; when it finally happens, he has already cried.
When Rachel’s father, Laban, substitutes her sister, Leah, in the wedding bed and, according to Midrash, Rachel herself gives to Leah the secret signs of her relationship with Jacob so as not to shame her, then the block to Jacob and Rachel’s total merging becomes a reality. Subsequently, the voluntary transfer to Leah of practically everything Rachel might have wanted confirms this separation.
Rachel is inclusive of Leah in her marriage, not jealous of sharing her husband with her. Only with the birth of Leah’s fourth son, Judah, destined for the messianic line, does Rachel become jealous that she may never have any children of her own.
Notoriously, in Rachel’s anguished appeal to Jacob to pray for her, he replies that he already has children. Since it is she whom God has prevented from producing the “fruit of the womb,” she must do something about it. He can’t. Only after the bizarre transaction of the mandrakes, does God remember and listen to her prayers [Gen. 30:22]. When she finally has Joseph and then Benjamin (in whose birth she dies), they are regarded as fruits of her hard effort, prayer and sacrifice, and not as Jacob’s. Joseph and Benjamin are referred to as “Rachel’s boys,” as from a virgin birth.
What is redemption, says Reb Nachman, but the return of the lost. How precisely, from being a figure of exile and displacement, does Rachel come to represent a force for redemption and return?
The Midrash puts it this way: Whoever is ready to give one’s life for another passes on his/her name and has quasi-biological continuity through the ones who come after. This is particularly true of Rachel. Though physically she had only two sons, through her self-sacrifice she gave birth to all of them: “He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness toward the house of Israel” [Psalms 98:3] is taken to refer to, “And God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her” [Gen. 30:22]. And who was the “house” of our ancestor Israel [Jacob]? Surely Rachel! [Genesis Rabbah 73:2]
Far from seeking to exclude Leah or her children, Rachel gave up her own for the larger interest. Through a series of separations and substitutions, Rachel transcended her own private romance, and her heart expands to embrace the grief of the Shechinah. As her lonely but independent tomb signifies, Rachel (in Kabbalah) evokes a separation of the lovers, the drive of the Shechinah temporarily away from Her husband and toward the exiled children. She is the magnetism that brings back the scattered pieces.
The Maharal says that the “house of Israel” is synonymous with Rachel, because Jacob was energized to build such a house only because of his overwhelming drive toward her. This quasi-biological glue between Jews, and between Jews and their God, and between Jews and their land, is precisely what Jacob’s passion for Rachel has been transformed into. That is why Rachel is not buried with her husband in the Machpela, Hebron’s cave of the patriarchs and matriarchs, but on the outskirts of Bethlehem, on the lookout for these lost ones, her own children and those not biologically hers. Through Rachel, and through their very displacement, Jews developed the energy to reconnect.
More than a thousand years after her death, the prophet Jeremiah imagines Rachel rising from her grave and pouring out her sorrow on behalf of her exiled children before God. These tears, taken by Midrash to represent the sacrifice of her love for her husband, elicit the desired response: “Her children shall return to their country.” That is her reward. That every last child, every exile and fragment and misfit, are hers to be reintegrated into the Divine pattern.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach once told me that our father, Jacob, cannot sleep peacefully in the “Cave of the Couples.” Here Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca slumber peacefully beside each other. Only Jacob is restless, rising and pacing about, waiting and watching for Rachel to return. n
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review.