Parshat Vayishlach

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וַיְהִי בְהַקְשֹׁתָהּ בְּלִדְתָּהּ …  וַיְהִי בְּצֵאת נַפְשָׁהּ כִּי מֵתָה …  וַתָּמָת רָחֵל וַתִּקָּבֵר
בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָתָה הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם

It came to pass when she had such difficulty giving birth … her soul departed …
and she was buried on the road to Ephrat, which is Beit Lechem.  And Jacob built
a monument on her grave, that is the tombstone of Rachel until this day.
Genesis 35: 17-20

After fifty years of marriage Sadie asks her husband Norman to buy her an unusual anniversary gift — a burial plot. Norman finds this a little strange but humours her and buys the plot.

A year goes by and their anniversary comes around once again.  Yet for the first time in fifty years Norman doesn’t buy his wife a gift. She waits a day to see if he will remember but when nothing changes she approaches him gently:  “Norman,” she says, “how come every year you are so generous and this year I got nothing … do you not love me any more?”

“Don’t be silly,” Norman replied, “it’s just that you haven’t used last year’s present yet!”

We find something curious in this week’s Torah reading with regard to the passing of Rachel. As Jacob and his entourage, wives, children and livestock make their way from Charan to Canaan, Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife gives birth to Benjamin. Tragically, as one life entered the world another left it, and Rachel passed away, leaving two orphaned children and a grieving husband.

Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are eventually all buried in Hebron, in the Cave of Machpela. All the Patriarchs and Matriarchs except one… Rachel. Jacob, instead of continuing to Hebron, buries her at the side of the road. Why?

Jacob, say the Sages, saw into the future — when the Jews would be exiled after the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash (Temple) and they would be shackled and led along this route. There they would have a chance to cry at the grave of  Rachel the Matriarch, who in turn would pray for their salvation.

Was this so important? Did it warrant Jacob “abandoning” his beloved wife at the side of the road, rather than carry her to Hebron where they would share a burial place? Did Rachel’s prayers have any effect on the First Temple exiles?

To find that out we need to look at the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah the prophet lived through the persecution and exile and he writes about Rachel. As the Jews are exiled by Divine fiat Rachel’s voice is heard crying in distress. The other Patriarchs and Matriarchs have also pleaded their case, says the Midrash, but were unsuccessful. Yet when Rachel’s cries are heard On High, G-d listens and responds: “Restrain your voice from weeping, hold back your eyes from their tears, for your deed has its reward and your children shall return to their border.” A miracle occurs — Rachel’s pleas are accepted and the future is secured: “Ve’shavu vanim li’gvulam — the exiles will eventually return to the Holy Land.”

What is the reasoning that Jeremiah quotes? Because Rachel’s “deed” deserved this tremendous reward, the return of her people. What deed is referred to here? Rachel allowed her fiancé Jacob to marry the wrong girl … Rachel’s older sister Leah, without shouting and yelling and embarrassing her sister and revealing the truth. Rachel’s character was such that she preferred to remain silent and lose the man of her dreams, for whom she had waited seven long years … so as not to embarrass her sister. Incredible. For that fortitude of character Rachel was rewarded that her “children” would return from exile, a worthy reward indeed.

We can now understand why Jacob acts so irrationally, burying her where she died instead of in her designated place in Hebron. Jacob saw that she was needed there, on the very route the exiles would travel when Jerusalem was put to the flame, and so he too put his own desires aside for the benefit of others — a fitting counterpart for Rachel.

Often in life we are confronted with choices where we stand to lose personally if we do what we know is right. Often we are alone when we make those decisions, and they are made in our hearts and minds. The message from this parsha couldn’t be more clear: We may suffer by making the right decision, we may lose friends, money, power or more — but if we follow the path of Jacob and Rachel in thinking about and caring for others, even at our own expense, we can be sure that at the end of the day G-d will grant us the reward we deserve. Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and  director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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