“Rachel’s Burial Place in Bethlehem”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, when Joseph is told that his father is ill, he takes his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to see his father. The weakened Jacob tells his beloved son, Joseph, about the vision of G-d that he had in the land of Canaan, and G-d’s blessing to him. In this vision, G-d relays the critical Abrahamic blessing, promising that Jacob and his children will ultimately inherit the land of Canaan. Jacob also tells Joseph that his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, will from now on be considered as Jacob’s own sons, similar in status to Reuben and Simeon.

Unexpectedly, in the midst of this historic transmission, Jacob raises a very uncomfortable issue, saying to his son Joseph (Genesis 48:7): “Va’ah’nee b’vo’ee me’Pah’dahn, may’tah ah’lai Rachel b’eretz Canaan,” as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road where there was still a stretch of land to go to Efrat; “Va’ek’b’reh’hah shahm b’derech Efrat, hee Bet Lechem,” and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem.

Looking at Joseph’s sons, Jacob then expresses his extraordinary gratitude that he has been blessed to survive and witness this very special moment. Not long before, he was certain that he would never see his beloved Joseph again, now he has the extraordinary privilege of seeing not only his beloved son Joseph, but his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.

The commentators are perplexed by the sudden break in the narrative, unable to understand why, in the middle of his very poignant message, Jacob reminds Joseph that he had not buried his mother, Rachel, in the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, but rather on the road to Efrat, near Bethlehem.

The Ramban suggests that Jacob was attempting to apologize to his son for not burying Joseph’s mother in Hebron, explaining that it was simply impossible for him to do so. The Ramban asserts that the phrase, “Rachel died unto me,” implies that Jacob was heavily burdened with the many members of his household and abundant herds of cattle. Unable to reach Hebron for several days, a postponed burial would have been unacceptable. Consequently, he buried Rachel where she died in Bethlehem.

The Sforno maintains that Jacob explained to Joseph that he was overcome with paralyzing grief that rendered him unable to collect himself sufficiently to take Rachel to the ancestral tomb in Hebron.

R’ Abraham Ibn Ezra picks up on the theme of “suddenness” mentioned in the verse. Since Rachel died suddenly, Jacob could not bury her in the cave as he would later bury Leah.

The late great Nehama Leibowitz, in her Studies on Bereishith/Genesis, points out that the ancient sages did not buy into the classical commentators’ explanation, who pictured Jacob as a bereaved husband unable to bury Rachel. They explain that for Jacob it was crucial that he be buried in the land of Canaan, otherwise the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people would never be fulfilled. Jacob painstakingly explains to Joseph that although he failed to bury his mother in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Joseph must make certain that his [Jacob’s] bones are carried into Canaan and buried there properly. The reason for this is not so much that Jacob wanted his final resting place to be in Hebron, as important as that might be. The critical issue for Jacob is that the people of Israel must see the land of Canaan as theirs, be inspired to return to the land after exile, and take hold of it.

The final verse in parashat Vayigash (Genesis 46:3) tellingly describes the condition of the people of Israel who settled in the land of Egypt, in the land of Goshen. It goes on to state that the people acquired holdings in Egypt, were fruitful and increased greatly in number.

Clearly, the people of Israel were enormously successful in Egypt, as they are in each exile that they experience. They became rich and began to assimilate. This was exactly what so profoundly troubled Jacob! Therefore, Jacob commanded that at the time of his death his bones be carried back to the land of Canaan so that his children, who will accompany the funeral cortege, will see the land, feel a connection to the land, and not exchange it for an alien land, no matter how wonderful and how attractive.

The sages see a further critical element in Jacob’s important reminder to his children that the land of Canaan must not be forsaken. It will be on this road, on this path, on the way to Efrat, more than one thousand years later, that the people of Israel will pass, returning from the Babylonian exile. At that time, Rachel, the Matriarch, will be there greeting them, seeing her children return to their borders. She will cry out in joy, “Don’t forget the land of Canaan. The land of Canaan is your sacred patrimony, not Egypt!”

Only one theme could interrupt Jacob’s most moving testament to his children. “Don’t forget the land of Israel!” It is only in the land of Israel in which the Jewish destiny blossoms, not in Egypt, not in Spain, not even in New York or in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, over the past 2,000 years, except for a handful of people of extraordinary spirit, this message has not registered on very many of our coreligionists. We sit in exile, as mother Rachel awaits our return.

May you be blessed.