“Jacob Remembers Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayechi, Jacob, who has been living in Egypt for seventeen years, makes his son, Joseph, swear that he not be buried in Egypt. Jacob insists that his body be transported out of Egypt and that his final resting place be in the Machpelah tomb with his forefathers, Abraham and Isaac.

Scripture, in Genesis 47:29 states, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, שִׂים נָא יָדְךָ תַּחַת יְרֵכִי, וְעָשִׂיתָ עִמָּדִי חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת, אַל נָא תִקְבְּרֵנִי בְּמִצְרָיִם, Jacob called for his son Joseph and said to him, please– “If I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do kindness and truth with me–please do not bury me in Egypt.” Joseph swears to his father, and Israel (Jacob) bows down toward the head of the bed.

When Joseph is informed (Genesis 48) that his father is ill, Joseph takes his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, to see his ailing father. After recounting a bit of history confirming that G-d has given him the land of Canaan, Jacob announces, Genesis 48:5, אֶפְרַיִם וּמְנַשֶּׁה, כִּרְאוּבֵן וְשִׁמְעוֹן יִהְיוּ לִי, that Joseph’s two sons who were born in Egypt will now belong to him [Jacob], and that Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine [Jacob’s] like Reuben and Simeon. Any children who are born to Joseph afterward, will be Joseph’s and will be included in the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.

Unexpectedly, Jacob raises the issue of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Although Joseph had already sworn to his father that he will make certain to bury his father in Canaan, Jacob recalls, Genesis 48:7, וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן, מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּדֶּרֶךְ, בְּעוֹד כִּבְרַת אֶרֶץ לָבֹא אֶפְרָתָה, וָאֶקְבְּרֶהָ שָּׁם בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶפְרָת הִוא בֵּית לָחֶם, “But as for me–when I came from Paddan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan on the road while there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath; and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”

Rashi explains that Jacob raises the issue of the burial of Rachel with Joseph because, even though Jacob is insisting that Joseph make the great effort to bury him in Canaan, Jacob did not do the same for Rachel who died on the way to Bethlehem. Jacob was apparently anticipating that Joseph might object to Jacob’s request to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah, especially since Jacob did not make the extra effort on behalf of Joseph’s mother, Rachel.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that during this entire conversation, the Torah refers to Jacob as “Jacob,” and not as “Israel.” Only when Jacob confers the tribal status on Manasseh and Ephraim does it say, Genesis 48:2, וַיִּתְחַזֵּק יִשְׂרָאֵל, and “Israel” became strong when Joseph approached him.

Rabbi Hirsch argues that when Jacob confers tribal status on Ephraim and Manasseh, it is a personal decision, because of his overwhelming love for Joseph (hence the use of the name “Jacob”), and entirely unrelated to national considerations. Jacob was concerned that Rachel would be forgotten, and that her grave would not be frequently visited. Ten tribes of Israel would certainly go to the Machpelah Cave to visit Abraham, Isaac, their father, Jacob, and their mother, Leah. But who would visit Rachel’s grave? Possibly only the descendants of Joseph and Benjamin.

Because Jacob feared that Rachel’s memory would effectively be forgotten, he decided that Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, must assume the position of the first-born of the tribes. By designating the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh to be counted among the tribes like Reuben and Simeon, Jacob thus bequeathed to Joseph the double portion due to the first-born.

With two new tribes emerging from Joseph, there will be more immediate family to remember, visit and care for Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem.

Jacob was clearly demonstrating his undying affection for Rachel, and, in so doing, granted to Rachel in her death what she never merited to receive during her lifetime.

May you be blessed.