“The Role of Mother Rachel in Jewish History”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we encounter Jacob as he is fleeing from Canaan, the home of his parents, in response to Esau’s threat to kill him.

After Jacob’s vision of the angels ascending and descending the ladder, he arrives at his destination, which is Charan. He has gone to Charan to meet his mother’s family, and to hopefully find a wife for himself.

The Torah dwells on the beautiful love story of Jacob and Rachel. Jacob offers to work for Laban for seven years in order to win Rachel’s hand in marriage. The wily Laban deceives Jacob, and the morning after the wedding banquet, Jacob discovers that the woman with whom he has spent the night was Rachel’s older sister, Leah. Scripture tell us (Genesis 29:25): “Va’yeh’hee va’boker, v’heenay hee Leah,” and it was in the morning, and behold it was Leah! Jacob exclaims to Laban: “Mah zot ah’see’ta lee?” What is this that you have done to me? “Ha’lo v’Rachel ah’va’ditee ee’mach,” I worked for you for Rachel?! “V’lama ree’mee’ta’nee?” And why have you deceived me? Laban responds sharply to Jacob, telling him that here in Charan, it is not proper to give the younger before the elder — implying that after all, Jacob had also engaged in deception, taking the birthright from his brother Esau, so how can he now complain about Laban switching daughters on him.

The Rabbis are perplexed as to how Jacob could have been so naively deceived. After all, shouldn’t the wise Patriarch have been able to tell the difference between Rachel and Leah? How is it possible that Jacob wakes up in the morning and finds that he has slept with the wrong woman? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105, Provence, France, the primary Biblical commentator) cites the explanation offered by the Talmud in Megillah 13b: “But at night, Jacob assumed that she was not Leah, because Jacob had given signs to Rachel by which she could identify herself to him. But when Rachel saw that they were taking Leah in to him, she said: ‘Now my sister will be humiliated.’ She therefore arose and gave her those signs.”

Obviously, Jacob had suspected all along that Laban would switch daughters on him, so he gave Rachel a secret signal so that he would be able to identify her in the deep of the night. But when she saw that her sister Leah was being given to Jacob, Rachel had compassion and revealed the secret signal to her.

The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 35:14 asks: Why did our father Jacob bury Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, instead of burying her in Hebron, in the Cave of the Patriarchs? The rabbis answer that Jacob saw prophetically that the Jewish exiles would one day pass by that very spot, as they were being led to exile in Babylon. Jacob buried her on the way, so that Rachel might seek mercy for them as they pass.

A second midrash, cited by Rashi on Jeremiah 31:14, relates that when Menashe, the wicked king of Judah, placed an idolatrous image in the Temple, all the matriarchs and patriarchs went to plead with G-d to forgive the Jewish people. G-d would not accept their pleas, until Mother Rachel entered and spoke before the Almighty: “Lord of the Universe!” she exclaimed. “Whose mercy is greater? Yours or the mercy of a person of flesh and blood? Surely Your mercy is greater. Have I [Rachel] not brought my rival [Leah] into my house? You know that all the work that Jacob did for my father, was done only for my sake. And yet when I came to enter the bridal canopy to be wed to Jacob, my sister was brought in my place. Not only did I keep silent, but I even gave her my signs! You too, — though Your children have brought Your enemy into Your Home — be silent towards them!” G-d said to her: “You have defended them well, there is reward for your labor and for your righteousness in having given your signs to your sister.”

Only a mother who bore a child in her own womb could plead on behalf of her children with such passion. Mother Rachel, the Matriarch of Israel, is always there for us at the road to Bethlehem, praying for her children.

Let us pray that we be found worthy of Rachel’s petitions, and for G-d’s forgiveness. May the words of the prophet Jeremiah 31:15-16 come to fruition in our own days: “Thus sayeth the Lord: [Mother Rachel] refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your labor…and the children shall return to their boundary.”

May you be blessed.