“Rachel: Portrait of a Matriarch”

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we are given perhaps the most extensive and most intimate view of Mother Rachel.

We first meet young Rachel when Jacob arrives in “the land of the East,” in Charan (Genesis 29:1). Trying to make conversation with the local shepherds, and pressing them for information about his uncle Laban, the shepherd’s deflect Jacob’s question and say to him: (Genesis 29:6): “V’hee’nay Rachel bee’to ba’ah im ha’tzon,” And behold Rachel [Laban’s daughter] is coming with the flock.

At first sight, Jacob is smitten by Rachel’s considerable beauty and charm. He suddenly gains enormous power to singlehandedly roll off the mighty stone from the face of the well, and water Rachel’s entire flock. Scripture then states that, without identifying himself, Jacob kissed Rachel and began to cry. Only then does Jacob inform Rachel that he is the son of her aunt, Rebecca.

Jacob’s love for Rachel is profound. Scripture tells us (Genesis 29:17): “V’Rachel hay’tah y’fat to’ahr vee’fat mar’eh,” that Rachel was truly beautiful of form and beautiful of appearance. So great is Jacob’s love for Rachel that he volunteers to work for her father, Laban, for seven years for the right to marry Rachel. Instead of seven long years, scripture tells us (Genesis 29:20) “Va’yeeh’yoo v’ay’nahv k’yah’mim ah’chah’dim, b’ah’hah’vah’to oh’tah,” that Jacob’s love for Rachel was so great, that the seven years seemed to Jacob as but a few days.

We next encounter Rachel when she is obviously in great pain. Her sister, Leah, has already given birth to four sons, yet Rachel, is barren. Her barrenness leads her to have negative feelings about Leah. Genesis 30:1: “Vah’t’kah’nay Rachel bah’ah’cho’tah,” and Rachel became envious of her sister. Her desperation expresses itself in her powerful plaintive cry to Jacob, her husband: (Genesis 30:1): “Ha’vah lee vah’nim, v’im ah’yin, may’tah ah’no’chee,” Give me children–otherwise, I am dead! Jacob’s rather unsympathetic response, underscoring Rachel’s barrenness and not his, only exacerbates her pain.

Lacking any alternative, Rachel gives Jacob her maidservant, Bilhah, to bear children on her behalf. Rachel gives Bilhah’s children names that reflect her own fragile emotions. “Dan”–G-d has judged me, He has also heard my voice and has given me a son (Genesis 30:6). “Naftali”–sacred schemes have I maneuvered to equal my sister, and I have also prevailed (Genesis 30:8).

The two children born to Rachel’s handmaid are only partial consolation, since Rachel is still desperate for her own biological offspring. As a result, we learn of Rachel’s attempt to acquire fertility aids. In Genesis 30:14, we are informed that Reuben, Leah’s eldest son, had gone out during the time of the wheat harvest and finds dudaim, (some say mandrakes), in the field, to bring to his mother, Leah. Rachel begs Leah to give her some of Reuben’s dudaim. In exchange for conjugal rights with Jacob, she obtains the dudaim, but to no avail.

Finally, we learn of the joy when G-d at last remembers Rachel and opens her womb. Rachel cries out (30:23): “Ah’saf Eh’lo’kim et cher’pah’tee,” G-d has gathered in my disgrace. She calls the newborn child “Joseph,” saying (Genesis 30:24): “Yosef Hashem lee bayn ah’chayr,” May G-d add on for me another son.

In the closing chapter, we once again see the very strong, proactive side of Rachel. When Rachel perceives that the rift between her father, Laban, and her husband, Jacob, has grown wider, she enlists her sister Leah’s help, and in a forthright manner confronts the issue, telling Jacob that he and his family no longer belong in Charan. Together, the sisters exclaim(Genesis 31:14): “Ha’od lah’noo chay’lek v’nah’chah’lah b’vayt ah’vee’noo.” Do we still have a share, an inheritance, in our father’s house? Are we not considered by him as strangers? He [Laban] has sold us, and totally consumed our money… so now, whatever G-d has said to you, do. They strongly urge Jacob to leave.

At the moment of parting, it is Rachel again who takes decisive action. However, her impetuous action on this occasion causes Jacob to utter an extreme and tragic oath. Rachel steals her father’s teraphim (idols). When confronted by Laban regarding the theft, Jacob is so certain that no one in his household would steal, that he swears that with whomever the teraphim may be found, that person should not remain alive (Genesis 31:32).

Although there are commentators who maintain that Rachel’s intent when stealing the idols was to prevent Laban from worshiping the pagan gods, many commentators refer to Rachel’s death during the birth of Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20) as a fulfillment of Jacob’s oath. Rachel is therefore the only matriarch not buried in Machpelah, the grave site of all the other matriarchs and patriarchs. Rachel dies at a young age, because Jacob was encouraged to offer a rash oath unwittingly, an oath that brings on his beloved Rachel’s premature demise.

Rachel’s life is filled with moments of great exaltation and great desperation. There is much to learn from Rachel’s life and actions.

May you be blessed.