“The Birth of Benjamin, The Death of Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we read of an occasion that should have been a most joyous event in Rachel’s life–the birth of Rachel’s second son, Benjamin. Unfortunately, it was not to be, as Rachel loses her life in childbirth.

The patriarch Jacob has endured many hardships in his life, but things have begun to improve. Jacob has finally gotten away from the wily Laban and set out to establish his own home. He has encountered, wrestled and defeated the angel of Esau, and his family has come out unscathed from that harrowing encounter. His brother Esau sought to kill him, but they have come to a peaceful detente. Jacob then sets up home in Shechem, and succeeds beyond his expectations. Unfortunately, the men of Shechem are immoral, and the chief of the city, whose name is also Shechem, kidnaps and rapes Jacob’s daughter, Dina. The dream of returning to Canaan has taken a very harsh turn, and Jacob’s sons, under the leadership of Simeon and Levi wreak vengeance on the inhabitants of Shechem, killing every male in the city.

After this tragic incident, Jacob travels to Beth-El, where he originally stopped when he left home and had the vision of the angels going up and down the ladder to heaven. Jacob celebrates his arrival at Beth-El by building an altar there as a tribute to the divine vision that encouraged him as he was fleeing from his brother, Esau. Unfortunately, the family suffers another setback when Devorah, the nursemaid of Rebecca, dies and is buried in the area of Beth-El.

Jacob’s happiness, however, reaches its crescendo as G-d tells him that from now on his name will be Israel, that he will be fruitful and multiply and that nations and kings will descend from his loins. G-d confers upon Jacob the Abrahamitic blessing that he will inherit the land that G-d gave to Abraham and to Isaac. In acknowledgment of the vision, Jacob sets up a pillar in Beth-El, pours a wine and oil libation upon it, and is ready to continue traveling.

After being separated from his family and his homeland for 22 years, Jacob and his entourage begin the final leg of their journey home. Soon after leaving Beth-El, a short distance from Efrat, Rachel experiences a most difficult labor. In order to encourage her in the terrible stress, the midwife says to Rachel (Genesis 35:17): “Ahl tir’ee, kee gahm zeh lahch bayn,” Have no fear for this one too is a son for you. While her soul was departing, Rachel names the child “Ben Oni.” Jacob, however, calls the child Benjamin.

Rachel dies in childbirth and is buried on the road to Efrat, near Bethlehem. Jacob sets a monument over her grave, which is today the famous Tomb of Rachel in Bethlehem.

There is a difference of opinion among the commentators as to the meaning of the name, “Ben Oni,” that Rachel gives her child. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) and Onkelos (Targum Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible) state that the meaning of the name is “the son of my sorrow.” Ibn Ezra (1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) and the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) say that it means, “the son of my mourning.” Both these interpretations imply that Rachel called her child Ben Oni, alluding to the child’s birth as the cause of her death.

The Malbim (1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) points out in his usual perceptive manner that nowhere in the biblical text is there any indication that Rachel was afraid of dying, and that even though she was at the very gates of death, she paid no attention to her own situation. Her only concern was that the difficult labor not result in the death of the child. The midwife reassures Rachel that the child is viable and that he will survive and grow. Rachel, completely consumed with passion for the child, therefore calls the child Ben Oni, the son of my strength. Says Rachel: I am giving you my strength, so that you may survive!

Jacob, however, calls the child “Binyamin,” Benjamin. Rashi suggests that it means the “son of the right,” that is, the son of the south, indicating that of all Jacob’s children, only Benjamin merited to be born in Canaan, which is situated south (to the right) of Paddan-Aram. A second interpretation offered by Rashi indicates that the name reflects the word “yamim,” days, which can be spelled with a nun at the end of the word. You, Benjamin, the child who was born in my advanced years, are the son of my days.

The Ramban suggests that Jacob was intent on giving the child an optimistic name, but wanted to maintain the original name that was given to him by his deceased mother. He therefore calls the child Ben-yamin, the son of my right, since the right hand is the symbol of strength, power and success.

About a year ago October, I had the privilege of attending the Emunah dinner that was chaired by my friend, George Karasick. He spoke of the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin. Mr. Karasik noted that aside from Levi, who according to tradition was named by the Al-mighty Himself, all of Jacob’s children were named by either Leah or Rachel. No comment is ever heard from Jacob regarding the names of his children. The only occasion at which Jacob actually speaks is at the birth of his twelfth son, Benjamin.

I will cite for you verbatim the insightful and moving words that George Karasik shared about the birth of Benjamin.

The Torah relates that at the time that Rachel was giving birth to this last child, she experienced a very difficult delivery, so much so, that she knew that she would die as a result.

(Genesis 35:18) “Vah’yeh’hee b’tzayt nahf’shah kee may’tah, va’tik’rah sh’mo Ben Oni,” And it came to pass, as her soul was departing, for she died, that she called his name Ben Oni, the child of my suffering.

And now for the first and only time, scripture records that Jacob intervenes (Genesis 35:18): “V’ah’veev kah’rah lo Binyamin,” But his father called him Benjamin, the son of my right hand.

Why did Jacob choose to step in this one time? What was there about the birth of this child that compelled him to offer his own opinion for the name of his child? And why was the name that he selected the one that has been accepted?

Try to imagine the scene leading to the birth of this child as it unfolded, and the conversation that might have transpired between Jacob and Rachel.

After being childless for so many years, Rachel is finally blessed with her second son. After yearning and praying for decades, her prayers are at last answered. She is lying in bed. She is dying-–and she knows it! She is about to be separated forever from the only man she ever loved-–and she knows it! She will never reside in the land of Israel, the Holy Land-–and she knows it! And she feels the pain!

She looks at her newborn son, and while searching for the appropriate name for him, she is so overcome with grief, that she chooses a name that embodies her emotions: Ben Oni–the child of my suffering.

And now Jacob, who until this time remained silent when the names of his children were chosen, stepped in. Let’s listen to his words to his precious wife:

“My darling, Rachel, who loves you more than I? Who loved you from the very moment that I laid my eyes upon you? Who devised a plan with you to make certain that I would end up marrying you? Who worked and slaved for 14 years because of his love for you? When it came time to confront my brother Esau, who did I put closest to me so that no harm should come to you? Which child is my favorite-–is it not the one born to me by you–-our beloved Joseph? And, my darling, who will miss you more than anyone else in the world? Is not the answer to all these questions the same-–namely ME?

“And now you are about to leave me and I will mourn for you.
But, look what has just transpired. Your prayers for another child have been answered. We now have two sons together. You no longer have fewer sons than my maidservant wives. The twelve tribes of Israel are now complete, and we, the Jewish nation, can now march toward our destiny. And all this happened with the birth of this child–-OUR son!

“Of course I am depressed, but let’s not burden our son with our feelings of the moment. It is not fair to him, nor to K’lal Yisrael. We have to look toward the future and to a brighter day.”

Hence, Jacob chose to call him Binyamin-–the son of my right hand, a name that connotes optimism and the positive events associated with Benjamin’s birth.

The empathy and optimism that is expressed in Mr. Karasick’s “conversation” between Jacob and the dying Rachel, is an empathy and optimism that is necessary for all Jews to carry within themselves as they face these trying times for our community and our people. We must indeed “look toward the future and to a brighter day.”

May you be blessed.