“The Tragic Death of Mother Rachel”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, we learn of the untimely and tragic death of Mother Rachel as she was giving birth to Benjamin, her second son. (For an additional analysis of the birth of Benjamin see Vayishlach 5768-2007).

Scripture (Genesis 35:18) reports that Rachel’s last dying wish was to name the child, בֶּן אוֹנִי , meaning son of my mourning. Jacob, however, did not want the child to bear the burden of that grievous name, so he called him “Benjamin,” meaning the son of my right hand.

According to Seder Olam, Jacob was much older than Leah and Rachel. In fact, Laban’s twin daughters were reportedly born on the very day that Jacob received his father’s blessings. Leah and Rachel were both 22 years old when they married Jacob. Rachel was barren for 7 years, and Jacob was already 91 years old when Joseph, Rachel’s first child, was born. Eight years later, at age 99, Jacob entered the land of Israel and Rachel died. The Matriarch Rachel was only 36 years old. Tradition maintains that Leah died at age 44.

The commentators speculate why Rachel was taken at such a young age. The many reasons they suggest recall the speculation regarding the devastating Divine punishment of Moses, forbidding him entry into the Promised Land. Looking for a reason that would justify G-d’s harsh punishment of Moses, the commentators pile it on. One of the commentators even remarked sarcastically,  that while Moses committed only one sin, the commentators attribute to him multiple sins and violations.

Similarly, in their efforts to determine the real cause of Rachel’s premature death, the commentators offer many theories and possibilities. None of the proffered reasons are conclusive, since the Bible never confirms the reason for Rachel’s death. Nevertheless, each of the speculative reasons can serve as a life lesson for all about proper conduct and values.

Given Rachel’s history of fertility issues, Rachel’s premature death might have been health related. Rachel had difficulty conceiving, and was barren for 7 years. It could very well be that these issues intensified, resulting in her premature demise.

The Mishnah in Shabbat 2:6 declares that there are three transgressions for which women die in childbirth. Although the Matriarch Rachel was apparently not guilty of any of those transgressions, childbirth is always treacherous.

Even if Rachel did not die because of her health issues, she may have, by her careless utterances, made herself spiritually vulnerable to premature death. After seeing that her sister Leah had given birth to four children, she cried out in desperation to Jacob, Genesis 30:1 הָבָה לִּי בָנִים, וְאִם אַיִן מֵתָה אָנֹכִי , give me children, otherwise I am dead!

Our rabbis (Avot 1:11) state, חֲכָמִים, הִזָּהֲרוּ בְּדִבְרֵיכֶם , wise people be careful with your utterances! In this case, Rachel may have unintentionally brought upon herself her tragic death.

A second instance of costly utterances appears in this saga when Rachel steals her father’s תּרָפִים -fetishes (Genesis 31:19). So certain is Jacob that no one in his household had stolen anything from Laban, that he publicly declares in Genesis 31:32 עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה, נֶגֶד אַחֵינוּ הַכֶּר לְךָ מָה עִמָּדִי, וְקַח לָךְ , “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live; in the presence of our kinsmen ascertain for yourself what is [yours that is] with me and take it back!” Despite the fact that Jacob had no idea that Rachel had taken the fetishes, she was punished because of the utterance of the righteous Jacob. Apparently, her account in heaven was examined and Rachel’s tragic judgment was carried out during the vulnerable time of childbirth.

Others attribute the fault to Jacob. The sages, in Talmud Rosh Hashana 6a, state that, “Whoever leaves a vow unfulfilled, his wife dies.” When Jacob left the land of Canaan, he vowed (Genesis 28:20-22) that he would return to Beth El and sacrifice to G-d. It is perhaps for this reason that Jacob was punished by having to bury his beloved Rachel.

The Midrash Rabbah Genesis 31:14, cites an opinion that Rachel died first, before Leah, because Rachel presumptuously and disrespectfully spoke up before her older sister. After working for Laban for 20 years and being constantly conned out of his proper wages, Jacob summoned his wives to the field and told them of his plans to leave Haran and their father, Laban. Both wives supported his decision, but Scripture in Genesis 31:14 says, “Then Rachel and Leah answered saying,” indicating that the younger Rachel replied before her older sister, Leah. Other commentators disagree with the contention that Rachel failed to show proper respect to Leah, citing the Torah report that Jacob summoned his wives, Rachel and Leah, in that order. Obviously, since Rachel was called first, she was not acting improperly when she responded first. Why then did she die? Because of the curse that Jacob uttered regarding the theft of Laban’s fetishes.

The Ramban commenting on Deuteronomy 18:25, notes that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters. Although the Torah had not yet been given, many maintain that the Patriarchs rationally came to the conclusion of all the laws of the Torah and observed them. Nachmanides argues that as long as Jacob was in Padan Aram, Mesopotamia, and not in the land of Israel, he was not punished for having married two sisters. But, once he arrived in the Holy Land of Israel, it was necessary for Rachel, who married Jacob after Leah, to pass away, so that Jacob would not be in violation of the Torah’s prohibition and defiling the sanctity of the Holy Land.

The rabbis underscore how profound and personally devastating, Rachel’s death was to Jacob. In Genesis 28, the Torah tells of old Jacob’s illness in Egypt and of Joseph’s visit to his ailing father, together with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim. Jacob made Joseph swear that he would not bury Jacob in Egypt after his death. Jacob was rather defensive about this request because he himself did not bury Joseph’s mother, Rachel, in the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, even though her burial place in Bethlehem was near the Machpelah Cave.

In Genesis 48:7, Jacob says to his son Joseph, וַאֲנִי בְּבֹאִי מִפַּדָּן, מֵתָה עָלַי רָחֵל בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן , But as for me–-when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan. The rabbis in Genesis Rabbah 97:7 learn from the expression “Rachel died on me,” that Rachel’s death was the hardest of all the troubles that Jacob endured during his lifetime. The rabbis in Talmud Sanhedrin 22b learn from these same words that a wife’s death and loss profoundly affects her husband.

Furthermore, before his death, when Joseph blesses his children, he tells his son, Joseph, Genesis 49:25, “The G-d of your father Who helps you, and Sha-dai Who blesses you…blessings of the breast and the womb…” The rabbis in Genesis Rabbah 98:20 comment on this and say, “Come and see how greatly Jacob loved Rachel. Even when he came to bless her son [Joseph], he made him [Joseph] secondary to her. When he gives him the ‘blessings of the breast and the womb’ he is saying to Joseph: May the breasts that nursed such a son, and the womb that brought him forth be blessed.”

This great woman, the Matriarch Rachel, died at the young age of 36, but in her abbreviated lifetime made a profound impression upon all who knew her, and on the future destiny of the People of Israel.

May her memory be a blessing to all.

May you be blessed.