Learn Hebrew

Learn Torah

Hebrew for Christians
Vayishlach - The Tears of Rachel

The Tears of Rachel

Further thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach...

by John J. Parsons

This week's Torah portion (Vayishlach) raises a number of interesting "open-ended" questions, and I try to consider a few of them here. At the end of this article, I list some additional questions that I hope will prompt you to continue your study and exploration...

WHILE JACOB WAS AWAY FROM HOME in Paddan Aram (i.e., Charan), there is no indication that he ever checked on the welfare of his mother and father or otherwise attempted to contact them. He didn't invite them to his wedding(s); he didn't tell them about the birth of their grandchildren; and he didn't tell them about his toil under Laban... So why did he seem to disregard his parents? After all, his mother had advised him to flee to her brother's house in the first place (Gen. 27:43), and apparently Rebekah and Laban were on speaking terms (the midrash says that they had planned on marrying their children to one another). It certainly seems possible that Jacob could have relayed messages back home. So why didn't he do so? 

Was Jacob angry at his mother and father?  Perhaps he blamed them for his plight. After all, Rebekah put him up to deceiving his own father, but his father was too blind to see past the charade to discern the true character of his sons... Perhaps Jacob feared that Isaac was angry over the "stolen blessing" episode. But why didn't Isaac believe the prophecy that Jacob should be the family heir?  Did that prophecy - originally given to Rebekah - justify his mother's deception?  Moreover, why did each parent favor a different child, thereby creating a ferocious sibling rivalry between the twins?  Perhaps it was all too much, and perhaps Jacob just wanted to "forget" about his family and put it all behind him...

Or perhaps Jacob was fearful of his brother Esau and his plans for revenge.  Perhaps he was so worried about exposing his location to Esau that he dared not take the risk of sending a messenger home...  But why should Jacob have been so fearful, especially since earlier he had received the dramatic vision of the ladder (i.e., sullam: סֻלָּם) and heard the LORD extend the oath of blessing to him? Didn't the vision at Bethel confirm the original prophecy that was given to his mother ("the elder shall serve the younger..." Gen. 25:23)? So why did Jacob (like his father Isaac before him) doubt Rebekah's faith?  For that matter, why was Jacob so terrified of his brother's revenge in light of God's promise that Jacob's descendants would be multiplied like dust of the earth (Gen. 28:14)? Didn't God say, "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you" (Gen. 28:15)?

According to Jewish tradition, Rebekah somehow knew of the "terms" of Jacob's marriage agreement for Leah and Rachel. Near the end of his fourteen years of service, she then sent her nurse Deborah and some other servants of Isaac to summon Jacob back home. However, by this time Laban had further "negotiated" to retain more of Jacob's labor, and the servants of Isaac decided to return to Beersheva.  Deborah, however, remained with Jacob from that time forward, and this explains why the Torah reports her death when Jacob later returned to Bethel to honor his earlier vow to God: "And Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died, and she was buried under an oak below Bethel. So he called its name Allon-bacuth (אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת), "the oak of weeping" (Gen. 35:8).

There are many tragic ironies and questions surrounding Jacob's time in Paddan Aram. First, Jacob's mother Rebekah died while he was away from home. The Torah does not record the details of her death, but later Jacob told his sons that she was buried in the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 49:31). According to midrash, Rebekah died a short time after the death of her nurse Deborah. This explains why, immediately following the mention of Deborah's death, the Torah says that "God appeared to Jacob again, when he came from Paddan Aram, and blessed him" (Gen. 35:9). The sages explain that God visited Jacob to give him the mourner's blessing for the death of his mother. The death of Rebekah, however, went essentially unmourned by her family. The midrash explains that since Abraham and Sarah were both dead, and Isaac was blind, and Jacob was away from home, there remained only Esau to publicly mourn her death. However, since it was known that Esau demonstrated heartlessness over the death of his grandfather Abraham (i.e., he "sold" his birthright for soup on the very day that Abraham died), Isaac instructed his servants to bury Rebekah secretly, at night. Although Jewish tradition regards her as a great prophetess who carried on the legacy of Sarah, Rebekah was never properly mourned by her family...

Secondly, and even more tragically, Jacob's chosen bride Rachel died while he was away from home. She was thirty six years old at the time (Seder Olam Rabbah). The sages note that this was the single most difficult experience of Jacob's troubled life. Rachel died during childbirth, of course, just after Jacob had finally returned to Bethel. As she was dying, she called her child Ben-oni (בֶּן־אוֹנִי), "the son of my suffering" [in Aramaic], while Jacob gave him the name Benjamin (בִּנְיָמִין), "the son of my right hand" [in Hebrew]. When Jacob later confided in Joseph about Rachel's death, he said: "When I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath, now called Bethlehem" (Gen. 48:7). The sages note that Jacob's wording that Rachel "died, to my sorrow" meant that her death was the harshest of all the troubles that befell him during his sojourn on earth (Gen. Rabbah 97:7). (As an aside, it should be noted that Jacob's second most difficult experience concerned the supposed death of his son Joseph, his firstborn son of Rachel. Is there a connection between Jacob's twenty two year absence from Isaac and Joseph's twenty two year absence from his father?)

Rachel is the only matriarch who was not buried in the Cave of Machpelah. Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah were all buried there (Gen. 49:31), but Rachel herself was buried by "on the way to Bethlehem" (Gen. 35:19). According to tradition, Rachel's body was not brought to the cave because Jacob prophetically foresaw that the Jews would pass by her burial place as they were being exiled to Babylon. As the captives passed by, Rachel would tearfully plead to God on their behalf: "Will You cause my children to be exiled on this account?" (Gen. Rabbah 82:10). The prophet Jeremiah, who foretold of the destruction of the Temple and the exile to Babylon, might have alluded to this story when he prophesied: "Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more" (Jer. 31:15).

Rachel Weeps - Artist Unknown

Various Scriptures seem to suggest that "Rachel" is a symbolic mother of the Jewish people. Apart from the story of her death during the birth of Benjamin, however, there is no event mentioned in the Torah that refers to her "weeping for her children," and therefore it may be supposed that Jeremiah - who wished that both he and his mother had perished on the day of his birth (Jer. 20:14-15) - invoked her memory as the consummate mother of Israel who would share in the sorrow and suffering of her descendants. That Rachel is a symbol of the children of Israel is further supported in Amos 5:15, when the entire nation of Israel is called after the name of her firstborn son: "Perhaps the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph (שְׁאֵרִית יוֹסֵף). Moreover Ephraim (the son of Joseph and grandson of Rachel) is likewise used in Scripture to refer collectively to the people of Israel: "Truly, Ephraim is a dear son to Me" (Jer. 31:20). Later Jewish tradition continued to regard Rachel as the greatest matriarch of the Jewish people. At the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, for instance, the prophecy of Jeremiah is displayed to commemorate the countless Jewish children that were murdered by the Nazis: "Thus says the Eternal One, A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more."

The Gospel of Matthew, however, states that Jeremiah's prophecy was fulfilled when the spurious king, "Herod the Great," ordered the massacre of Jewish children in his failed attempt to murder the baby Yeshua (Matt. 2:16-18). Herod claimed to be a convert to Judaism, though he was born an "Edomite" and therefore was a direct descendant of Esau himself. He was renowned for his building projects in Jerusalem and was personally responsible for the renovation of the Second Temple (which thereafter was scandalously called "Herod's Temple"). It is not surprising, then, that the Essenes rejected "Herod's Temple" and repudiated its Hellenized priesthood as entirely corrupt.  After Herod's death, the Roman emperor Augustus named his son Antipas the ruler of Galilee, and it was this Herod who was in power during the years of Yeshua's public ministry. Like his father before him, however, Herod Antipas likewise sought to kill Yeshua (Luke 13:31).

According to Matthew's account, some time after Yeshua was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod "the Great," certain Babylonian astrologers (μάγοι) came to Jerusalem asking, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him" (Matt. 2:1-2). The Gospel states that upon hearing this Herod "was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). Perhaps Herod feared that this cosmic event would be regarded by the people as a sign that the promised "Star from Jacob" had finally come to exercise the "scepter" as God's anointed King (Num. 24:17, cp. Gen. 49:10). When Herod consulted with the priests and scribes, he therefore asked where the Messiah was to be born, and they said, "In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 'And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel'" (Matt. 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2). Herod then privately summoned the wise men to ask them precisely when they had seen the star. He then commissioned them to go and search diligently for the promised child -  using the pretense that he would likewise "come and worship him too" (Matt. 2:7-8).

You know the rest of the story. The wise men followed the star to the house (i.e., οἰκίαν) of Mary and Joseph, where they saw the baby and offered gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the family (Matt. 2:9-11). After doing so, the wise men were warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, and therefore they absconded to their homeland without disclosing the child's location (Matt. 2:12). At about the same time, Joseph was likewise warned in a dream to take Mary and Yeshua into Egypt to flee from the insane wrath of Herod (Matt. 2:13-15). "Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men" (Matt. 2:16). At this point in the narrative, Matthew states, "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more'" (Matt. 2:17-18).

Since Herod embodied and spiritually represented the "seed of Esau," we can see how Jeremiah's prophecy of "Rachel weeping for her children" points to Esau's final revenge against Jacob - and by extension, against the Promised Seed of Jacob (i.e., the Messiah).  Recall that Rebekah was told by the prophet Shem: "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided" (Gen. 25:23). The battle between the "seed of the serpent" (i.e., Satan) and the "seed of the woman" (i.e., Messiah) was played out, first in the womb of Rebekah, and later in the diabolical scheme of Herod to murder the Savior.  Matthew's account of the birth of Yeshua is drenched in the blood of Jewish children, and therefore calls for Rachel's greater lament.

The story of Herod and his murderous insanity leads to further questions about why the LORD allowed him to rule in the first place. After all, God could have killed him before he assumed such diabolical proportions, but instead we see the angel instructing Joseph to take Yeshua to Egypt to flee from this madman's wrath.... Is there any lesson in this for us?  Notice, too, how "clumsy" the evil one acted in his blind rage.  Since he apparently didn't know that Yeshua had escaped to Egypt, he went ahead and inspired his pawn Herod to indiscriminately murder all the baby boys in Bethlehem. This shows us Satan's brutality -- but it also reveals something of his weakness. The devil is certainly not omniscient, and his rage impairs his ability to think clearly. Indeed, it was that same rage that blinded him to see the true purpose of the cross of Yeshua -- the very means that brought about his own irreparable undoing. Satan was able to strike the Messiah's heel, but by so doing the Messiah crushed his head.

Additional Questions:

As I mentioned at the outset of this entry, here are some additional review questions to help you futher explore this portion of Torah:

  1. What connection is there between the two camps of angels that met Jacob when he returned to the land and the message sent to Esau? Rashi claims that the "messengers" that Jacob sent to Esau were literally angels (מַלְאָכִים), and the Hebrew text can support this interpretation. Was Jacob somehow able to command angels to do his bidding? (Gen. 32:1-3)
  2. Why was Jacob terrified of his brother Esau when he had earlier been promised by God to watch over him? (Gen. 28:12-19). Did Jacob's vow suggest that he had reservations about God's ability to fulfill His word? (Gen. 28:20-22)
  3. Jacob prepared "and sent" (vayishlach) gifts to Esau in the hope that this might "appease" his anger. Note that the word translated "appease" comes from the verb khafar (כָפַר), from which the word "atonement" is derived (i.e., kippur: כִּפֻּר). Does this imply that Jacob needed to atone for his sins against his brother?  (Gen. 32:13-20)
  4. Why did the Angel of the LORD wrestle with Jacob, and why did he need to stop before the day began?  Why did he dislocate Jacob's hip, and why does the Torah parenthetically say that "to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh (i.e., gid hanesheh: גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה) that is on the hip socket" (Gen. 32:24-32)?
  5. Before the wrestling match ended, Jacob refused to let the Angel of the LORD go until he received his blessing. Do you think this is somehow connected to the blessing he "stole" from his father? The Angel renamed Jacob ("grappler") as Israel ("one who contends with God"). Does the name "Israel" imply that we might sometimes need to contend with God? (Gen. 32:27-28)
  6. Genesis 33:4 reads, "Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, and falling on his neck, he kissed him..." In the Torah scroll, the Hebrew word for "and he kissed him" (וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ) is marked with a dot over each letter. Does this suggest that Esau's kiss was insincere?
  7. The sages claim that Esau's response to Jacob: "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself" (Gen. 33:9) amounted to a "legal statement" (or verbal contract) that resolved Jacob's claim to be the firstborn of the family. Given the context, do you agree with this?
  8. After Jacob met with Esau and the two were apparently reconciled, why did Jacob tell his brother that he would later join him in Seir, when he actually went and settled near Shechem (Gen. 33:1-17)? Was Jacob being dishonest? If so, were the brothers truly reconciled?
  9. Jacob's daughter Dinah is raped by Hamor, the prince of the city of Shechem. When Jacob learned of this, why did he remain silent (Gen. 34:5)? And was the extreme retaliation against the entire city of Shechem by Simeon and Levi at all justified? Why should an entire community be faulted for the sins of one of its members?
  10. Why does the Torah devote an entire chapter to the story of the rape of Dinah? (Gen. 34). Was the deception and violence of Simeon and Levi justifiable?
  11. On his deathbed, Jacob expressed horror over the violence of Simeon and Levi regarding their killing of the inhabitants of Shechem, and he prophesied that they would be "scattered throughout Israel" (Gen. 49:5-7). However Moses and Aaron later descended from Levi, and the Levites became the honored Torah teachers of Israel. What happened to Jacob's prophecy: "Let not my soul come into their assembly?"
  12. After the ordeal of the rape of Dinah, God commanded Jacob to leave Shechem and return to Bethel to fulfill the vow he had made earlier. Before leaving, however, Jacob commanded the members of his clan to bury all their idols (i.e., "foreign gods," אֱלהֵי הַנֵּכָר). Why would Jacob's camp include the presence of these idols?  Moreover, why didn't he destroy these idols but instead only buried them under a tree? (Gen. 35:1-5)
  13. After Jacob built an altar (מִזְבֵּחַ) at Bethel, Rebekah's nurse Deborah died and was buried beside an oak tree there. Why was Deborah accompanying Jacob when he returned to Bethel? (Gen. 35:6-8)
  14. At Bethel, God extended the oath of Abraham to Jacob a second time and renamed him "Israel" (Gen. 35:9-15). What connection is there between this event and the Angel of the LORD's renaming of Jacob found earlier (Gen. 32:27-28)?
  15. After they left Bethel, Rachel died during childbirth on the way to Bethlehem. Why did Jacob decide to bury her there instead of taking her to be buried with the other matriarchs at the Cave of Machpelah? (Gen. 35:16-21)
  16. Immediately following the account of Rachel's death, the Torah says that Reuben went and "laid with Bilhah his father's concubine" (Gen. 35:22). The midrash says that this does not mean Reuben had sexual relations with Bilhah, and explains that after Rachel's death, Jacob "moved his bed" from Rachel's tent to that of Bilhah's, and this so upset Reuben that he took his father's bed and moved it into the tent of Leah. Do you think Jewish tradition was attempting to protect the reputation of Reuben, and if so, for what reason?
  17. In this parashah, Jacob finally arrives home to see his father, but the Torah is silent about their reunion. Shortly afterward Isaac died. What do you think might have been said between the two men? (Gen. 35:27-29)
  18. The parashah ends with the genealogy of Esau, otherwise known as Edom, whose descendants became an ongoing enemy of the Jewish people (Gen. 36). Jewish tradition sometimes links Edom with the Roman Empire and therefore regards Hitler as a "child of Rome."  Jewish theology after the Holocaust has been often been expressed as a "theology of protest." Why was Hitler given the power to murder so many Jewish lives, including the lives of over a million Jewish children?  Indeed, the same question can be raised about other historically powerful enemies of the Jews, including Ishmael (Arabs), Laban, Esau (Edom), Balaam (Moab), the Pharaoh of Egypt, Amalek, Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon), Xerxes (Persia), Antiochus Epiphanes (Greece), Herod the Great (Edom), Emperor Hadrian (Rome), the Roman Catholic Church (i.e., the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, etc.), the pogroms in Tzarist Russia, and the more recent Arab persecution and terrorism of the modern State of Israel.  Why does God allow the wicked to have power in this world, especially when we are taught to pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?"

<< Return


Hebrew for Christians
Copyright © John J. Parsons
All rights reserved.