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The Tears of Rachel

Updated: Dec 22, 2022


Torah Portion: Parashat Vayishlach (“and he sent”)

Shabbat: Dec. 10, 2002 / Kislev 16, 5783

Torah: Gen. 32:3-36:43

Prophets: Obadiah 1:1-21

New Covenant: Heb. 11:11-20 ; Matt. 26:36-46


Jesus’ Prayer For All Believers

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me”. John 17:20-23


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).

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.



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