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Torah Commentary
Vayishlach (December 2, 2017)

They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.” But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-Oni, but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.

— Genesis 23:16-19

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Any woman who has given birth will sympathize with Rachel’s plight. After yearning for years for a baby and finally giving birth to Joseph, she becomes pregnant a second time, only to find herself in labor on the way to Bethlehem. Unable to reach the city, or even an inn or a tent, she is forced to give birth on the side of the road. As a result, Jacob’s favorite wife finds herself dying, unable to enjoy her second son or to see her other child grow to adulthood.

And now Jacob has a problem. In addition to losing his favorite wife, he is nowhere near the family burial site, the Cave of Machpelah. Sarah, Rebecca and Leah will all be buried there, as will Jacob himself, but Jacob is forced to bury this most beloved of his wives on the road. He does the best he can; he sets up a pillar to mark her grave.

Favorites don’t have it easy in the Bible. Jacob himself had to flee his home and parents because he stole the birthright of his brother, Esau, and Esau wanted to kill him. Later on, we will see that Joseph, the apple of his father’s eye, was so hated by his brothers that they threw him into a pit and… But that is another story. And poor Rachel, her husband’s favorite, dies giving birth on the roadside.

On the other hand, these favorites are not saints. That’s what makes Genesis so interesting. Jacob went along with his mother, Sarah, and she made him deceive his father, Isaac, and trick him into giving Jacob the birthright destined for Esau, the firstborn. Rachel stole her father’s household gods and, when he came looking for them, pretended she had her period and couldn’t get up from the seat where she had hidden them. Jacob, not knowing who stole the idols, predicted that whoever did steal them would die. Could Rachel’s death be the result of his prediction?

Rachel may have stolen the idols because she wanted to take some souvenir of home with her on a perilous journey. Or she may have wanted to get back at her father, Laban, for having tricked Jacob into marrying Leah first. We don’t know, and Jacob certainly did not know she had taken him or he would not have made such a dire prediction.

Rachel realizes she is dying, so she names the child Ben-Oni, either “son of my suffering” or “son of my strength.” I lean toward the first translation. Childbirth is never exactly fun, and giving birth on the road with no one but a midwife to help, can certainly be defined as suffering. However, “son of my strength” also would work. It has taken all of her strength to give birth to this baby, and now her strength is gone and she is dying.

Although Jacob changes the child’s name to Benjamin, the story of his birth remains a tragedy. Today we pray to “our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,” but although they are together in our prayers, they are not together in their grave. Rachel, a true tragic heroine, lies alone on the way to Bethlehem.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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