Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4-36:43
By Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel - This week’s Bible portion recounts the tragic death of
young Mother Rachel in child-birth, during Jacob’s journey home to Israel.
“ And it was when her soul was departing, because she was dying, that she
called his name Ben-Oni (the son of my travail); and his father called him
Ben Yamin (the son of my right hand)” (Genesis 35:27).
Is it not strange that father Jacob would change his son’s name from the
one given by his beloved wife in such difficult circumstances? And why
do we read in the very next verse, “And Rachel died; and she was buried on
the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem” (35:28)? After all, Efrat is
barely fifteen miles from Hebron, the ancestral burial place. Why not
travel the extra distance and bury her together with the Abrahamic
family, next to the husband who worked so hard for her hand in marriage and
who loved her so deeply?! I believe that herein lies a profound
message about the significance of Efrat as well as about the unique
personality of Rachel.
With her dying breath, Rachel names her second son Ben-Oni; The Hebrew oni
can mean travail, as in the onan state of mourning during the period between
the death and burial of a close and beloved relative, or it can mean
strength, as in Jacob’s blessing of his first-born son Reuven, You are my
first-born, my power and the first of my strength...(Genesis 49:3).
Rachel’s name was therefore a double-entendre, a name given to two
possible meanings, each very different from the other: it could either be
taken to mean “the son of my travail” or “the son of my strength.”
Jacob wishes to place the most positive interpretation on the name given to
this second son of his and Rachel’s. Jacob also adds the nuance,
“son of my right hand”, since Rachel was at the same time the true
source of his strength as well as his right-hand partner, soul-mate and
I do believe, however, that there is yet an even more profound meaning to
the name given by Jacob. It would seem that Mother Rachel died on the
road to Efrat because she had stolen Laban’s household gods (t’rafim),
and Jacob - never dreaming that his wife was the culprit - declared to Laban,
“the one with whom the gods shall be found, that person shall not live”
(Genesis 31:32, and see Rashi as loc). Now why would Rachel steal the
gods? Rashi maintains that it was in order to prevent Laban from
worshiping idols - but then logic dictates that she should have destroyed
them! Apparently she held onto them during the journey, and hid them
from her father when Laban conducted his search. So what was Rachel
doing with them?
The noted archaeologist-historian Cyrus Gordon cites the custom of the Mari
and Nuzu ethnic tribes of the fertile crescent during the period of our
patriarchs: parents would bequeath the household gods to the heir who
was to receive the birthright and the major portion of the inheritance.
Apparently when Jacob had initially married Leah and Rachel, there
weren’t any adult sons of Laban; hence, Jacob sheparded the flocks and
developed the herds. By this time - almost two decades later - the
younger sons had grown up, and become jealous of their brother-in-law
(Genesis 31:12). Laban had certainly expected to leave the household gods -
and the inheritance - to the eldest of his sons. Mother Rachel,
however, correctly understood that it was her husband Jacob - the eldest of
the generation, albeit a son-in-law and not a son - who was responsible for
Laban’s phenomenal success as a herdsman, and who therefore deserved
the major portion of the inheritance. It was for that
inheritance that she stole the household gods.
In this respect, Rachel was true to the teachings of her mother-in-law
Rebecca and was a genuine soul-mate to her husband Jacob. First of
all, she believed that the religious birthright (bekhorah, which was already
Jacob’s), must be coupled with the material blessing of her father’s
inheritance; Torah needs an economic infrastructure in order to sanctify the
world. And secondly - although she certainly expressed the
compassionate voice and soul of Jacob as evidenced in her giving over the
secret signs to Leah so as not to cause her elder sister embarrassment under
the nuptial canopy - she was not reluctant to assume the “hands of Esau”
in order to procure for her family what she deemed was rightfully theirs.
With this in mind, is it not possible that Jacob gave the name “son of my
right hand” to their son, born at the moment of his beloved wife’s death
as punishment for her act of stealing the household gods, for two reasons:
yes, Rachel was his right-hand, the very source of his love and his
resiliency; but Rachel was also his right hand in the sense of the right
hand which he had encased with hirsute strength and aggression when he stole
his rightful blessings as well as in the sense of the right hand which she
had employed to steal the household gods- which she also believed were
rightfully her family’s. And she met her grave - and Jacob would be
hounded until his grave - by the sin which each had nevertheless committed,
despite the logic of their acts.
Why was Mother Rachel buried on the way to Efrat, a city half way between
Hebron and Jerusalem, and not in the Cave of the Couples in Hebron?
Hebron was where our history began, the city of the Patriarchs and
Matriarchs, the initial visionaries of a god of justice, contemplative and
peace; Jerusalem - the city of Peace, to which all nations will flock to
learn the Torah of beating their swords into ploughshares - is where our
history will culminate, where our vision will finally be realized.
Efrat is, the bridge between past and future, vision and realization; it is
the verdant, rocky road leading to redemption. This path to redemption
is paved with dreams and disappointments, commitments and concessions,
high-minded ideals and shattered illusions. And in a yet
imperfect world, although the ends never justify the means, achievement of
the ends often necessitate uncomfortable and less-than-perfect means: wars,
in which -even in the most necessary of conflicts (such as WWII and our War
of Independence, Six Day war, Yom Kippur War) - innocent people are killed,
cruel acts are perpetrated, and deceptions, which- even if they are done for
the sake of heaven - nevertheless remain deceptions.
In an imperfect world, wherein one must struggle for redemption one
must sometimes perpetrate imperfect acts - and suffer their consequences.
This I believe is the price which Rebecca (who is never mourned by her
sons). Jacob and Rachel must pay for their journey along the road to
Efrat, for their difficult but glorious
march towards redemption.
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi - Efrat Israel
Return to Ohr Torah Stone