Parashat Vayishlach – Erev Shabbat 1 December 2023 (5784)
Week of 26 November-2 December 2023
Torah portion: Genesis 32:4-36:43 Haftarah: Obad 1:1-21
Theme: Rachel’s Tomb
“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.” (Gen. 35:19-20)
Indeed, the tomb of Rachel is there to this day, and next time you go to a Bat Kol study course, make sure to visit it. The pillar that Jacob set over it is gone but there is an extensive shrine as well as modern fortifications to make sure that Jewish (and other) pilgrims can access it safely and pray to Rachel Imenu, “Our Mother Rachel”.
Rachel has a very special place in Jewish spirituality. Not only is she the only matriarch whose tomb is a place of pilgrimage and prayer to this day, she is the only matriarch whose death on 11 Cheshvan (October 26 this year) is marked every year with special yahrzeit prayers.
What was so special about Rachel that she is remembered so distinctly? Different midrashim give different reasons, but one of the more famous ones explains that Rachel helped her sister Leah to take the honourable place as Jacob’s first wife: she revealed to her sister the secret signs that she had agreed with Jacob to identify herself to him as she knew that her father wanted to deceive Jacob (see “Rachel” in JewishEncyclopedia).
But more particularly, people contemplating her story recognised the struggles and pain she had endured, especially around conceiving and delivering children. She had experienced the very depths of humiliation and made the ultimate sacrifice any mother could do for her children – giving her life for her second child. So, no wonder that Rachel’s tomb has become a place where families bring their prayers to conceive and to deliver.
But Rachel’s tomb means more than motherly sacrifice and joy. Her suffering continued after her death when, as we read in today’s parashah, she was not given the honour of resting in a family grave or next to her husband. She was buried by herself on a lonely roadside. And with that Rachel has become the mother of all who suffer.
In the Jewish tradition, one of the reasons for Rachel’s tomb to be on a roadside was so that she could be there when the Jewish people were driven from Jerusalem into exile (see “Rachel” in JewishEncyclopedia). As the exiles were passing her tomb, Rachel Imenu interceded for her children. That tradition is reflected in the words of Jeremiah 31:15: “Thus said GOD:/ A cry is heard in Ramah —/ Wailing, bitter weeping —/ Rachel weeping for her children. / She refuses to be comforted / For her children, who are gone.”
We, Christians, know this passage from our Christmas story (see Matthew 2:18). And, just like at the birth of Jesus pain and joy were mixed together, so also in Jeremiah we read that God listened to Rachel and gave her hope for the future of her children: “Thus said GOD: / Restrain your voice from weeping, / Your eyes from shedding tears; / For there is a reward for your labour —declares GOD: / They shall return from the enemy’s land.” (Jeremiah 31:16)
For Reflection and Discussion: Think and share about people in your life who have played an important role praying for you on particular occasions. Have you done and are you doing the same for others?
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Rota Stone, New Zealand, Bat Kol Alumna: 2002, 2003