An Undying Love

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

This week’s Parshah, Vayechi, focuses on the last years and days of Jacob’s life. After having been finally reunited with his long-lost son Joseph after a 22-year long hiatus, Jacob spends the last 17 years of his life in Egypt.

As he nears the end of his life, Jacob has two separate encounters with Joseph. The first is a meeting requested by Jacob himself. Feeling his time approaching, he calls for Joseph, and asks him to take a solemn oath that he will deliver Jacob’s body to the Land of Cana’an for burial, and that he will not bury him in Egypt.

The next time Joseph sees his father is when he is informed that Jacob has grown ill, and is now on his deathbed. Joseph takes his two sons, Menasheh and Ephraim, and visits his father in Goshen. The focus of this encounter is Jacob bestowing a very special blessing upon these two of his grandchildren, whom Jacob treats as though they were two of his own sons, with equal shares in his inheritance. Then Jacob articulates the blessing that has become the traditional blessing that Jewish fathers give to their sons: “May God make you like Ephraim and like Menasheh,” as well as another famous blessing: “May the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths . . .”

Smack in between these blessings, Jacob makes the following statement:

As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died to me in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still a stretch of land to come to Ephrat, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrat, which is Bethlehem.[1]

Why is Jacob suddenly talking about Rachel’s burial?

Some commentaries suggest that Jacob was acknowledging the inequity of requiring Joseph to go to the trouble of interring his father in the Land of Cana’an, in the family burial plot, even though Jacob himself did not afford the same courtesy to Joseph’s mother, Rachel, whom he buried on the side of the road in Bethlehem.[2]

And yet . . .

It is easy to conflate Joseph and Jacob’s conversations, and to forget that these were two different encounters with Joseph, separated from each other by a fairly lengthy period of time. The discussion that Jacob had with Joseph about his burial was in the first encounter, which occurred much earlier, when Jacob was in full possession of his health. He made no mention of Rachel’s burial in that conversation. It is only now, as his body is failing him, as he blesses his grandsons, that Jacob recalls the circumstances of Rachel’s death and burial.

Indeed, the two encounters are separated by the words: “And it came to pass after these incidents . . .”[3] The Hebrew word for “after” in this verse is “acharei.” A very similar Hebrew word, which also means “after,” is “achar.” What is the difference in meaning between the two words? The Midrash states that wherever the term “achar” is used, it signifies something that occurred immediately after the previous incident; conversely, “acharei” signifies a long time afterwards.[4] Using this interpretive principle, we can conclude that the encounter in which Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons and discussed Rachel’s burial with him occurred a long time after Joseph’s vow to bury Jacob in the Holy Land.

So it wasn’t even part of the same conversation; there is no context for Jacob to suddenly return to the topic of burial to focus on the perceived unfairness in demanding for himself that which he did not do for Rachel.

To me, however, another explanation readily suggests itself.

Jacob is now 147 years old. It has been nearly 50 years since Rachel has died, and 70 years that he has loved her. He loved her from the moment that he first laid eyes upon her; and even though they were married for only 15 short years, she was always his wife, his soulmate.

In fact, in just last week’s Parshah, four decades after Rachel’s passing, when the Torah lists the names of all of Jacob’s descendants to make the journey to Egypt, it lists the sons born to Jacob by “Rachel, Jacob’s wife.”[5] Although Jacob had four wives, none of the women receive the distinction of being referred to as “Jacob’s wife” other than Rachel.

Indeed, much of Jacob’s famous love and favoritism toward Joseph has to do with his being Rachel’s firstborn. Joseph even shared Rachel’s distinctive beauty: “Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion,”[6] and “Joseph had handsome features and a beautiful complexion.”[7]

And yet so much had happened since Rachel was gone. Joseph grew up with a strong personality, his father’s favor, and vivid dreams of his destiny, which earned him the hatred of his brothers.  How might Rachel’s gentle hand have influenced his upbringing. How might she have altered his path? Would Jacob have been a more balanced father if Joseph had grown up with his own doting mother?

Then their beloved firstborn son went missing for 22 years, believed to be dead — and Jacob was left to mourn, heartbroken and alone. Had Rachel been alive, could she have withstood the pain of loss? Would they have comforted each other?

And then Joseph was alive, and the ruler of Egypt no less! How proud Rachel would have been of her son, of his achievements, of the strength of character that allowed him to hold on to his identity and values in such a foreign land, and to turn to his brothers with love and forgiveness despite the pain that they caused him! If only Rachel could have beheld Joseph’s glory as he greeted them in his royal robes, the savior of all the land!

And now, now Jacob was on his deathbed, shortly to release his tether to his turbulent and pain-ridden life. Standing before him, in these final hours, is Joseph, and Joseph’s two sons, Jacob and Rachel’s grandsons. What Jacob wouldn’t give for Rachel to be there at his side, to gaze together with pride upon their offspring — Joseph’s children that Rachel never had the opportunity to meet — and to offer them a final blessing.

Is it any wonder then, that as he marvels at Joseph’s two sons, and elevates them to the same status as his other sons, Jacob thinks of Rachel? One gets the sense that Jacob is almost reminiscing when he talks to Joseph; he doesn’t even refer to Rachel as “your mother” — for to Jacob, as he recalls the day that she left him, she is just and always his beloved Rachel.

Fifty years later, on his deathbed in another land, Rachel, his lifelong love, is still ever-present in Jacob’s thoughts.[8]


Why did Jacob decide to bury the love of his life at the side of a dusty road, rather than escorting her to the family burial plot in Hebron?

The Midrash states that this was a painful sacrifice for Jacob, who would have much preferred to be laid to rest em beloved Rachel. Nevertheless he buried her in Bethlehem by Divine command, so that she would one day be of assistance to her great-great-grandchildren.[9] When Nebuzaradan exiled the Israelites centuries later, they passed by Rachel’s grave, and Rachel emerged from her grave, and wept and begged for mercy for them, as Jeremiah prophesied: “So says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children.’”[10] And G-d hearkened to Rachel’s pleas: “‘There is reward for your work,’ says the Lord,… ‘and the children shall return to their own border.’”[11]

May Rachel’s merit and intercessions on our behalf continue to protect and bring salvation to her children; and may Jacob’s undying love for his wife serve as an inspiration for all of our relationships!

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Genesis, 48:7

[2] See Rashi, quoting Targum Yonatan.

[3] Genesis, 48:1.

[4] Rashi, Genesis, 15:1; Genesis Rabbah 44:5.

[5] Genesis, 46:19.

[6] Genesis, 29:17.

[7] Genesis, 39:6.

[8] It is tempting to presume that our biblical ancestors shared the same family values and bonds that are prevalent in our own modern-day culture. In this week’s column, I acknowledge that I have succumbed to this temptation. The truth is, however, that there is something truly familiar and raw about the emotions attributed to Jacob when it comes to Rachel and Joseph.

[9] See Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 3. According to another Midrash, Jacob built Rachel an elaborate monument, with an arch and four pillars, and upon the stones of which passersby would etch their names as they paid their respects to Rachel. See Seder Hadorot.

[10] Jeremiah, 31:14.

[11] Jeremiah, 31:15-16.