Shabbat candles: 4:11 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 11:17-12:14
Havdalah: 5:14 p.m.
‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to now than I have ever known.” So says Sidney Carton, in Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” as he substitutes himself for the guillotine to save the life of his rival for the woman he loves. By so doing he is gesturing at a scale of values by which another may have more claim on life than oneself.
There is a Midrash that says that whoever gives his or her life for another assumes the name and role of the beneficiary and vice versa. In this week’s Torah portion it is Rachel who makes this type of exchange. In exchange for being Jacob’s young love, and the truest plot line of his personal story, she lives on in the sufferings and triumphs of the entire Jewish people.
Jews are a pragmatic people. Leah, whom Jacob was tricked into marrying, provided not only the majority of the tribes but the most important. Through Judah came royalty, in David and the messianic line. From Levi came the priesthood.
On the other hand, Rachel’s greatest descendant, Joseph (the Tribe of Ephraim), assimilated in the early exile of the Northern Kingdom. In the Cave of Machpelah, where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried, it is Leah who lies next to Jacob.
The Zohar tells us that when Jacob left the Holy Land, he already had his wedding clothes on. Dreaming of ladders, he went looking for wells. Subconsciously Jacob was seeking appropriate criteria for his mate. He searched and searched until, tired out, he found himself at the same well where his mother had met Eliezer, the messenger from the family of her future in-laws.
Jacob and Rachel were intended for each other by their respective families. But Jacob had taken the additional step of falling passionately in love. From the moment he set off, he was going toward her, and she to him. From a distance he had glimpsed her. Into this primal bridal scene, outside by the well, God had brought forth Rachel: “And he looked up and, behold, Rachel was coming toward him, descending from the horizon with her sheep.
From the time Jacob saw Rachel, she became the motivation of all that he accomplished, though the rabbis tell us that from the outset he had a premonition that they would be separated in death, which would explain his sudden outburst in tears.
The Zohar asks why Rachel, and not Leah, had to die at the time of the completion of the tribes, during the difficult transition back into the Holy Land. The answer is provided with another question: Why did God draw Rachel, and not Leah, who was to be mother of so many precious tribes, to the well of divine affinity in the first place? “So that Jacob’s eye and heart should become intoxicated with Rachel’s beauty, so that he should establish his true residence with her.”
Are beauty and physical attraction really the arbiters, and not rather some spiritual quality, such as empathy with the sufferings of the others, of which beauty is only the outward manifestation? Replying to the verse that tells us that Jacob still loved Rachel more than Leah, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev says that he loved Rachel as much as he had from the first, and he also loved her because she was selfless enough to allow him to remain married to her sister. Moved by pure compassion and empathy, she gave up being the beloved, the only one, to become the means for the substitution of someone else.
A rabbi asked Elijah the Prophet whether he was descended from Leah or Rachel. Since he was called “Eliyahu ha-Gadi,” it was perfectly obvious that he came from Leah’s biological line. Nevertheless Elijah responded, “How can you even think of such a question! Isn’t it obvious I am a child of Rachel?” What he meant was that his essential contribution to the world was similar to hers — as a catalyst for redemption. Both are figures of resurrection. Not only does the Bible text describe Elijah rising physically to Heaven in a fiery chariot, but also shows him resurrecting a child whose breath/soul departs and returns, due to Elijah’s ministrations.
The account of Rachel’s death, in comparison, is a marvel of rationalist narration. The Hebrew repeats itself in its insistence that she really did die: “Her breath/soul left her — for she died — her breath returned no more.” When, over a thousand years later, the prophet Jeremiah resurrects her as the best intercessor for all the children of Israel, not only her own, his type-casting is peculiarly apt. For what her work consists of is precisely the ongoing vicissitudes of all the Jewish people.
Jeremiah can resurrect Rachel in the guise of inconsolable mother of the exiled children of Israel precisely because she died young and in childbirth and there is a Kabbalistic notion that those whose work is not completed return again and again. “Mother” Rachel, as Jeremiah portrays her, is far from being an introverted matriarch who cares only about her own small family. Her heart reaches out to others. Casting the net of compassion even wider, the Zohar has Rachel sit at public intersections, during periods of general turmoil, praying for the needs and sufferings of the entire world.
That her prayers are more effective than those of all other spiritual giants of the Bible is because she has shown herself capable of growing beyond her own broken love story.
Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, and Partisan Review.