Vayishlach: Rachel, the motherless child, the Matriarch without love.


by Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

To die like Rachel
when the soul shudders like a bird,
wants to break free.
Jacob and Joseph speak of her,
all a-tremble.
All the days of her own life
turn head over heels inside her
like a baby that wants to be born.

How grueling. How
Jacob’s love ate away at her
with open mouth.
Now, as her soul takes leave,
she has no use for any of that.

Suddenly the baby screeches
and Jacob comes into the tent,
but Rachel does not even sense it,
Rapture washes over her face,
her head.

And then did a great repose descend upon her.
The breath of her nostrils would not stir a feather.
They laid her to rest among mountain stones
and made her no lament.
To die like Rachel,
that’s what I want.

(From The Torah, A Women’s Commentary, Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Andrea L. Weiss, URJ Press, 2008).

In today’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, we learn of the death of Rachel.
Here is Everett Fox’s translation. (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, Schocken Books, Word Bibles). I like Fox’s stark choice of words:

Genesis 35:16

They departed from Bet-El.
But when there was still a stretch of land to come to Efrat,
Rachel began to give birth,
and she had a very hard birthing.

It was, when her birthing was at its hardest,
that the midwife said to her:
Do not be afraid,
for this one too is a son for you!

It was, as her life was slipping away
–for she was dying–
that she called his name: Ben-Oni/Son-of-My-Woe.
But his father called him: Binyamin/Son-of-the-Right-Hand.

So Rachel died;
she was buried along the way to Efrat–that is now Bet-Lechem.
Yaakov set up a standing-pillar over her burial place,
that is Rachel’s burial pillar of today.

Now Yisrael departed and spread his tent beyond Migdal-Eder/Herd-Tower.

The Soncino Chumash (The Soncino Press, 1983), features explanations by seven classic commentators.

Nachmanides explains that Jacob did not take her body to the near by city of Bethlehem. He foresaw that it would belong to the tribe of Judah. He wished Rachel to be buried in the portion of Benjamin.

According to Rashbam, the midwife’s statement, “For this one is a son for you” is because Rachel had prayed upon the birth of Joseph: “May God add to me another son to me.” (Genesis 30:24).

As to the name switch, Nachmanides explains that Jacob gave an optimistic spin to the name chosen by Rachel; oni also means “strength.” Jacob called him Ben-yamin, “the son of my right hand,” the right hand being he symbol of strength.

Later at Genesis 48:7, Joseph visits Jacob on his death bed. Jacob recounts:

When I came back from that country,
Rachel died on me,
in the land of Canaan,
on the way, with still a stretch of land left to come to Efrat.
There I buried her, on the way to Efrat–that is now Bet-Lechem.
(Fox translation).

Nachmanides explains that Jacob was ashamed to bury her with Leah, since later laws prohibited a man from marrying sisters.

Sforno says that Jacob’s grief was so intense that he could not even convey her to Bethlehem.



Guido Cagnacci, Jacob between Leah and Rachel, c.1655.


Wilda C. Gafney is a professor at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She used to attend Dorshei Derekh when she taught at Lutheran Theological Seminary. In her new book, Womanist Midrash (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017) Reverend Gafney writes of the heartbreak in Rachel’s life.

Rachel was a motherless child. Her mother is never mentioned in the Bible. Was the mother dead? Was Rachel raised by someone else? What was the mother’s relationship with Rachel’s father?

Rachel’s father sold her to Jacob in exchange for 14 years of labor.

Rachel’s father disowned her at the pact between Laban and Jacob at

According to Gafney, Rachel had a loveless marriage. Jacob overwhelmed her with his love for her. The text never says that Rachel loved Jacob.

It is never clear whether Rachel embraced God as her god. Did she continue to worship idols? When she stole her father’s idols, did she steal them for herself? Did she die as a result of the curse placed by Jacob on the person who stole the idols.

Rachel is dominated by her older sister Leah.

Rachel is displaced at her wedding bed with Leah.

Rachel got into a fertility war with Leah.

Leah’s sons, particularly Judah and Levi, became the dominant tribes in Israel.

Rachel is buried alone, separate from her husband and her sister.

Rachel is not mourned. The text only states that Jacob buried her and traveled on.

Gafney concludes:

“Lament and blessing characterize the portrayal of Rachel in the Sciptures:
a pawn of her father, in conflict with her sister, loved by a man she does not say she loves, ashamed of her infertility, and finally a mother granted fertility by God, dead before seeing her children grown and married, her deathbed wishes disregarded.”
* * * *
“She is canonized as the beloved of Israel. Her love is not considered.
Rachel has difficult relationships with her father, sister, and husband. Rachel’s mother is mysteriously missing from her story.”
* * * *
“There is someone else with whom Rachel is in some sort of relationship. God is involved in Rachel’s life in the most intimate way, granting her the desire of her heart, even though she does not turn to God for help and may not have subscribed to the worship of this God as she worshiped the gods of her ancestors.”
* * * *
“In the words of the . . .  spiritual, Rachel is a motherless child, a long way from home. Willingly or unwillingly, she gives up her life for her child, begetting another generation of motherless children,” Reverend Gafney says.



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