parsah vayetzei – genesis 28 – 32
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on December 1st 2022. In a parsha that starts with Jacob having an iconic dream of a ladder joining heaven to the holiest place on earth, we find foreshadowing of the origins and significance of the third holiest site in Judaism; Rachel’s Tomb
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/449816
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday at 8:00pm Eastern and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayetzei, It starts with Jacob having an iconic dream of a ladder joining heaven to Earth. By tradition, to the holiest place on earth, the Temple Mount. But we also find foreshadowing of the third holiest site in Judaism. Join us on the side of the road as we explore Rachel and her Tomb. Mother Rachel come to me.
Well, welcome. So I do look every so often what we talked about last year, and last year, we talked about HaMakom…. the place.
Adam Mintz 01:03
That was a good one last year. Yeah, that was a point of departure. But before we get into this, you know, there was so many times and I refer to Rachel’s Tomb as the third holiest place in Judaism, and the temple mount where that ladder between heaven and earth is traditionally supposed to have stood. Is it universally accepted that we have the Temple (as #1) and then there’s Kever Hamachpela is number two, and Rachel’s Tomb is number three. I will just tell you the following. There is no question historically, that the Temple Mount is where the Temple Mount always was. And there’s also no question that the cave of Machpela is where the cave of Machpela always was. We actually have an unbroken tradition that people always visited the cave of Machpela. For many hundreds of years, it was the Moslems who visited the cave of Machpela, which is not surprising because they share at least Abraham with us. So they they visited the cave of Machpela. The tombstone of Rachel is open for debate. There are different traditions about exactly where Rachel is buried. We follow that tradition that she’s buried there, in Bethlehem, on the way to Efrat, but actually, there’s another tradition in the prophets, that she’s buried somewhere else. So that tradition is number three. But it’s that’s not entirely clear how that tradition falls. So it is kind of interesting that as she was we’ll see in a few minutes that she was buried on the side of the road. And so in a sense, it was a little bit like Moses, where it was kind of an unmarked grave. So it’s not exactly surprising that we don’t know the exact location. But I jump ahead of myself, I did want to say that, you know, many times I read The New York Times, and other periodicals and newspapers, and when there’s a problem or a situation on Har Habayit; the Temple Mount, they will typically say that the Temple Mount is the third holiest place in Islam and the last time I saw it, it says, and there were two (Jewish) temples there. It almost made me feel like there was new Israel of Flatbush and Temple Emanuel were there. There were two temples. You know, it’s, it’s really amazing how we’ve kind of lost that narrative because anyone who reads the Bible, you know, whether we want to another temple and not as a whole other discussion, but so much of it is based on the temple ritual. The Leviticus is all about what and the temple cult. And even if we read Christianity where Jesus threw over the money chainger tables in front of the temple. I mean, it was such a core part of Judaism. It really gets almost it becomes like an afterthought, many times when it’s mentioned (in the press), and that’s just amazing to me. Yeah, absolutely. is amazing. I mean, that’s, that’s more a comment about the New York Times and journalism today, but that is an amazing point. Yes. Yeah. I don’t know if it’s only them, but I thought I should mention that. And I must say that we Jews, and we’re going to get into this a little bit. You know, we’re not that holy space oriented. I mean, how many times have you been to for instance, Kever Rachelor I think I was there. I hardly remember if I was the the Kotel my wife loves to go. But you know, to me, Judaism and holiness is not so based on….. You’re not a big kotel person either. Are you?
Geoffrey Stern 04:51
I’m not you know, I always think of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, that cynical Zionist thinker, who said when we got the Kotel, they’re gonna put some lights on it and it’s going to become the diskotel. But anyway, here we are. And we’re in Genesis. And what I want to do is even though the story of Rachel dying by and being buried on the side of the road is a parsha ahead of us, as I said, it’s foreshadowed here. And so what we have, and you’re going to talk about it this coming Shabbat, is this question of the switch between Leah and Rachel under the wedding canopy. And I am going to talk about two or three episodes in our Parsha, where there was a little bit of foreshadowing of what was going to be unique about both Rachel and then possibly what’s unique about her burial. So in Genesis 29: 25, it says, When morning came meaning the morning after Jacob thought he was being married to Rachel. Oops, there was Leah. So he said to Laban, what is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel, why did you deceive me. And Rashi quotes, the midrashic interpretation, which says that at night, he didn’t realize it was not Rachel. He didn’t realize it wasn’t Rachel, because Jacob had given Rachel certain secret signs by which they could at all times recognize one another. And when Rachel saw that they were about to bring Leah to him for the marriage ceremony, she thought, my sister may now be put to shame. And she therefore readily transmitted the signs to her. So here in this version of the story, and we might see that there were other versions, first of all, Jacob was aware of what could happen, Rachel was aware of what could happen, they knew the cast of characters, and Jacob took the initiative and says, Make this certain sign, and I’ll know it’s you, even if you under the thickest veil that could be and she at the last minute had pity on her sister, who would thereby be embarrassed, and she gave the signs to her sister. So I think from this perspective, this is something that’s kind of complimentary to Rachel, would you not think I mean, we have this concept against embarrassing somebody. And here, Rachel comes on puts that before everything.
Adam Mintz 07:29
There’s no question that that Midrashic tradition defends Rachel, it makes Rachel the Righteous One.
Geoffrey Stern 07:36
And and, you know, as I was thinking about it, and I was actually talking to my wife about this earlier today, if you think about the role that women have taken so far in Genesis, I mean, if it wasn’t for Eve, you know, we’d still be sitting, contemplating Nirvana in Gan Eden, if it wasn’t for Sarah, it would have been Ishmael not Isaac. The same goes for Rivka. There’s one thing that gets attributed to the women our matriarchs more than anything else. It’s this decisive action. I think that’s kind of fascinating, isn’t it?
Adam Mintz 08:14
Very fascinating. And here, and here, in this week’s parsha, you have the same thing. Even though it’s a little less clear with Rachel and Leah, exactly who does good and what everybody is doing. It’s not entirely clear.
Geoffrey Stern 08:28
We’re gonna see in a second that it gets a little murky. So later in the Parsha in Genesis 30, Reuben, one of the sons, I, one of Leah’s children, is out in the field, and he brings out some mandrakes, which I understand are maybe an aphrodisiac to his mom. And Leah said to her, was it not that you take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes? So Rachel asks for the mandrakes and Leah accuses her you know, you have my husband, he loves you more. He sleeps with you. And now you want the mandrakes too and Rachel replied, I promise he shall lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes so she in a way parlays the mandrakes…. I guess she wants this aphrodisiac because she’s having issues bearing a child and she trades that for a night with her husband. And Rashi comments on this saying because she thought lightly of companionship with so righteous a man. She was not privileged to be buried together with him. So now already we’re seeing Rashi bringing up Midrashim, who are starting to pin the blame on Rachel and explain why she deserved to be buried on the side of the road. What do you make of it?
Adam Mintz 10:00
Yeah, that’s interesting, meaning that she’s punished. You see, that’s why I’m saying it’s murky. The other thing that’s murky is about Leah. You know, Leah seems to kind of be snobby towards Rachel, because she has four children, and then six children. And Rachel has no children. And it seems like Rachel is helpless, but Leia doesn’t seem to care. So that’s also a problem with the whole story. There’s the role of Rachel and Leah seems to go back and forth and forth and back.
Geoffrey Stern 10:37
Absolutely. But where was Leia buried was?
Adam Mintz 10:42
Leah, was buried in the cave of Machpela.
Geoffrey Stern 10:44
Okay, so that is kind of interesting. But where we don’t need to go to the Midrash anymore. We go now to Genesis 31: 19. So Jacob has worked another seven years, and he’s got nothing. He’s got two beautiful wives. He’s got 11 kids at that time. And he says, give me something for all these years, and they come up with this scheme…. long story short, he works out so that he has enough to move out of the house. And as he’s leaving. Meanwhile, Laban had gone to shear his sheep and Rachel stole her father’s household idols. So they’re packing up to leave. And Rachel takes her father’s idols. And then as I even intimated last week, Laban catches up with them as they head to the border. And I he accuses Jacob of a lot of things, including he said, Why did you steal my gods, and if I knew my Greek mythology better, I would know who to refer to, but Jacob says, but anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive, he is so sure that no one in his camp would have stolen these Terephim, these household idols that he swears that whoever sold them will die.
Adam Mintz 12:26
Of course, he’s predicting that Rachel will die.
Geoffrey Stern 12:29
Sure, as, Rashi says, in consequence of this curse, Rachel died on the journey. And that’s not Rashi, he’s quoting Genesis Rabbah. So here we have it. All of this foreboding stuff, which is blaming Rachel for certain things, and in a sense, trying to explain what happens at the end, which is in next week’s parshah. Genesis 35 as they set out to Bethel, some distance short of Efrat. Rachel was in childbirth and she had hard labor. …. and of course we know hard labor. It brings us back to Eve who was cursed to have hard labor because of her sin. When her labor was at its hardest the midwife said to her have no fear for it as another boy for you. goes on to say this Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אֶפְרָ֔תָה now Bethlehem says the Torah. So it’s saying even up to this day, over her grave Jacob set up a pillar. It is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. עַד־הַיּֽוֹם. So here we have full circle, we start the parsha with Yaakov falling to sleep on a bunch of stones, then the stones become one we have all that Midrash he wakes up and he finds out it’s a holy place. That’s the holiest place that’s where the temple was built. And here we have in our parsha the foreshadowing of an event where Rachel we buried on the side of a road, you could say in an unmarked grave, but it is marked and it’s marked.
Adam Mintz 14:22
It doesn’t say unmarked, right. It’s a marked grave it’s marked
And it goes out of its way to say that it was marked by Jacob with a pillar. And the interesting thing is the Midrashim say that each of Jacob’s sons took a stone and put it on the grave 11 stones for the 11 tribes. And then Jacob went ahead and put a stone on top, a larger stone and these were the 12 stones. So you almost have the same type of correspondence, if you will, to making the site of the temple holy. Here they make the site of Rachel’s Tomb holy.
Geoffrey Stern 14:55
So I was always kind of interested and it kind of piqued my curiosity about what became so special about Rachel’s Tomb that gave it such a high profile. And then the interesting thing is, if you go a little bit further on, we start to get into the pathos. So, when Jacob is asking Joseph, to make sure he is buried in the Land, it’s an amazing pasuk. It says וַאֲנִ֣י ׀ with a major stop, he said, I, and then it goes on. When I was returning from Paddam, Rachel died to my sorrow while I was journeying in the land of Canaan, when still some distance short of Efrat, I buried her there on the road to Efrat now, Bethlehem. So Jacob, in his old age, when he’s asking Joseph to promise him to bury him in the land of Israel, he has this kind of confession, and Rashi, beautifully fills in the blanks. He says, I know that in your heart, you feel some resentment against me. Jacob is saying to Joseph, know, however, that I buried her there by the command of God and the future prove that God had commanded him to do this in order that she might help her children when Nebuchadnezzar would take them into captivity. So now all of a sudden, we have two themes. One is the guilt and the pathos that Jacob feels for not burying his wife in the the kever Hamachpela that his grandfather Abraham bought for Sarah, and the other is saying that God commanded him to do this because Rachel has a specific mission. She would be there as the exiled Jews were leaving Land of Israel, going to Babylonia. And of course that harkens to Jeremiah 31. Which says that said the Lord, a cry is heard in Ramah, wailing, better weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted. רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ, and then it says at the end that declares God, they shall return from the enemy’s land, and there is hope for our future. וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁ֥בוּ בָנִ֖ים לִגְבוּלָֽם. And your children shall return to their country. So all of a sudden now in both Jeremiah and in the Midrashim, who pick up on this, now Rachel becomes this beacon to the exiled Jews. It’s a major metamorphosis. But the question is, does she lose any of the baggage? Or how do you integrate that baggage into it?
Adam Mintz 14:55
Right. Well, the first interesting thing is that the idea that she’s going to be there to welcome the children home, that’s not in the Torah. That is only from the book of Jeremiah. So from the Torah, you don’t really have that. You don’t know that tradition. He does for sure.
Geoffrey Stern 18:34
Absolutely. Well, when you say, the Torah, let’s talk about Jeremiah for a second. So, Jeremiah and Rachel, you know, if it wasn’t for this third holy spot in the world, if I had asked you who is the most important matriarch, you know, you would go down a list you would say, Sarah, you might say, Esther, Rachel is, you know, not. Anything that she did was not that extraordinary. But here maybe because of Jeremiah, where it says Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted. So you know, the question is, and it’s clearly in Jeremiah’s day he was aware of the link to the exile, Jeremiah after all wrote Lamentations he was that Navi the Prophet of the exile. So he clearly makes the connection, does he not? So what’s interesting is not everybody bought into that connection. So last week, we talked about Aramaic and the Targum, the Aramaic translation, the Targum Yonatan on that actually erases Rachel from it, and instead says בִּמְרַר יְרוּשְׁלֵם מְבַכְיָא עַל בְּנָהָא, he replaces Jerusalem with Rachel. He is more focused on the Roma, our cry is heard in Ramah in the high place. But in some of the research that I did, rabbi and this was what was fascinating to me, it was saying how this growth of Rachel as this, you can almost say, like a statue of liberty, the Jewish Statue of Liberty, the woman who cries for her exiled children, or even cries for mothers who are having trouble having children, this developed over time, and maybe there was even a little bit of resistance to it. And maybe that’s what we saw in some of those negative Midrashim, who was saying, in a sense, that she deserved it. But it’s not clear. And you, I think, kind of intimated this, when you say it’s not in the Torah. This was not something that was clear in the Torah, that Rachel was to be the mother of the exiles, and that her resting place was to be that beacon.
Adam Mintz 21:07
That’s correct. So I think what we’re really doing is we’re conflating we’re combining two different traditions of Rachel, there’s one tradition of Rachel is the beloved wife of Jacob, who kind of lives a tragic life. And she’s the only one in the entire Book of Genesis, who dies in childbirth, when you think about that, that’s a big deal to die in childbirth, probably happened all the time in the ancient world, but we don’t know about it. It’s the only time in the Torah, that we know about it. Isn’t that interesting? So she’s tragic. But then in Jewish tradition and Jewish lore in Jeremiah, this tragic figure, becomes the one who’s waiting for us, the one who’s greeting us when we come back, that’s the most beloved, she’s there to give us a hug.
Geoffrey Stern 22:01
Yes, absolutely. So where this tradition and the pathos really takes off, is I mentioned that Jeremiah was the author of Eicha; of Lamentations in Eichah Rabbah, the Midrashic interpretation of Eicha it has a petichta, an introduction, it’s a very long introduction, many people feel it was even added at a later date. And as the Jewish people are being exiled, one by one, all of the great patriarchs come in front of God, to plead a case not to exile them. First comes Abraham, then comes Isaac, then comes Jacob, then we go to Moses, and in the source sheet on Sefira, I’ve included the whole text because it’s fill of arguments and pathos, and nothing is getting through. Until finally, at that moment, Rachel our matriarch interjected, and then she goes into a whole recounting of what she did. And fascinatingly, she changes the story that Rashi quoted earlier, slightly, where she doesn’t have Jacob giving her the signs, she actually gave Jacob the signs, minor change, but again, making her more of the protagonist. And then she goes on to say, how could you exile these people, and to me, and this is a punch line that I saw that I haven’t seen many of the commentaries bringing up. It says, You who are a living in eternal merciful King, why were you jealous of idol worship that was no substance? See, brings up the fact that she took the Teraphim, she took the household gods from her father. And she says, in a sense, why are you being so tough on my children, and that is a point that I haven’t seen before, where she almost leverages the various things that she had done and maybe been criticized for and she leverages them into an argument for her children, who, as any mother would rightly say, are not perfect. And I think this Midrash is extremely famous in terms of the ethos and the history of making the tomb of Rachel into and Rachael herself, this patron saint of the rejected and despised and the exiled.
Adam Mintz 24:48
I think that you just set it up really nicely. And you know, that’s the question, and that is how did she become the patron saint of the exiled, the forgotten, the exiled. And part of it goes back to the fact that we’re sympathetic towards Rachel, that she loses her husband at the beginning. Right? So she is the tragic figure. And she doesn’t have children. Now again, it’s not all so simple, because she’s obviously not as passive as all that she takes the teraphim. Right? She’s the one she’s very much active. She’s the one who basically pushes Jacob out of her father’s house. Now, Is she angry at her father? Because her father trick, you know, tricked her and didn’t give her to Jacob? Is that why she steals the teraphim? Nobody says that. But is that interesting, right? Is that a possibility? Maybe that’s why she steals the terapham.
Geoffrey Stern 25:49
Yes, but I would also argue based on this Midrash, and this is not an old Midrash I don’t believe I do really believe there was added to Eicha Rabba. What this is trying to say is that she was like saying, you know, maybe what I did wasn’t totally right. Maybe I couldn’t wean myself 100% away from idolatry. But can’t you excuse a god that has no substance. And if you read it in this context, it’s really fascinating. What kind of argument is, that, to me is the takeaway, and it gives a whole new light on the teraphim as well, their household gods. What’s fascinating is what else happens in the later commentaries. So there’s a sefer called a sefer hayashar, and we’re talking the 13,00s. And it talks about when Joseph or son was sold to the Midianites. And they take them out of the pit, and they’re walking towards Egypt. And it’s a beautiful story, I encourage you to read it in the Sefira notes. Joseph gets off of the camel, when he sees the rocks next to the side of the road. And he cries, it’s the first exile, מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, it’s the first time we’re going down to Egypt, and he cries on his mother’s tomb. What’s fascinating is that this identical tradition is in Islam. We had a few weeks ago, where we have the tradition of Abraham visiting Hagar. Here, we have another one of these parallels between Islamic Midrashim and Jewish Midrashim. And in a sense, it also gives us an insight into how Rachel I mean, you were saying in the beginning, that one of the reasons why we think we know or at least there’s a consensus of where Rachel’s Tomb is, is you said, because Arabs come to it, Muslims come to it. When I was in Morocco, if you went to a Jewish shrine of a saint, there might be a Muslim there, and vice versa. There’s this tradition of going to a holy person’s grave. But what’s fascinating is, Rachel became almost the mother to any exile and the pathos of the story became available for all of Abraham’s children.
Adam Mintz 28:20
I think that’s right. You really have done a very nice job in weaving together the different traditions of Rachel and trying to make a story out of them. Even though actually in the Torah itself, that story, isn’t there. This story is a combination of different layers. You said something interesting when you said that the pesikta, the introduction to Eicha was a later. That’s what most scholars think that it was later. Now, that’s fascinating that it was later meaning that that was only added that piece which took turns the whole thing around. Right That that was only added later that wasn’t there as part of the original.
Geoffrey Stern 29:02
Yeah. Yep. It is really something that developed over time. And there are some monographs that I read that really until Moses Montefiore somehow was fixated …..his wife was childless and he renovated the Kever Rahel. It wasn’t that big of a deal. It was almost a local shrine that people from Jerusalem would go to. There’s a monograph that I quote that talks about pilgrimages, and, and of course, Christians went there, too. There were operas that were written about this story of Joseph crying on the stone, there were paintings that were painted… classical paintings that were done on this. Clearly, all of a sudden Rachel and I and I named the episode in terms of Mother Rachel comes to me where John Lennon wrote about His mother Mary, but of course we all think of Mary, Jesus’s Mother, this kind of woman figure, that through understanding the pains of giving birth and understanding of the love that only a mother can have for her child became this much bigger symbol and ultimately; we’ll close here. And I’ve quoted in the notes how it was used in this opera and elsewise, but for the Zionists, the early Zionists, they also took Rachel, where she wasn’t so much there, to give assuage and to give comfort to the exiles, as they were departing. All of a sudden she became a beacon to welcoming the Jews back to their home back to the womb, so to speak. And that was the final kind of metamorphosis of it. And to me, it’s a fascinating story of the history of not only an idea, the history of a personality, but the history also of a place and if we have to make a place holy, why shouldn’t it be the place where people can make the association with the love that only a mother can have?
Adam Mintz 31:17
I think that’s beautiful. Thank you so much for putting this together. Shabbat Shalom to everybody. We look forward to seeing you next week. Be well Shabbat Shalom,
Geoffrey Stern 31:27
Wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and see you all next week.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/449816
Listen to last year’s Parshat Vayetzei podcast: HaMakom – Place / No Place