Isn't it strange that Jacob would change his son's name from the one chosen by his beloved wife in such desperate circumstances? And why do we read in the next verse: "And Rachel died, and was buried on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem" (35:28)? After all, Efrat is barely 15 miles from Hebron, the ancestral burial place. Why not travel the extra distance and bury her together with the Abrahamic family, so she would eventually lie next to the husband who loved her so deeply?
I believe that herein lies a profound message about the significance of Efrat as well as the personality of Rachel.
With her dying breath, Rachel names her second son Ben-Oni. The Hebrew word oni can mean travail, as in the onan state of mourning - the period between the death and burial of a close relative - or it can mean strength, as in Jacob's blessing of his first-born son Reuben: "You are my first-born, my power and the first of my strength [oni]..." (Genesis 49:3). Rachel's choice of name was therefore a double entendre: "son of my travail" or "son of my strength."
Jacob wishes to place the most positive interpretation on the name. He also adds the nuance, "son of my right hand," since Rachel was the true source of his strength as well as his right-hand partner and soul mate.
I believe, however, that there is an even more profound meaning to Jacob's choice. It would seem that Rachel died on the road to Efrat because she had stolen Laban's household gods, and Jacob - never dreaming that his wife was the culprit - had vowed to Laban: "The one with whom the gods shall be found, that person shall not live" (Genesis 31:32, and see Rashi ad loc).
Why would Rachel steal the gods? Rashi maintains that it was to prevent Laban from worshiping idols - but then logic dictates that she should have destroyed them! Apparently she held onto them during the journey, and hid them from her father when Laban conducted his search.
So what was Rachel doing with them?
Noted archeologist/historian Cyrus Gordon cites the custom of the Mari and Nuzu tribes of the Fertile Crescent during the period of our Patriarchs: parents would bequeath the household gods to the heir who was to receive the birthright and the major portion of the inheritance. Apparently when Jacob married Leah and Rachel, Laban had no adult sons; that's why Jacob shepherded the flocks and developed the herds. But by the time Jacob left Laban almost two decades later, the younger sons had grown up and become jealous of their brother-in-law (Genesis 31:12).
Laban had certainly expected to leave the household gods - and the inheritance - to the eldest of his sons. Rachel, however, correctly understood that it was her husband Jacob - the eldest of the generation, albeit a son-in-law and not a son - who was responsible for Laban's phenomenal success as a herdsman, and who therefore deserved the major portion of the inheritance. That was why she stole the household gods.
In this respect, Rachel echoed her mother-in-law Rebekah. First of all, she believed that the religious birthright (which was already Jacob's) must be coupled with the material blessing of her father's inheritance; Torah needs an economic infrastructure in order to sanctify the world. And secondly, although she certainly expressed the compassionate voice and soul of Jacob, as when she gave over the secret signs to Leah so as not to cause her elder sister embarrassment under the nuptial canopy, she didn't shrink from assuming "the hands of Esau" in order to procure for her family what she deemed was rightfully theirs.
With this in mind, is it not possible that Jacob gave the name "son of my right hand" to their son, born at the moment of his beloved wife's punishment for stealing the household gods, for two reasons: yes, Rachel was his right hand, the source of his love and resiliency, but Rachel was also his right hand in the sense that it was his right hand which he had encased with hirsute strength and aggression when he stole his rightful blessings, as well as in the sense of the right hand that she had employed to steal the household gods. And she met her death - and Jacob would be hounded until his own grave - as a result of the sin which each of them had committed, despite the logic behind their acts.
Why was Rachel buried on the way to Efrat, a city between Hebron and Jerusalem, and not in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Cave of the Couples) in Hebron? Hebron was where our history can be said to have begun - the city of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Jerusalem - the City of Peace, to which all nations will flock to accept a God of Peace - is where our history will culminate. Efrat is thus the bridge between past and future, between vision and realization. It is the verdant yet rocky road leading to Redemption. This path to Redemption is paved with dreams and disappointments, commitments and concessions, high-minded ideals and shattered illusions. And in a yet-imperfect world, although the ends never justify the means, achievement of the ends often requires less-than-perfect means: wars, in which (even in the most necessary of conflicts) innocent people are killed, cruel acts are perpetrated, and deceptions, which - even if done for the sake of heaven - remain deceptions.
In an imperfect world, wherein one must struggle for redemption, one must sometimes perpetrate imperfect acts - and suffer the consequences. This I believe is the price which Rebekah pays (she is never mourned by her sons), and which Jacob and Rachel must pay along the road to Efrat on the difficult but glorious march toward Redemption.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.