Rachel was the youngest of her sisters – the weak-eyed Leah, of course, and also Bilhah and Zilpah, who shared Rachel and Leah’s father Laban but who, as daughters of a concubine, were themselves destined for lives as servants. Known for her beauty, Rachel worked as a shepherdess for her father’s flocks, it was not an easy job as the place where the sheep were watered was blocked by a large stone – but it was made easier by the fact that there always seemed to be some strong male shepherds around to roll it away. It was at this well that Rachel met Jacob, that she received her first kiss, and that she brought back to camp the man who would change her life forever – or, you might say, simply enabled her to fulfill her destiny.
Rachel and Jacob’s life together was not a storybook tale. There is first the problem that we never actually learn from the Bible how Rachel felt about the man who had fallen so deeply in love with her. Clearly her loyalty to her sister – or at least her sense of kindness and fairness – was greater: It is well-known that after Jacob had toiled seven years in order to earn the right to marry Rachel, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah. What is less well-known is that Jacob had anticipated Laban’s subterfuge and given Rachel secret signals in advance of the wedding. When it came time to consummate the marriage, Jacob would ask for the signs – and if his bride failed to respond, he would know that the bride was not Rachel. So what did Rachel do? Unwilling to sacrifice the dignity of her sister, Rachel taught Leah the signals – and in so doing, ensured that there would be four mothers of Israel instead of only one.
Upon discovering the ruse, Jacob still sought Rachel as a wife; and the wedding took place as soon as Leah’s bridal week had ended – probably not the best timing for Leah’s self-esteem, but that is a story for another time. Though unquestionably the favored wife, Rachel seemed unable to carry a child – and she grew so frustrated watching Leah bear son after son that she feared she might die. For all of his professed love for Rachel, Jacob reacted with defensiveness and anger to her plight; so Rachel decided to follow the example of Jacob’s grandmother Sarah, and became a mother through her handmaid Bilhah.
It seems that the desire for children rather than the desire for Jacob was what destroyed the relationship between Rachel and her sisters; only after the childbearing escalates into a dangerous contest among the women does their care for one another evaporate. But out of this contest emerge the twelve tribes of Israel – and Jacob’s most beloved sons Joseph and Benjamin. They are the only biological children of Jacob and Rachel, and they will cost their parents dearly: The disappearance of the first steals Jacob’s life-force, and the birth of the second steals Rachel’s very life.
Perishing in childbirth on the road to Efrat, Rachel is buried outside Beit-Lehem – far from the cave in which lie the other patriarchs and matriarchs, and Adam and Eve themselves. But her grave does not remain lonely forever; generations of her descendants, exiled from a burning and weeping Jerusalem, pass it on their way out of the sacred city; and it is only when Rachel lifts her voice in accusation against God, reminding God of her own self-effacement to save the honor of her sister, that God promises someday to bring Rachel’s children home.
Women today assemble at the tomb of Rachel; like her, they seek the blessing of children. And women and men alike invoke her name in prayer; like her, they choose loyalty and kindness and fairness even at the cost of their own happiness. And in calling upon Rachel, we echo the voices of our ancestors; like her, they died along the way, and waited to be honored by future generations.
Zecher imenu l’vracha. May the memory of our mother Rachel be an eternal blessing.