Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Vayishlach
To dedicate this lesson

Rachel Imeinu: The Mother Who Never Stops

In honor of our Matriarch Rachel, about whom we learn in this week's Torah portion of Vayishlah, we present a collection of thoughts on what she stands for, and what all mothers stand for.


Rabbi Shimon Cohen

Kislev 15 5782
Symbol of Motherhood
Yaakov had four wives and many children, but Rachel – who did not have children for several years – played a very central role in his home. The Midrash teaches: "Rachel was the main pillar of the house, as is written, 'Rachel was barren, akarah' – from the same root as ikarah, primary."
Yaakov explained to Rachel that the fact that she is akarah doesn't mean that she is not ikarah, a primary component of the home; on the contrary. But this did not console Rachel; without her own children, she does not feel like a true partner in the building of the House of Yaakov: "Grant me children, and if not, I am dead" (B'reshit 30,1). Rachel is willing to give her life for her motherhood. We have four Matriarchs – Sarah, Rivka, Leah and Rachel – but among them, the one we see as the symbol of motherhood is none other than Rachel. She merited to be known as Mama Ruchel – and not for naught.
Woman's Two Purposes
One of the major commentaries on Rashi, by 15 th -century Rav Yitzchak Arama, explains that the two terms by which Eve was known – ishah (woman, wife) and em kol chai (mother of all human life) indicate the two functions of Woman. He writes that the Torah explains why she is called ishah in this verse: "for she was taken from the ish, the man" (B'reshit 2,23), clearly indicating that her role is to be a wife to her husband and a homemaker, "as evidenced from the Eshet Chayil passage, Proverbs 31." And the second function, he continues, "is that of procreation and being a vehicle thereof as well as raising the children, as is evidenced by Eve's Hebrew name Chava, given to her because she was em kol chai, "mother of all life" (3,23)."
Thus, Rav Arama explains, the word ishah has to do with the manly parts of her mission and aspirations: she builds a home with her husband and she is part of the spiritual completion of the home; this is the first part. And the second part of her mission in life, as we have seen, is connected with her motherhood.
If a woman does not give birth, for whatever reason, this aspect of her mission is withdrawn from her, and she will be left to be, for better or worse, like a man who has no children – about whom is written, 'and the eunuch shall not say, 'I am a dry tree'" , but rather, 'I will give them in My house and within My walls a memorial better than sons and daughters' (Yeshayahu 56,3-5). This is so because certainly the main issue of righteous people is their good deeds. And this is why Yaakov was upset at Rachel when she said, "Give me children…" – he wished to rebuke and teach her this important matter, that she is not "dead" for having no children, but rather has a similar life mission as a man who has no children."
True, the Talmud (Nedarim p. 64) says that a man without children is considered, in some way, as dead (just like one who is blind, indigent, or leprous). But this is referring to the fact that his name will not be passed down on this earth.
Rav Arama thus explains that a person's good deeds are a greater legacy than offspring, and in fact are his primary offspring. Rachel Imeinu felt that if she cannot actualize her motherhood, she has no purpose. But Yaakov assured her that there is life even beyond the concept of children, and that given the very fact of a mutual construction with her husband, and that she is an isha alongside an ish, she fulfills a very significant part of her mission in this world.
Non-Stop Mother
Rachel died while she and Yaakov and family were "on the road" (B'reshit 48,7), and she was buried in Bethlehem. In Parashat Vayehi, we read that Yaakov apologized to Yosef for not having buried Rachel in the Mahpelah Cave. Rashi adds that Yaakov explained that he did this by Divine command, in order that Rachel play an eternal role of mother to the Jewish Nation, crying and praying for mercy for them when they pass by her gravesite on their way into Exile after the destruction of the First Temple.
The Straight and True – Hidden in Motherhood
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his work "The Foundations of Education," teaches us the etymological secrets found within the concept of "Mother:"
"Em (mother) is from the same root as im (if), because motherhood is the basic condition of the child's physical, spiritual and ethical essence. Adam did not give his wife - "mother of all life" - the name Chaya, which would mean "giving physical life," but rather Hava (as in yehaveh da'at, Psalms 19,3), which indicates "giving spiritual life."
"Similarly, G-d said to Avraham Avinu that he should not call his wife, the first mother in Israel, by the name Sarai, from the root meaning "to govern, to rule." Rather, he should call her Sarah, from the same root as mesurah, meaning "measure." That is, the mother educates her children to have delicate senses and emotions, and sets the correct measure for ethics and proper behavior. The spiritual and ethical character of the mother, and her influence, are the point of gravity of education for spirituality and ethics."
Rav Hirsch continues to say that "Hava" is from the same root as lah'vot, which "to experience." The mother, he writes, "grants spiritual life and teaches her children to take spiritual experiences and give them their correct importance. Not always do we know what is the correct emotional response or experience for a given situation: when should we get very excited, when should we be amazed, etc. The special experience of life itself must pluck the most delicate cords of our soul, so that we feel every movement and change, and know how to relate to it appropriately. The mother is she who gives us "proportionality," the appropriate emotion and feeling."
The Books of the Prophets speak of the various Kings of Israel and Judea. Whenever the Scriptures note that the King "acted justly" or "was evil," they always include his mother's name. Clearly, this is to emphasize that one's behavior is largely rooted in the way his mother raised him. His mother's bosom where he nursed, the tone of voice she used when talking to him, her expressions and touch – all of these imbued within her young son's heart the ideas and notions that later brought her adult son to behave with kindness and righteousness, or the opposite.
King Shlomo gave his mother Batsheva a permanent seat to his right (see Kings I 2,19) – because it was she who taught him the wisdom of royalty, and warned him against mistakes that could be made while governing. Precisely because he did not always adhere to his mother's warning, his kingdom ultimately collapsed.
The Ultimate Mother
As stated, our Matriarch Rachel was the ultimate mother. She understands that one can have a deep spiritual and values-based world even without having children, but she senses that she is missing the "main thing." She believes that in order to build a complete world of spirit and values, she must be able to actualize her ability to give. The mother grants her children warmth and love, and takes care of all their needs.
Rachel teaches us the value of children: "Grant me children, and if not, I am dead!" She wants to serve G-d in the most complete manner, and to bring to fruition not only her ishah (wife, woman) aspects, but also her em kol chai (mother of all life) facets. She even continues to fulfill her mission after her death, remaining along the road to "cry for her children, refusing to be consoled" (Yirmiyahu 31,14) for all generations until the Redemption.
Ingathering the Exiles - In Rachel's Merit
In the merit of Rachel's amazing self-sacrifice and dedication for her children throughout the generations, she was also privileged to be the vehicle by which the final Redemption will come about. So says G-d to Rachel: "For you, Rachel, I am returning Israel to its place" (Medrash Eichah Rabba).
The Ingathering of the Exiles of Israel happens in Rachel's merit. But throughout the years before this, before Israel reaches its complete Redemption, Rachel feels it – and worries, cries, and prays. Even after her death, "Rachel is weeping over her children" (Yirmiyahu 31,14).
When a person is frightened by something, the universal reaction is to cry out: "Mommy! Imaleh!" It doesn't matter how old the person's mother might be. She could be 99, or more, or already deceased – but a mother remains a mother forever!
There is a special phrase that the greatest of our Talmudic sages use to indicate an important message that they learned: "My mother told me." This wonderful expression, which appears several times in the Gemara, boosts the importance of mother's word. It accompanies us throughout all generations, and teaches us to listen to the voice of the mother "heard in Ramah," that which remains "along the way," looking forward to the days when "Rachel's reward will be paid in full and all her sons will return to their borders." [The emphasized phrases in this passage are based on the classic verses of Yirmiyahu 31.]

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