- Weekly D'var Torah
Parshat VaYishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:41): Tributes to an Aunt and a Niece
The Two Influences in Ya’acov’s Life - Rivka (mother) and Rachel (wife)
This Shabbat is a very special one for me. Yes, this Shabbat’s Torah reading, VaYishlach, is my Bar Mitzvah portion. Since my Bar Mitzvah, I have been blessed to have read it from the Torah in synagogue nearly every year. It is also significant for me because of what happens in one of its narratives.
At the beginning of Parshat VaYishlach, Ya’acov starts his journey back to Eretz Yisrael to his father’s house after 20 years. For a long time, I could not understand why Ya’acov suddenly decides to return to his father’s home. What inspired him to come to this decision? Was it the birth of Yoseph, his son by his beloved wife Rachel? His loving mother Rivka had promised him that she would call him only when it was safe to return from up north in Haran. Only when his brother Esav’s anger had abated could he safely return home without fear. She never directly let him know. It was Rivka who had been behind Ya’acov receiving Esav’s bracha—material blessing. It would be two decades before Ya’acov would actually make his way back to his parents’ home.
Yet Ya’acov, the son who dwelt in tents, left home with no possessions, and was now returning with not only many material gains but also with a large family including four wives, 11 sons, a daughter and many flocks, herds and servants. Perhaps this was part of the fulfillment of the bracha that his father bestowed upon him, or in fact Ya’acov was returning in order to fulfill the other Abrahamic - bechira - blessing that his numerous descendants would be given, Eretz Yisrael. This Abrahamic line would go through him. Ya’acov had the responsibility to make this happen. He, albeit reluctantly, was ready to fight his brother Esav if necessary. Ya’acov was fully aware that he was taking a chance. His family was at risk of being attacked, which could end in tragedy. But there is a hint that in fact Rivka was in the process of letting Ya’acov return, through her maid servant Devorah (Genesis 35:8). She suddenly passed away while she was with Ya’acov. According to the commentator Rashi, quoting Moshe HaDrashan, Devorah, Rivka’s handmaiden, was with Ya’acov in order to relay this news. She dies and is buried by Ya’acov. Devorah had been with Ya’acov in order to inform him, so that he could return home. Eventually, Ya’acov and Esav came together to bury their father—despite their differences—as brothers with their own families, possessions and promised lands. The last time Rivkah is directly involved in the Torah narrative, we are informed that she is the mother of both Ya’acov and Esav (28:5), which implied that she was a motherly figure in the lives of both her sons.
During the journey home, in the city of Beit Lechem (Bethlehem) Rachel, his beloved wife gives birth to their second son Binyamin, but she dies after childbirth (35:19). Rachel is a tragic figure, who would play a role in the future of the Jewish People. Her name would appear throughout the Tanach.
When focusing on both Rivka and Rachel we have to realize a number of aspects as to why they were not only women active in Ya’acov’s life, but also two matriarchs and motherly figures in the development of the Israelite nation and ultimately the Jewish People:
- Rivka was Lavan’s sister and Rachel his daughter. Both were seen as moral women despite the evil influences of Lavan.
- Both were led to their loving husbands, in different ways, at a well, which contained pure water.
- Both loved Ya’acov and were major forces in his life.
- Both had painful infertility issues and died before Ya’acov.
- Both were matriarchs of the Jewish People, who were role models. They were strong women who loved their families and were proactive throughout their lives. Rivka made sure that Ya’acov would be given the household bracha, while Rachel, who despite having fertility issues, was loyal to Ya’acov and the family. She would be buried at the entrance to Beit Lechem and was seen as the matriarch who weeped for the children of Israel to return home to Eretz Yisrael. I am sure both Rivka and Rachel were close, especially when they were growing up together in Haran, despite their evil brother and father Lavan.
- Both performed acts of gemilut chassadim, acts of lovingkindness. Rivka would feed the camels of Eliezer while Rachel showed both hachnassat orchim, hospitality and hakarat hatov (recognizing Ya’acov’s courage and kindness) at the wells beside their family home.
In all of the above narratives we see our ancestors being proactive in the lives of their families. They make "things" happen for the good of everyone around them.
While Parshat VaYishlach was my Bar Mitzvah portion from many moons ago, my other personal connection to it is that I also lost my mother after she gave birth to my sister. Despite knowing her for the first three years of my life, my mother’s influence was always evident through the stories my cousins and her many siblings relayed to me. I know my late mother Esther still lives in both me and my sister. We were also blessed that my father would remarry, to a wonderful person, Miriam. She stepped into our biological mother’s shoes and helped bring both of us up. Both our mothers, Miriam and Esther, were equally influential in our lives as were Rivka and Rachel in the lives of Ya’acov, Esav, Yoseph and Benjamin. We sometimes take for granted the positive influences our parents and siblings have in our lives. This parsha, for me, is a wake up call. I must never forget where I am from and the upbringing that I was blessed to receive from a loving, caring, family and community.
B’vracha and Shabbat Shalom.