OverviewRachel, often referred to as "רחל אמנו", has long served as a symbol of motherhood, being a source of hope and comfort to countless women struggling to have children. Her story is told in but seven chapters in Sefer Bereshit, a story filled with heartache and tragedy. The narrative focuses mostly around her family life, Yaakov's love, her burning desire to have children, and her rivalry with Leah, making it difficult to capture the full essence of Rachel's character. The page below will nonetheless attempt to draw a portrait of Rachel, looking at the many challenges she faced, at both her strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which these have been interpreted by commentators throughout the centuries.
The stories surrounding Rachel in Tanakh focus mainly on her interactions with Yaakov and Leah, highlighting the tension inherent in the family dynamic rather than Rachel's righteousness or character. Certain traits nonetheless stand out in the text, and Midrashic sources add others:
Of all the Matriarchs, Rachel is the one most associated with motherhood. Several factors might contribute to this:
- Pain of infertility – Though all the Matriarchs were barren, it is Rachel's despair over her infertility which is most blatant in the text. She is the only one to proclaim that without children her life is meaningless (Bereshit 30:1). Even when she finally bears Yosef, his name testifies both to the shame she had felt while barren and to her longing for more children (Bereshit 30:22-24).1
- Death in childbirth – Rachel dies while bearing Binyamin, making the ultimate sacrifice of a mother, giving her life for her child (Bereshit 35:16-18). The name she gives Binyamin, "בֶּן אוֹנִי", reflects this:
- Rashi and others2 suggest that the name means "sorrow",3 focusing on the distress Rachel felt when dying.
- Netziv notes that the word "און" can also mean "vigor".4 In the moment of death, Rachel expresses how she sacrificed her vitality for her son, giving him life at the expense of her own. The name might also be a prayer that her son find strength despite the sorrow. If so, with her last breath, Rachel thinks not of her own pain, but rather of the future of her child.
- Crying over her children – It is perhaps Yirmeyahu 31:14-16 and its poignant image of Rachel bitterly crying over her children in exile, which most captures Rachel in her role as mother.5 Even after her death, Rachel cries over her missing children, unable to be comforted, and the text implies that it is her tears and efforts6 which will lead Hashem to bring them back.
Though never mentioned in the Biblical text, Rachel's sensitivity to her sister's plight and her abundant selflessness feature prominently in several Midrashim.
- Tanchuma describes how Yaakov would send gifts to Rachel in his great love for her, but Lavan would instead give them to Leah. Rather than hurt her sister, Rachel bore all this in silence.
- Bavli Megillah 13b7 (and in greater detail, Eikhah Rabbah) posit that Rachel was privy to her father's plot to give Leah to Yaakov. Initially, she and Yaakov hoped to thwart the plan by setting up certain secret signs between them. However, on the wedding night, Rachel had compassion on her sister, shared the signs, and even hid under the bridal bed so that she could speak in her stead and fool Yaakov. Rachel prioritized her sister's pain over her own, not even knowing at the time that she would also be able to marry Yaakov.
Eikhah Rabbah presents Rachel as not only selfless, but also as strong-willed, with the confidence and tenacity to even stand up to Hashem in her efforts to protect her children. The Midrash presents various figures coming before Hashem in an effort to get him to forgive the people and return them from exile. No one succeeds until Rachel tells Hashem that if she was able to set aside her jealousy of her sister, why is Hashem jealous when the nation turns to idolatry? Hashem is moved and tells Rachel that, due to her, He will return the nation from exile.8
Like all of the Matriarchs, Rachel grew up in an idolatrous home. How did this affect her religious identity? Did she come to monotheism on her own or only after meeting Yaakov? Or, was she on a continuous journey towards belief throughout her life?
Relationship with Hashem
- In naming both of Bilhah's children and Yosef, Rachel mentions Hashem, either justifying His actions, thanking Him, or making requests of Him. When Yaakov consults with her and Leah regarding leaving Lavan, she tells him to do as God says (Bereshit 31:16). All this implies that Rachel thought of Hashem often.
- There are several incidents, however, where we might have expected to see Rachel turn to Hashem, and yet this is absent from the text. For example, she pleads with Yaakov to give her a child, yet we see no simultaneous prayer addressed to Hashem.9 Similarly, she asks for Leah's mandrakes, turning to natural (or magical) remedies for her barrenness rather than Divine ones.10
Taking the Terafim
Bereshit 31 describes Yaakov's flight from Lavan's house, noting that as the family left, Rachel took her father's terafim ("תְּרָפִים"). If these were a type of idol, why would Rachel have taken them? What does this deed teach about her religious standing? [For discussion of the theft itself, see below. For elaboration on the episode as a whole, see Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim.]
- Expression of strong belief – Bereshit Rabbah (and many others) suggest that the episode not only does not cast any shadow on Rachel, but actually highlights Rachel's righteousness, claiming that the theft was motivated by a desire to keep her father from worshiping idolatry.
- Unconnected to idolatry – Others claim that the terafim were either objects of divination11 or items believed to have powers to aid in fertility,12 thereby disconnecting them (and Rachel) from idolatry.
- Journey to belief – Ibn Ezra somewhat radically suggests that Rachel took the terafim because she (and the other wives and children) had learned idolatrous worship from her father and had not yet totally forsaken it. According to such a reading, monotheism was not a given for some of our ancestors, but rather only the final result of a long religious journey.
Marriage to Yaakov
Love of Yaakov
Yaakov's love for Rachel is emphasized repeatedly in the verses, with the fact mentioned explicitly three times (29:17, 20, 30), and the contrast to the unloved Leah further underscoring this point.13 Interestingly, though not explicit, the implication of the text is that Yaakov's love stemmed from the fact that Rachel was beautiful, rather than her inner qualities. See Radak who is bothered that this should have been a motivating factor.14 Some maintain that Rachel's outer beauty was simply a reflection of her inner self, and that this is what Yaakov loved.15
Despite Yaakov's love for Rachel, he is the only Patriarch about which the Torah records that he explicitly chastised his wife. When Rachel complains to Yaakov, "Give me children...", he does not respond with love and caring, but rather with anger. See the discussion below for approaches to understanding their exchange.
Rivalry with Leah
A simple reading of the text implies that Rachel and Leah's relationship was rife with strife, competition, and jealousy, leaving little room for friendship or love. However, not all agree, and several episodes which at first glance imply that there was rivalry between the sisters, have been explained in alternative ways:
Bereshit 30:1 explicitly mentions Rachel's envying of her sister ("וַתְּקַנֵּא רָחֵל בַּאֲחֹתָהּ"). However, some have suggested that this jealousy was not actively aimed at Leah, and, as such, need not have negatively affected the relationship.
- Thus, for example, Rashi suggests that Rachel was envious of her sister's good deeds, believing that it was Leah's righteousness which enabled her to have children while Rachel remained barren.
- R. D"Z Hoffmann similarly suggests that the envy described was simply Rachel's desire to find favor in Hashem's eyes as her sister had. This was not accompanied by a desire to put her sister down or for her sister to have less.
In naming her first three children (Reuven, Shimon, Levi), and again in naming her sixth, Leah explicitly expresses her distress and her desire to be loved by her husband.16 Rachel's naming of Yosef, in turn, expresses both the pain her barrenness had caused and her intense desire for more children.17
- Conflict – It is possible that these names betray a bitterness felt by each sister towards the other who had what they most desired.
- Pain – It should be noted, however, that neither sister blames or even addresses the other when naming these children; Rachel and Leah each simply express personal heartbreak.
Rachel's naming of Bilhah's children, however, might be an exception:
- Dan – Ibn Kaspi asserts that this name directly addresses the sibling rivalry, with Rachel claiming that the birth served to vindicate her and take revenge against her sister. In contrast, R"Y Bekhor Shor reads the name as expressing Rachel's acceptance of God's judgment and the decree of infertility, seeing in it no expression of ill will towards her sister at all.
- Naftali – Ibn Ezra understands the root "פתל" to mean to wrestle or struggle, seeing Rachel as explicitly mentioning her struggles with her sister. Targum Onkelos, however, relates the word to "תפילה", prayer, claiming that Rachel is simply thanking Hashem for heeding her prayers and providing a child like He had for Leah.
The story of the mandrakes similarly highlights the conflict between the sisters, as Rachel trades a night with Yaakov for Reuven's mandrakes.
- Many read Leah's initial reaction "is it not enough that you have taken my husband..." as not simply a cry of angst, but an angry accusation against Rachel whom she blames for her plight as an unloved wife.
- R. Hirsch and R. D"Z Hoffmann, in contrast, read the sister's exchange as one of playful jest, with no real anger on either side. R. Hirsch goes so far as to paint a portrait of friendly sisters sitting and joking together by day and taking turns with their husband by night.
"Give Me Children..."
In Bereshit 30:1, Rachel beseeches Yaakov, "Give me children; if not, I am dead!" Yaakov responds harshly, saying, "Am I in place of God who has kept from you fruit of the womb?" What did Yaakov find problematic about Rachel's words that he became so angry? Was Rachel's lament somehow misplaced, or is it Yaakov who was being insensitive?
- Rachel erred – Many commentators assume that Yaakov's anger was justified and that Rachel had erred:
- Radak and R. Avraham b. HaRambam18 explain that, in turning to Yaakov rather than Hashem, Rachel betrayed that she did not recognize that the matter was in Hashem's hands and not Yaakov's. She should have instead asked him to pray for her.
- Ramban,19 in contrast, assumes that Rachel had in fact asked that Yaakov pray to Hashem, but her mistake was is in viewing Yaakov's prayer as some type of automatic magical remedy. Yaakov was responding that even the prayers of the righteous are not always answered.
- Finally, Akeidat Yitzchak suggests that Rachel did not realize that her primary purpose in life was not simply to bear children, but to fill her life "בדברי שכל וחסידות". Her barrenness was not a reason to think her life was not worth living.
- Yaakov Erred – Bereshit Rabbah maintains that Yaakov's reaction was wrong, presenting Hashem as responding to Yaakov, "כך עונין את המעיקות?!"
- Misunderstanding – R"Y Bekhor Shor20 asserts that Yaakov misunderstood his wife, assuming that she was expecting him to somehow do what Hashem had not, while Rachel had meant only that he should take her maidservant and sire children from her so that Rachel could be their surrogate mother.
"וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל": Theft?
Bereshit 31 tells how Rachel stole ("וַתִּגְנֹב רָחֵל") her father's terafim ("תְּרָפִים") when they escaped from his home. The chapter provides neither a motivation nor a justification for Rachel's actions. What are terafim and why would Rachel want them? How are we to understand the theft?21 [For a full discussion, see Rachel's Stealing of the Terafim.]
- Justified – Many commentators maintain that Rachel's motives were pure and that the ends justified the means.
- Personal survival – Tanchuma and others suggest that terafim were used for divination and Rachel stole them so that her father could not use them to divine the whereabouts of the family when they fled.22
- Religious motivations – As mentioned above, Bereshit Rabbah asserts that the terafim were idols and that Rachel took them so that her father would no longer worship them.
- Not justified – A smaller number of commentators present Rachel as acting with less worthy goals, and that she took the terafim for her own personal use.
- Fertility – Hoil Moshe maintains that the terafim were believed to have powers to bless barren women with children and that Rachel took them hoping they would help her conceive again.
- Foreign worship – See above in the discussion of Rachel's Religious Identity that Ibn Ezra more radically suggests that Rachel (and the other wives and children) had learned idolatrous worship from Lavan and had not yet totally forsaken it.
Trading for the Mandrakes
Commentators debate whether Rachel acted correctly or incorrectly in trading a night with Yaakov for the mandrakes:
- Degradation of Yaakov – Bereshit Rabbah (and see Rashi more explicitly) blame Rachel for belittling a night with the righteous Yaakov, claiming that she was punished for this by not being buried with him.
- Lack of faith – Rachel's reliance on aphrodisiacs and superstitious remedies to cure her infertility rather than turning to prayer and Hashem might be viewed as a lack of faith.
- Proper effort - Sforno, in contrast, lauds Rachel's actions, claiming that Hashem heeded her prayers only after she put in her own effort to have children. One must not rely solely on miracles, but do whatever one can naturally as well.