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B'resheet/Genesis 35:19 And Rachel died; and she was buried on the way to Ephrat, that is, Bethlehem.
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Family matters seem to come to the fore in this aliyah. Between 35:12 and 36:19 we hear about the death of Rachel and Yitz'khak, the birth of Benjamin, the misbehaviour of Reuben the firstborn, a full listing of all twelve sons of Yaka'kov and the genealogy for several generations of Esau. This is real gritty stuff, lived out and experienced by real people. Make no mistake, the very same issues that we face and struggle with today - life, death, dysfunctional families - happened to the people we read about in the Bible. The Torah may be rather more discrete in its accounts than the modern media, but exactly the same raw emotions of love, loss, pride and betrayal flowed over the patriarchs and their families. Perhaps the most significant difference is that while today we parade our emotions before anyone and everyone who will listen, cultivating a victim culture as if no-one had ever felt that before, the Torah accepts that these things happen as part of the normal cycle of life - affected as it is by the fall - but explores the underlying perspective of what G-d is doing and working through these events. The Torah offers us hope and reason that there is still a purpose to life despite what our eyes and the world would tell us. G-d remains in control!
Where is Ephrat? Good question! The site known as Rachel's Tomb today is on the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and has been recognised since the 4th century, based largely on the most obvious reading of our text. However, Tanakh seems to suggest that there were two places called Ephrat. In the scene setting at the beginning of the book of Ruth, the narrator tells that "The man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name was Naomi, and his two sons were named Mahlon and Chilion -- Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah" (Ruth 1:2, NJPS) the Psalmist records David's search for the Aron Kodesh, the Ark of the Covenant: "We heard it was in Ephrath; we came upon it in the region of Jaar" (Psalm 132:6, NJPS). When the prophet Samuel first meets Saul, the future first king of Israel, he tells him, "When you leave me today, you will meet two men near the tomb of Rachel in the territory of Benjamin, at Zelzah" (1 Samuel 10:2, NJPS), which would place the tomb near Ramah, north of Jerusalem. Terence Fretheim sums up: "Rachel's grave lies near Ramah in Benjamite territory in 1 Samuel 10:2 and Jeremiah 31:15. There were two Ephraths in Israel, Bethlehem and near Ramah, hence the confusion."1
Given Ya'akov's love for Rachel, why was she not buried at the Machpelah cave in Hebron? The WhiIs(Right, Ramban) offers three possible reasons. The first is simply practical: "Even though the cave of Machpelah is but a half-day's journey from the place of her death, Ya'akov was heavily laden with much cattle and family, and he would not arrive there for many days. Further, our Sages have taught: Under no circumstances do they set down the [funeral] bier of women in the street, on account of respect (m. Mo'ed Katan 3.8)." His second reason is based on a reading back of the Torah's command that a man should not marry two sisters - "Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other's lifetime" (Vayikra 18:18, NJPS): "the reason Ya'akov did not transport Rachel to the cave of Machpelah was so that he should bury two sisters there, for he would be embarrassed before his ancestors. Now Leah was the one he married first, and thus her marriage was permissible, while he married Rachel out of his love for her and because of the vow he had made to her." Talking about the cave later, Ya'akov tells Yosef that "there Avraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rivka were buried; and there I buried Leah" (B'resheet 49:31, NJPS).2
The Ramban's third reason for Rachel not being buried in the Machpelah cave puts words in Ya'akov's mouth during his conversation with Yosef, Rachel's first-born son. Starting from the biblical "when I was returning from Paddan, Rachel died, to my sorrow ... and I buried her there on the road to Ephrath" (48:7, NJPS), the Ramban adds, "You should know that I buried her there by the word of G-d, that she might help her children when Nebuzaradan would exile them, for when they passed along that road, Rachel came forth from her grave and stood by her tomb beseeching mercy for them and the Holy One, blessed be He, answered her." The destruction of Jerusalem and the gathering of the people to go into exile is told in 2 Kings 25:8-12 - "The remnant of the people that was left in the city, the defectors who had gone over to the king of Babylon -- and the remnant of the population -- were taken into exile by Nebuzaradan, the chief of the guards" (2 Kings 25:11, NJPS) - and modern scholars suggest that Ramah, north of Jerusalem, was the assembly point where the people to be exiled were held before being grouped into caravans of people to walk to Babylon.
It is the prophet Jeremiah who tells the rest of this story, "Thus said the L-RD: A cry is heard in Ramah -- wailing, bitter weeping -- Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted for her children, who are gone. Thus said the L-RD: Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears; for there is a reward for your labour -- declares the L-RD: They shall return from the enemy's land. And there is hope for your future -- declares the L-RD: Your children shall return to their country" (Jeremiah 31:15-17, NJPS). This is expanded (imaginatively) in the Midrash: Jeremiah, Moshe and the patriarchs - Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov - all begged for Judah to be pardoned, but the Holy One refused. Finally Rachel came, explaining how she had facilitated her sister's marriage to Ya'akov so that Leah should not be shamed, ending, "'if I, a creature of flesh and blood, formed of dust and ashes, was not envious of my rival and did not expose her to shame and contempt, why should You, a King who lives eternally and are merciful, be jealous of idolatry in which there is no reality, and exile my children and let them be slain by the sword, and their enemies have done with them as they wished!' At that the mercy of the Holy One, blessed be He, was stirred, and He said, 'For your sake, Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place'" (Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 24).
Although he will rejoice at the birth of a new son, Benjamin, who will in time become even more precious to him than Yosef, Ya'akov is hit by the grief of his beloved Rachel's death. Yes, of course, Ya'akov still has his wife Leah - with whom he has, after all, had six sons and a daughter - and two concubines, but Rachel he really loved. Rachel was more than a wife of convenience or a wife of child-bearing; Rachel was the girl he had fallen so much in love with that he worked fourteen years without wages, just board and lodging. The giving of new life has meant the surrender of hers. Walter Brueggemann writes "Dying always happens in the midst of new life. Living always happens in the midst of death. There is, after all, 'a time to be born and a time to die' (Ecclesiastes 3:2). And this time, like every poignant time, is both times."3 What is Ya'akov now to do? Our text and the verses that follow tell us what happened.
Our text gives us the first step: Rachel is buried. Not literally by the roadside - that wouldn't have been respectful to Rachel or helpful for Ya'akov or other travellers - but, like centuries of Jewish tradition, within twenty four hours and with due respect and courtesy, in an appropriate place. The next verse adds that "Over her grave Ya'akov set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel's grave to this day" (B'resheet 35:20, NJPS); a permanent memorial was erected: a marker of time and place - something significant happened here - and allows the place to be found and remembered again when Ya'akov or family members pass that way again. The third step comes in the next verse again: "Israel journeyed on, and pitched his tent beyond Migdal-eder" (v. 21, NJPS). Ya'akov moved on, because life has to go on; he can't just stop - that would be like Ya'akov dying too. Rachel has been gathered to her kin; she is no longer 'here', so there is nothing to stay for. Finally, a few verses on, the narrator records that "Ya'akov came to his father Yitz'khak at Mamre, at Kiriath-arba -- now Hebron -- where Avraham and Yitz'khak had sojourned" (v. 27, NJPS). Although Rachel is no longer with him, Ya'akov has finished his journey of nearly thirty years; he has come home. That was what he had set out to do.
We experience several different kinds of death. There is physical death: of a spouse, parent or child, a person who we know and love; there is emotional death, when a relationship - such as an early romance, a business partnership or a time of teaching or mentoring - comes to an end; and there is aspirational death, when we realise that a hope or a dream, a cherished idea, will actually never come true: we are too old, have run out of money, or missed the window of opportunity. How do we handle these deaths? How can we move on and live again?
I'll suggest we do that in exactly the same way that we see Ya'akov handling the death of Rachel. First we need to bury the person, relationship or dream. We need to admit that death has happened, that there is no going back, that there is nothing to hang around for and that a quick, short and decent burial is necessary. Next, we need to erect some kind of memorial - a pillar, a marker in time and place - so that we will remember if we pass that way again: been there, done that! Lastly, we need to move on and continue with our lives so that we are not stuck here, unable to finish our own journey, but take steps to do what we set out to do, to get home with the job done.
As believers in Yeshua, we know that physical death - however uncomfortable it may be for both the person concerned and those watching and supporting them - is not a brick wall, not the end of the road, not just a ceasing to exist, but is a passing from this world to the next, into the glorious presence of Yeshua. We have already "passed out of death into life" (1 John 3:14) so that when, for whatever reason, our bodies stop working, we get new ones - "when He appears we shall be like Him" (v. 2, ESV) - and join Him to wait for His return to this world. The angels told the women who had come to Yeshua's tomb, "Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen" (Luke 24:5-6, ESV). Another analogy that Yeshua used in His teaching was drawn from agriculture: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24, ESV). When an idea, a dream or perhaps even a life-long aspiration dies and we finally realise that we will never achieve that goal, we have to bury it (and perhaps all the resources we had gathered in readiness) in the soil of the kingdom, give it over to Yeshua and wait for the Spirit to resurrect it in a new form that He will help us to complete and bring to fruition. Too many of G-d's people are locked in the past, failing to admit death and refusing to move on in the life of the kingdom. It is long past time to move into resurrection and let the Spirit birth new life to bring new joy to us and glory to G-d!
1. - Terence Fretheim, "Genesis" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 217.
2. - This is the only mention in Tanakhof the death and burial of Rivka or Leah.
3. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 283.
Further Study: Matthew 2:16-18; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38
Application: Are you still denying that a death has happened in your life and refusing to let the Ruach move you on into the new wine of the kingdom? Ask Yeshua to help you recognise the truth and to break you out of the prison so that you can walk on with Him in His glorious resurrection life today (and for ever).
Comment - 08:23 04Dec22 Joshua VanTine: Baruch HaShem, thank you for this living drash it was a real blessing with clarity and purpose to move forward.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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