Inconsolable and impoverished

Why did Yaakov cry when he met Rachel?

Rabbanit Shira Smiles ,

Learning Torah (illustrative)
Learning Torah (illustrative)
Gilad Mor

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Parshat Vayetzei brings us to the third and final set of Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Yaakov Avinu (Jacob) flees from his brother Esau and arrives in Charan, hometown of his uncle Lavan. He comes to the outskirts of town where the town well is located. Seeing some shepherds at the well, he asks if they know Lavan. [This is the first recorded case of the game of Jewish Geography. CKS] Right on cue, Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, emerges with the sheep. The other shepherds point her out to Yaakov. When Yaakov saw Rachel at the well, Yaakov rolled the protective stone cover off the well and watered Rachel’s flock. Then he introduced himself to her, kissed her and wept bitterly.

We can certainly recognize Divine Providence in this meeting of Yaakov with his intended, Rachel. One would expect Yaakov to be elated. Why then does he cry?

Rashi offers two seemingly disparate explanations for Yaakov’s tears. First, Rashi says, Yaakov foresaw with Divine insight that Rachel would not be buried with him, and he therefore cried that they would not share eternal rest together. Alternately, Yaakov cried because he remembered that when Eliezer came for Rivkah, Yitzchak’s bride and his mother, Eliezer came with ten camels laden with gifts. He, on the other hand, came empty handed.

The Divrei Yisroel reminds us of an important principle in studying Rashi. When Rashi presents two possible explanations to a difficulty, there is usually some connection between the two possibilities. And why would Yaakov be thinking about death at their first meeting? Further, adds Rabbi Twerski in Yiram Hayam, how could such a tzadik be concerned with material gifts for his intended bride, especially to the degree of crying bitterly for lack thereof? However, explains Rabbi Bloch in Peninei Daas, as long as the spiritual soul is connected to the physical body, man inhabits the physical world. Yaakov sensed that something was missing, and he cried. There is a minhag Yisroel, a custom, to give gifts to your betrothed, whether a ring or something else of value, writes Rabbi Gifter. If a man cannot give his bride a customary gift, it will naturally pain him.

Obviously, Yaakov did not leave his parents’ home empty handed when fleeing from Esau. The Medrash provides the missing event that led to this state. When Esau realized Yaakov had fled, Esau sent his son Eliphaz to pursue Yaakov and kill him. Like His father Esau, Eliphaz was also meticulous in honoring his father, and so he was determined to kill Yaakov. However, having grown up in Yitzchak’s home, he also learned from his grandfather that murder was wrong. How could he solve this conundrum and honor both his father and his grandfather? When Eliphaz reached Yaakov, Yaakov Avinu provided the solution. If Eliphaz would take all Yaakov’s possessions, leaving Yaakov destitute, Eliphaz would have fulfilled both commands. Although Yaakov would still be physically alive, a destitute man is considered as if he were dead. Leaving Yaakov destitute would thereby fulfill his father’s command while not transgressing on the sin of murder. And so, Yaakov arrived in Charan empty handed.

Becoming a righteous person is a twofold process, says the Netivot Shalom. It involves first sur meira/leave the evil [ways] and then asei tov/do good by building up your positive characteristics. Doing either without the other becomes counterproductive and is insufficient. For example, you may stop hating your fellow Jew, but you may not yet love him.

One must first recognize what is inherently evil in order to be able to uproot it. Eliphaz could not differentiate between the two directives. He could murder Yaakov and rationalize it by saying he was honoring his father by carrying out his command. This corruption and distortion of truth and values, mixing light with darkness so that all is a blur is the hallmark of Amalek, a son of Eliphaz, observes Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz. When one does not uproot the evil, the evil infects the good, and what is created is a monster more evil than evil alone. The evil will continue to exert power over the good and corrupt it. Eliphaz is the paradigm for such rationalization and corruption.

Yaakov’s pain at not having gifts for his intended came from a completely different perspective according to Rabbi Twerski. The gifts that Eliezer gave to Rivkah were not just gifts of gold and silver, but were gifts of symbolic spiritual value and were meant to gauge Rivkah’s willingness to take on the responsibility and self sacrifice necessary for continuing the legacy of Avraham Avinu. Yaakov had no such gifts to convey this important message. He wondered how he would be able to test the young lady’s commitment to the principles of Avraham Avinu, principles predicated on middos/character. This void is what pained Yaakov Avinu.

In Olam Hamiddos, Rabbi Kastenbaum explains that indeed the Torah was given to Man because man has flawed characteristics and must learn to overcome them, problems angels do not have. In fact, continues Rabbi Kastenbaum, One who studies Torah all day but does not work on his middos is not considered on who is osek baTorah/toiling and constantly involved in Torah.

Citing Rav Chaim Vital, Rabbi Kastenbaum notes that man has two souls, a base soul attached to his body and a lofty soul based with his soul from Heaven. However, man can observe Divine mitzvoth only through using his physical body. Therefore, for proper mitzvah observance, it is incumbent upon man to perfect his middos. This is the ultimate purpose of life, for through our perfected middos we emulate Hakodosh Boruch Hu and walk in His ways.

Because a tzadik already lives his life on such a lofty plane, there is minimal difference between life and death, writes Rabbi Wolbe. As such, a tzadik never dies. Therefore, Yaakov wants to be buried with Rachel for eternity in an eternal relationship. Seeing with Divine prophecy that Rachel would not be buried with him, Yaakov cries bitterly. But that is not an appropriate comment to make to your bashert on your first meeting, adds Rabbi Schlesinger in Eileh Hadvarim. Therefore Yaakov says that he’s crying because he has no gifts to give Rachel.

However, why did this prophecy of Rachel’s untimely death come to Yaakov now? Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai suggests that this foreshadowing was a warning to Yaakov Avinu to be careful, for, in fact his beloved Rachel would die as a result of his own curse on anyone who stole Lavan’s idols.

But the prophecy does not tell Yaakov why Rachel will die. Yaakov understands that Rachel will be the Matriarch and cornerstone of the home he will be building and the nation of God. That she will not be buried alongside the parallel Patriarch must be a sign of divisiveness within the nation, severing the eternal bond between himself and Rachel Imeinu, speculates Yaakov. This thought of divisiveness within the family and nation so saddens Yaakov Avinu that he cries bitterly.

There seems to be a pattern of a missing piece in the relationship, suggests Rabbi Weinberg in Shemen Hatov. In the beginning, the gifts were missing, and at the end their burial sites would also be separate.

Both Rabbi Weinberg and Rabbi Mintzberg in Shemen Hatov note a relationship between the loss of possessions and the separate burial places. If Yaakov had had material possessions, he could have gone to Lavan and “bought” Rachel, as was the custom of the day [and still persists in many societies]. Then Lavan would not have been able to implement his ruse of substituting Leah, and Rachel would have been buried alongside Yaakov in Meorat Hamachpelah. [In a previous shiur, Rebbetzin Smiles discussed how Yaakov could have married both Rachel and Leah, and all three would have been buried in Meorat Hamachpelah for eternity. CKS]

Our Patriarchs and Matriarch were more than our physical ancestors, continues Rabbi Wolfson. They represented the vehicles through which God’s presence would be revealed on earth. The Patriarchs carried the Divine energy [Kudsha Brich Hu] while the Matriarchs received that energy and reflected God’s presence [Shechinah] outward on earth. For God’s presence to be fully actualized on earth required both Rachel and Leah. Rachel Imeinu represented Hashem’s overt presence. She was the one who went out into the world as the shepherdess, and she would be buried on the open road. Through her, God’s presence would be manifest, and all would recognize Hashem in every blade of grass and in every historical event. Leah Imeinu carried within her the lofty, imperceptible aspects of Shechinah, those aspects too lofty for human perception on the physical earth. Leah, representing this hiddenness, is buried deep in the double cave.

But, while Hashem’s overt, perceptible presence departs when Bnei Yisroel goes into exile, Leah’s imperceptible aspect of Hashem’s presence never leaves. It is hidden somewhere like a husband who has left his wife but has not divorced her. That is why the Prophet Yirmiyahu describes the forlorn and seemingly abandoned Bat Zion not as being a widow, but as seeming to be a widow – hoytah ke’almanah, for the loving relationship was never fully severed.

When Yaakov kisses Rachel at their first encounter, he recognizes her as a vessel of the holy shechinah, one who will be a shepherdess of his descendants. He kisses her in reverence, as one kisses the Siddur or the mezuzah, but he cries because he knows that God’s revealed presence will leave his descendants when they are exiled. Had Rachel been buried with Yaakov, along with Leah, both Hashem’s revealed and hidden presence would have remained with Bnei Yisroel forever.

It is within these roles that Rachel, representing Hashem’s revealed presence, is a symbol of Yerushalayim where God’s presence was openly manifest, while Leah represents the hidden presence of Chevron, writes Rabbi Wolfson. Indeed, we each carry within ourselves both these sources of holiness. When we are privileged to feel Hashem’s presence so near us, we have symbolically ascended our personal Har Moriah/Temple Mount, but when we feel depressed and alone, we can still connect to Hashem in the Chevron model, through our prayers and faith.

Building on Rachel Imeinu’s symbolic role, the Breslover Rebbe in Lemachar A’atir gives us a beautiful interpretation for the cause of Yaakov’s tears. Yaakov Avinu foresaw the role Rachel Imeinu would play in trying to mitigate the harshness of the exile as Bnei Yisroel is deported from its land. As the Prophet Yirmiyahu writes, Rachel’s voice is heard on high, Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be comforted. Yaakov Avinu’s prayers from Meorat Hamachpelah will not be effective. Yaakov cries now, so that in the future his tears will mingle with hers for the return of their children.

But Rachel Imeinu is not crying only by herself; she is bringing others along to cry with her. [Rachel mevakah = causative.] Our tears should join with hers and inspire us to do teshuvah to hasten our teshuvah/return to the land. The tzemach David, the sprout of David, Moshiach, grows through watering, and it is the water of our tears in heartfelt prayer that give it life adds Rabbi Schwab.

Rabbi Wolfson makes some interesting observations that should give us hope. While Rachel Imeinu represents the revealed Divine presence, it is becoming more and more difficult to access it. Not only is visiting Kever Rachel becoming more difficult as it gets hidden behind concrete barricades and needs to be arrived at through steel reinforced buses, but the surrounding culture is bringing more and more layers of desecration to our lives, so that we find it harder and harder to seek out Hashem even in His revealed presence. This is an unnatural state, and should encourage us to hope for the imminent arrival of Moshiach.

We are told that the events of our forefathers’ lives are precursors to the events that will occur in the history of Bnei Yisroel, their descendants. Ohel Yehoshua, writes that just as Yaakov Avinu went into his exile empty handed and poverty stricken when fleeing from Esau, so did Bnei Yisroel also go into exile in poverty.

The redemption hasn’t come yet, but we can pray for it, like Rachel Imeinu prays for her children. In our current situation, COVID 19 has distanced us not only from each other, but also from Hashem Who has kept His face hidden from us. Let our prayers and tears join with those of Yaakov and Rachel and bring us total salvation bimheirah biyomeinu/quickly, in our day.



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