Family stories are never objective. They are told with a point in mind. When stories are about someone who has died, the storyteller has free rein; the person is no longer around to object. Often this results in beatification. A late relative is made out to be so saintly that the person would hardly recognize him or herself. On the other hand, stories can demonize someone beyond the bounds of fairness or credibility.
This week’s parashah is part of a family story. It is in the middle of a trio of parashot — Tol’dot, Va-Yetze, and Va-Yeshev — that the story of Jacob is narrated. They lead the reader through his youth, young adulthood, and maturity. The story of Jacob’s young adulthood is also the story of his wives. The story of Jacob and his wives is propelled by his early and insistent love of Rachel. As seen through his eyes, she is beautiful and lovely. Yet the Torah’s report of her words and feelings presents a less attractive portrait. When Leah gives birth to children, and Rachel cannot, Rachel is jealous of her. Rachel demands children of her husband, “Give me children, if not I will die! (Genesis 29:30) When her servant Bilhah, whom she has given to Jacob, gives birth, Rachel celebrates the event by gloating, after the birth of Naphtali, “I have struggled with my sister and prevailed.” (Genesis 30:8) At this level, Rachel appears as a spiteful and ungenerous woman.
The family story does not stop with the Book of Genesis. Rachel, being Jacob’s beloved, and the eventual mother of Joseph and Benjamin, cannot be left to languish in her own narrowness. For family reasons, her reputation must be polished and elevated. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking to the Israelites in exile, raises Rachel to a ghostly yet real presence. Jeremiah has her reappear, centuries after her death, to mourn the defeat and expulsion of the Israelites at the hand of their enemies:
“Thus says the Lord; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” (Jeremiah 31:14)
A midrash on this verse takes Rachel a step higher. It describes Rachel as successfully challenging God for allowing Israel to have been exiled and convincing God to end the exile:
Matriarch Rachel broke forth into speech before the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, ‘Sovereign of the Universe, it is revealed before Thee that Thy servant Jacob loved me exceedingly and toiled for my father on my behalf seven years. When those seven years were completed and the time arrived for my marriage with my husband, my father planned to substitute another for me to wed my husband for the sake of my sister. It was very hard for me, because the plot was known to me and I disclosed it to my husband; and I gave him a sign whereby he could distinguish between me and my sister, so that my father should not be able to make the substitution. After that I relented, suppressed my desire, and had pity upon my sister that she should not be exposed to shame. In the evening they substituted my sister for me with my husband, and I delivered over to my sister all the signs which I had arranged with my husband so that he should think that she was Rachel. More than that, I went beneath the bed upon which he lay with my sister; and when he spoke to her she remained silent and I made all the replies in order that he should not recognize my sister’s voice. I did her a kindness, was not jealous of her, and did not expose her to shame. And 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 art 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! ‘Forthwith 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 XXIV)
Jeremiah and the midrash transform Rachel into Mother Rachel. The selfish woman of the Book of Genesis, who had trouble conceiving and dies in her second childbirth, becomes the mother of all Israel, forgiving of her sister and successfully interceding for her children. Is this a case of falsifying through retelling, of giving a small character a larger-than-life presence after death, of making into a saint someone who wasn’t? Or, perhaps, Jeremiah and the midrash recognize the original Rachel as a woman distressed who had legitimate reason to lament and whose lament could be understood, in future generations, as a force for protection and restoration.
Family stories cannot tell a single truth because in stories about people there is more than one truth. To scoff at stories that seem to embellish is to miss the larger point that those who tell them are seeking to make.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.