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The Last Conversation between Rachel and Jacob

Why Argue About a Name Moments Before Her Death?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

    2560 views
  • December 13, 2019
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  • 15 Kislev 5780
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Class Summary:

Why, when Rachel was in such a critical condition, did Jacob argue with her over the name to be given to their newborn child? Was this the right time and place to argue over such a seemingly trivial matter? Wouldn't Jacob want to say words of comfort?

This never occurred with any one of the other children. Each one of his twelve sons was named by his (or her) mother. Here, as Rachel is dying, Jacob intervenes and alters the baby’s fresh name?

There are many interpretations. I will present three. One teaches us about love and dedication; the other teaches us about education. The third teaches us about confronting pain.

Dedicated by Helen Ross, in loving memory of her father Chanoch ben Chaim Simcha, for his 20th yahrtzeit on the 3rd of Cheshvan.   

The Final Moments

It is not unusual for a husband and wife to have an argument. But all would agree that for everything, including a dispute, there is a proper place and time.

Jacob and Rachel have enjoyed profound kinship. Jacob worked laboriously seven years for her father, Laban, to obtain Rachel’s hand in marriage. After being cheated and receiving Leah as his wife, he reluctantly agreed to give Laban another seven years of labor so he could marry Rachel. The Torah attests that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.[1]

For years Rachel was childless. When she finally mothered a child, she named him Yosef, proclaiming "May G-d add another son to me.”[2]

Her wish was granted. She conceived another child. But, as she was about to give birth, tragedy struck. The Torah relates:[3]

And they traveled from Beit-El, and there was a little way left to go before reaching Efrat, and Rachel gave birth, but had difficulty in the birth. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.”

But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin.

Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem.

Why, when Rachel was in such a condition, did Jacob argue with her over the name to be given to the newborn child? Was this the right time and place to argue over such a matter? Wouldn't Jacob at such a time wish to convey words of comfort?

What is more, we have never observed such an argument with any one of the other children. Each of Jacob’s twelve sons and his daughter were named by their mothers and Jacob never gave another name. Here, as Rachel is dying, Jacob intervenes and changes the baby’s fresh name?

Rashi’s Perspective

There are many interpretations suggested by the commentators over the generations. Rashi says that the name “Ben Oni,” the son of my sorrow, given by Rachel, refers to the grief and pain endured by her during this baby’s birth, while the name “Bin Yamin” given by Jacob means “son of the south,” and refers to the fact that Binyamin was the only child (“Ben”) born in the land of Israel, which is in the south (“yamin”) relative to the direction from which Jacob was traveling (Aram Naharaim, Harran, which is to the north of Iraq and Canaan). Jacob was attempting to highlight the uniqueness of this child—as the only one born in the Holy Land.[4]

Rashi adds another possible interpretation, that Ben Yamin means a child born after many days and years, signifying he was born as Jacob grew old.[5] 

But why the argument?

I will present three interpretations.

The Silence

Let us recall the episode of Jacob’s hasty departure from Laban. Prior to fleeing with Jacob, Rachel had stolen her father’s “terafim” (idols).[6] Upon learning of their disappearance, Laban chased Jacob and accused him of stealing his gods. Jacob reacts angrily, and responds:

But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them.[7]

Rashi quotes the Midrash that this curse caused Rachel to die in childbirth. This is why the Torah emphasizes that “Jacob was unaware that Rachel had stolen the idols,” suggesting that he would not have uttered such a curse had he known that Rachel stole them.

Now, sometime later, Rachel is about to breathe her last. She and Jacob loved each other deeply, and it is time to bid farewell. Not a word is spoken between them.[8]

This is strange. The death of Rachel is contained in five verses, containing fifty-eight words. The narrative is conveyed almost without any direct speech (other than the reassurance of the midwife, in verse 17). A great silence envelops this episode. The text refrains from describing Jacob's emotional response to the death of his beloved wife either indirectly (through a description of his actions) or directly (by quoting his words or prayers directly).

They do say one thing: they argue about a name. What was this about?

Husband and Wife Think of Each Other

Imagine what Jacob was feeling when he realized that he cursed his wife to die not knowing that she was the one who stole the gods of her father? How would any husband feel? Never mind Jacob who loved Rachel with every fiber of his being, and watched his last son being born as his mother was perishing?

How did Jacob feel about himself at that moment? How did Rachel feel?

Husband and wife must have endured a tremendous rush of emotions as they looked into each other's eyes knowing that Jacob’s curse was coming true. Imagine the tremendous guilt that Jacob must have felt, knowing that he condemned the most beloved of his wives to premature death due to a single curse. How tragic!

Rachel peered into his eyes, and knowing what her husband is going through, names the baby Ben Oni, which can be translated as “the son of my deception.”[9] Rachel was saying: It was my fault. I was the one who acted inappropriately. I deceived my father—not you.

To which Jacob responded: Bin Yamin, which can be translated “the son of an oath.”[10] (Yamin means an oath since traditionally we lift the right hand (yad yamin) during an oath). Jacob was saying: The critical condition caused by the birth of this son is the result of my oath to Laban that the one who stole his idols shall not live. It was my oath that led to this tragedy.

As they said goodbye to each other, Rachel was ensuring that Jacob does not live for the remainder of his life with guilt; Jacob was ensuring that Rachel does not blame herself for her death. It was his fault, not hers.

There is no outburst of emotion displayed in this story. Because even deeper than Jacob emoting as a result of his own pain, the Torah described his last words to his wife, trying to make her feel at ease. And the last words of Rachel, trying to make Jacob feel better.[11]

At those moments, each of them was thinking of the other.

The Fate of a Child

But there was perhaps more. The argument about the names represented a final exchange between Jacob and Rachel, not about themselves, but about this newborn child.

Rachel knew that her life in this world was ending, and she worried about what would happen to her child growing up without a mother. As Jacob was sitting at her bedside, she expressed her feelings: "I am very concerned about my child. Since he is growing up without a mother to take care of him. I pray that when I am gone from this world and in my heavenly abode, his behavior should not cause me grief." (Ben-Oni means the child of my grief).

Jacob, wanting to comfort his dying wife, told her not to worry. He promised her that he would take extra care of him and assured her that he would be a "Ben Yamin," "a right son," one who would conduct himself in a righteous and holy way, and be a source of delight and nachas to his mother in the world to come.

From Pain to Strength

Yet a third powerful insight comes from 12th-century Nachamanides, the Ramban. “Oni” he says has a dual meaning: “My grief,” and “my vigor.”[12] Rachel called the infant, “the son of my grief;” Jacob chose to give the very same name a different interpretation.

In the words of the Ramban: "It seems to me that his mother called him 'Ben-Oni,' meaning to say, 'Son of my mourning'… but his father converted the 'Oni' to mean 'my strength,' as in the verse, 'My power and the beginning of my strength (oni).'[13]... Therefore he calls him Binyamin, or 'Son of strength,' for the right side (yamin) is the seat of might... He wanted to call him by the name given to him by his mother, for so it was with all his sons: they were called by the names given to them by their mothers. So he converted it into goodness and strength."

Ramban has Jacob accepting the name selected by Rachel (“oni”), but changing it to something else that captures the positive connotation of “oni.”

Jacob was communicating to himself, to his wife, to his newborn baby, and to his children ever since one of the most important messages of Judaism. The same word in Hebrew used for grief and pain is the word used for strength and vigor. How? All sorrow and pain must bring forth a new birth of awareness, insight, and love.

Jacob ensured that his son will not see himself as a product of sorrow. Yes, he would grieve for the pain and the void, but he would never become a victim of it. Instead, he would transform his pain into a springboard for a new source of strength and empowerment.[14]

__________________

[1] Genesis 29:30.

[2] Ibid. 30:24.

[3] Genesis chapter 35

[4] See Ramban who differs at this point.

[5] Chizkunu says that Jacob was indicating that he was the child who would help him during his older years, since he would be home with him.

[6] Genesis 31:19

[7] Genesis 31:32

[8] When Abraham lost his wife Sarah, in her old age, there is a detailed description at the beginning of Chayei Sarah of Abraham’s mourning and eulogy, and his involvement in burying his wife. Unlike Sarah's death, regarding Rachel there is no mention of her husband coming to eulogize her and mourn for her, nor are we told that he buried her. In verse 19 we read only that "she was buried" (only at the end of the description does the text reveal that Jacob placed a monument over her grave.)

Of the three forefathers, Jacob is the one who gives the greatest verbal expression to his emotions of grief. See, for example, the description of Jacob's reaction to what he believes is the sudden death of his beloved son Yosef (37:33-35). The description contains two extremely emotional utterances, expressing his profound mourning, as well as three different descriptions of prolonged acts of mourning that he performed. Against this background, Jacob's silence in our story, and the silence of the narrative itself, are all the starker. We hear neither a broken-hearted cry nor any description of an act of mourning.

[9] See Psalms 94:23. Isiah 10:1, and numerous times in the Tanach.

[10] See Psalms 144:8, and numerous times in the Tanach.

[11] I saw this interpretation here: http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/kitveyet/betmikra/veaviv.htm

[12] He cites Hoshea 9:4 and Devarim 26:14 where the term “oni” means mourning, as the term “onen” describing someone on the day of his loved one’s death. It also denotes vigor, see Genesis 49:3 and Isiah 40:29.”

[13] Genesis 49:3

[14] This may be the deeper meaning in Rashi as to why Jacob wished to highlight the fact that Benjamin was born in the Holy Land.

Please leave your comment below!

  • CA

    Cena Abergel -2 years ago

    My heart aches for their words of love and comfort for each other. Just so beautiful and inspiring 

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • R

    Rivka -4 years ago

    I just read your beautiful piece about Rochel and Yaakov and the naming of Binyamin. I have one question though.... I have learned that death is predetermined and HaShem is the only source that directs the Malach Ha....how could it be that a curse could cause death? Doesn’t HaShem have the “final say” so to speak? Doesn’t it explain in Cholvos Halevovos that no one has the power to cause someone pain (esp death) without it having been predestined for them to pass or experience pain? Falling off the roof.... doesn’t have to be your gate etc.

    So then how could it be Yaakov’s curse that brought her death? Or is it different for Avos? Could it be that the curse was a foresight (premonition of sorts) of Yaakov’s?

    I’ve always wondered this.... and the curse aspect and being Yaakov’s “Fault” seems “harsh” if that is ok to say.

    Is there any truth to my above thoughts?


    Thank you!

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

    • A

      Anonymous -1 year ago

      We may think even differently:

      "anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive!"

      But he didn't find anyone!

      In real, a curse of a tzadik comes through even the  condition is not met.

      Moreover, death penalty was for stealing at that time.

      Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

  • MR

    Miriam Rhodes -4 years ago

    miriam rhodes

    bravo!

    thank you

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Vayishlach

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • December 13, 2019
  • |
  • 15 Kislev 5780
  • |
  • 2560 views
  • Comment

Dedicated by Helen Ross, in loving memory of her father Chanoch ben Chaim Simcha, for his 20th yahrtzeit on the 3rd of Cheshvan.   

Class Summary:

Why, when Rachel was in such a critical condition, did Jacob argue with her over the name to be given to their newborn child? Was this the right time and place to argue over such a seemingly trivial matter? Wouldn't Jacob want to say words of comfort?

This never occurred with any one of the other children. Each one of his twelve sons was named by his (or her) mother. Here, as Rachel is dying, Jacob intervenes and alters the baby’s fresh name?

There are many interpretations. I will present three. One teaches us about love and dedication; the other teaches us about education. The third teaches us about confronting pain.

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