In Parshat Chaye Sarah we read about the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah as the burial grounds for Abraham and Sarah, and presumably their offspring. In fact everyone is buried there except for Rachel.
They set out from Bethel; but when they were still some distance short of Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. 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. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath—now Bethlehem. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Bersiehit 35:16-20)
Why is Rachel not buried with everyone else? Further, why is she buried in such a seemingly haphazard manner? Many of the commentaries grapple with these questions, and Ibn Shuaib has a fascinating approach.
He writes that Rachel was the “Bat Zug” of Jacob, their marriage was divinely appointed. As such, Jacob and Rachel did not need to be buried together because their souls were bound together, regardless of where their bodies lay. Leah did not have that same level of connection with Jacob and therefore needed to be physically buried next to him.
Rachel was not buried in the Cave of Machpelah because she did not need to be there whereas Leah needed to be there. Rachel, in death, as she did in life, gave way for her sister.
Ibn Shuaib takes an otherwise tragic and unbecoming burial of Rachel and turns it into an act of self sacrifice and an expression of the powerful bond between Rachel and Jacob.
Why is she specifically buried, “on the road to Ephrath?”
Rashi quotes a Midrash to answer this question:
“And I buried her there” – and did not carry her even the short distance to Bethlehem to bring her into a city. I know that in your heart you feel some resentment against me. Know, however, that I buried her there by the command of God so she could help her children when they would be exiled by Nebuzaradan. For when they passed along that road Rachel came forth by her grave and cried and beseeching mercy for them, as it is said, (Jeremiah 31:15) “A voice is heard in Rama, [the sound of weeping … Rachel weeping for her children]”, and the Holy One, blessed be He, replied to her (v. 16) “There is a reward for thy work, says the Lord etc. (v. 17) for thy children will return to their own border”. (Rashi Bereishit 48:7)
Rachel’s burial “on the road” was not fortuitous. It allowed her soul to be present on the route that the Jewish people took as they were forced out of Israel many generations later, and it allowed her to pray for their safe return.
But why should that be the role of Rachel, why not Leah? After all, it was Leah who was the mother of more of the tribes than Rachel. Was Rachel’s power of prayer or love for her children stronger than that of Leah?
Ibn Shuaib suggests that the reason is simple. Rachel was the true mother and mainstay of the house of Jacob. Therefore only she could be put in this vital position.
Rashi notes the primacy of Rachel as well:
And he called Rachel and Leah – First Rachel and afterwards Leah for she was the chief wife of the house for whose sake Jacob had entered into relations with Laban. Even the descendants of Leah admitted this (that Rachel was the principal wife), for Boaz and his Law-Court who were of the Tribe of Judah (Leah’s son) said (Ruth 4:11) “like Rachel and like Leah which two did build etc.”, mentioning Rachel before Leah (Bereishit 31:4)
It’s interesting to note that when Leah named her children, each name reflected her desire to become more beloved to her husband Jacob. Her focus was on her husband. In contrast, when Rachel named her two children, their names reflected her desire to have children. Her focus was on her children.
Rachel is the ultimate mother of Israel, and therefore she is the one buried in such a manner that she can pray for our eventual return.
Rabbi Joshua ibn Shuaib (1280-1340) was a Spanish Torah Commentator and Kabbalist. He was a student of the famed Rashba, and teacher of Rabbi Menachem ben Aaron Ibn Zerach. Ibn Shuaib quotes extensively from the latter part of Tanach as a means of expressing the core values of each Torah Parsha. He seamlessly weaves together the rationalist interpretations of Rambam and the mystical interpretations of Ramban into his own commentary on the Torah.