Vayishlach: Following in the Footsteps of Avot and Imahot

Yacov is often depicted as travelling – “on his way.” The Sages viewed Yacov’s journey, and the experience of the avot in general, as a blueprint and guide for the destiny of the Jewish people throughout history, especially in the diaspora. What about the imahot? Parshat Vayishlach teaches that there is also power and protection to be found in the actions and experiences of the matriarch Rachel. 

Ramban teaches that this parsha has enduring significance for the Jewish people. The phases of Yacov’s relationship with Esau recurs in the relationship between bnei Yisrael and the descendants of Esau. This principle, “ma’aseh avot siman le-banim – the actions of the fathers are a sign to the children,” means history repeats itself. When Jews face external threats, Ramban says that if we are guided by the actions of Yacov in preparing to meet Esau, we too will be saved and protected.

The children of Israel are given another source of protection toward the end of this week’s parsha. When Rachel tragically dies during childbirth, Yacov buries her separately from the family’s burial place “on the way to Efrat.” The midrashim see great significance for future generations in Rachel’s burial place being “along the way.” Pesikta Rabbati teaches that Yacov wanted to bury her in ma’arat ha-machpela, but God refused so that Rachel could pray for Israel while they were in exile, “along the way.” Eicha Rabbah teaches that after the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash, Jeremiah called on the avot to pray for God to have mercy on Israel. None of their requests were accepted. Only Rachel’s prayer, invoking the sacrifices she made in her life, is able to stir God’s mercy.

Like the forefathers, Rachel’s sacrifices in her life and after-life become a symbol of hope for Am Yisrael throughout their historical journey. The midrashic traditions about her burial “along the way” provide a paradigm of “acts of the mothers being a sign and benefit to the children.” Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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