The Torah-reading of Vayechi (Genesis 47-50) recounts the culminating events of Jacob’s earthly life: his parting instructions and blessings to his children, his passing, funeral, and burial.
Vayechi begins with Jacob’s request of Joseph that his body should be taken out of Egypt to buried in the Holy Land, in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of Israel are interred. Aware that this was sure to encounter much resistance from Pharaoh, Jacob insists that his son take a solemn oath to carry out this request.
Soon after, Joseph brings his two sons to receive Jacob’s blessing. But before Jacob blesses them, he speaks to Joseph, recalling the circumstances surrounding the death of Joseph’s mother, Rachel, nearly 50 years earlier:
And I, when I came from Paddan, Rachel died by me in the Land of Canaan, on the road, a short distance from Efrat; and I buried her there on the road to Efrat, which is Bethlehem. 1
Rashi explains that Jacob was saying to Joseph:
I am asking you to trouble yourself to take me to be buried in the [Holy] Land… even though I did not do the same for your mother. She died near Bethlehem … and I did not even take her to Bethlehem to bring her to [a settled place in] the Land. I know that there is resentment in your heart toward me [over this]. But know that it was by divine command that I buried her there, so that she should be a help for her children when Nevuzaradan will exile them and they will pass by there. Then Rachel will come out upon her grave and weep and plead for mercy for them, as it is written: “A voice is heard in Ramah, [lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel is weeping for her children…]”; 2 and G-d will answer her, “There is reward for your work…. The children shall return to their own borders.” 3
Male and Female
Intrinsic to our nature is a perpetual striving for self-improvement. The human being is never content to just be: the very thought of a missed opportunity or an unrealized potential gives him no rest, spurring him to the ceaseless toil and unremitting ambition he calls “life.”
“He,” we said, for though the drive for self-betterment is present in every individual of our species, it belongs to the “male” or active-assertive aspect in our personality. But no less integral to us is our “female” element—our capacity for receptiveness and sacrifice, our conviction that there is no greater greatness than the abnegation of self to a higher end.
So ingrained is this duality within us that we unquestionably accept its paradox in every area of life. We exalt selflessness even as we glorify the self. We equate “good” with “altruistic” even as we recognize the ego as the prime motivator of all positive achievement. We strive for “success,” “fulfillment” and “realization” even as we avow that we are doing it all “for the children.”
For so were we formed at the hand of our Creator: “G-d formed man, dust of the earth” 4 —yielding as the soil under his feet—“and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life” 5 —the drive to aspire, grow and achieve. G-d then “took the man He had made, and placed him” in His world “to work it” and develop it, but also “to keep it” and nurture it. 6
As Jews, we inherit this duality from Jacob and Rachel. Jacob was “the choicest of the Patriarchs,” 8 and Rachel, the quintessential mother of Israel. From Jacob, whose life of accomplishment is crowned by a royal procession 9 to the heart of the Holy Land where the founders of Israel are enshrined, we derive our potential for self-perfection. And from Rachel, the young mother who died in childbirth and who dwells in a lonely wayside grave in order to better bear witness to the suffering of her children, we receive our capacity for commitment and self-transcendence.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks on Shabbat Vayechi 5746 (1986) and on other occasions 10
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber