Very befittingly, the final parsha of the most family-centric book of Chamishei Chumshei Torah is filled with family themes and episodes.
I. One of the many episodes, is the famous blessing of Ephraim and Menasheh; the same blessing that parents traditionally give to their children on Friday night. It is the only textual narrative in B’reishit describing interaction between grandparent and grandchild.
A blessing of grandchildren (Ephraim and Menasheh) is the paradigm for blessings that children receive on Friday night because the parent is hoping that the child will carry on this tradition (along with many others) to their own children one day. It is a blessing that highlights the importance of being connected to family and to our mesorah.
On the subject of continuing tradition and talmud torah, Rav Baruch Simon quotes the Chofetz Chaim explaining the bracha of Yaakov Avinu to Yissachar, comparing him to a donkey (but in a nice way) (49:14-15):
יִשָּׂשכָר חֲמֹר גָּרֶם רֹבֵץ בֵּין הַמִּשְׁפְּתָיִם
וַיַּרְא מְנֻחָה כִּי טוֹב וְאֶת הָאָרֶץ כִּי נָעֵמָה וַיֵּט שִׁכְמוֹ לִסְבֹּל וַיְהִי לְמַס עֹבֵד
The Chofetz Chaim quotes Avodah Zara 5b in which Tanna D’bei Eliyahu says: “In order to study the words of the Torah one must cultivate in oneself the [habit of] the ox for bearing a yoke and of the donkey for carrying burdens.”
He explains that the ox has the brute strength to plow the fields and make the ground ready to produce fruit. The donkey brings the food from the field into the home. He analogizes this to Torah study; at first one needs to put in a great deal of effort to sit down with a sefer, struggle with it and understand it. After that, one needs to immerse one’s self in it and ingrain it in him or herself, chazzer it and review it many times over, so as not to forget it. The praise of the bnei Yissachar is that they continue learning, immersing and ingraining in their children the words of Torah.
Divrei HaYamim I 12:33 says:
וּמִבְּנֵי יִשָּׂשכָר יוֹדְעֵי בִינָה לַעִתִּים
This could be understood that the bnei Yissachar had understanding of the times – not just how to calculate the moadim, etc. – but also how to transmit Torah through the years, through our history, making Torah a central part of our lives in each generation.
Back to the subject of Yaakov’s bracha to his grandchildren, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin points out in his book, Unlocking the Torah Text, that Ephraim and Menasheh are the first major set of brothers in the Torah whose relationship does not end in conflict and strife. (Despite the great love between Yosef and Binyamin, Binyamin was a member of a larger set of siblings that fought with Yosef). From Kayin and Hevel, to Yitzchak and Yishmael, Yaakov and Eisav, and of course Yosef and his brothers, the Torah records the tragic trend of brotherly division and discord. However, even when Ephraim gets the first bracha, ahead of his older brother Menasheh, there is no evidence of quarrel between these brothers. They are a model of brotherly love and harmony, and it is this ideal state of shalom that we pray for at the outset of Shabbos.
II. Another family-oriented theme is found when Yaakov requests that Yosef bury him in Me’arat HaMachpeilah (MHM), and then mentions Rachel’s final resting place. It is the theme of a mother’s undying love for her children. Yaakov recalls the death and burial of Rachel and explains that she was buried “along the road,” and not in MHM. Rashi quotes the famous p’sukim from Yirmiyahu 31:14-16:
קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע
רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיה…
כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם ה’…
וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם…
Rashi explains that Rachel was buried there because she would play a pivotal role in the eventual redemption of our people. Hashem had showed Yaakov, prophetically, that the Jewish people would be led in to captivity by Nebuchadnezzar’s army along the route of Rachel’s tomb after the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. When Rachel’s soul witnesses her descendants being driven into exile, she would go out, so to speak, and would cry and seek mercy for them. Hashem promises that in her merit, He will indeed return her children to their homeland.
The Torah uses the peculiar phrasing of “meitah alai Rachel”
Perhaps two other linked explanations, is that Yaakov is saying that Rachel died in that place, “on” Yaakov, for a specific purpose, but she only died in a limited sense…
A) Purposeful Resting Place: Watchful Mother in Exile: Rachel died and gave up the privilege of being buried with her husband and the other Avos and Imahos, for the sake of Yaakov and his descendants, so that she could be as close as possible to her children in their time of need. She did this FOR Yaakov, as his benevolent, parental counterpart. As a parent and a Patriarch, he would undoubtedly want a great person to be watching over his descendants at the time of their exile, but it was not his tafkid to do for his children; it was uniquely Rachel’s. She died as the quintessential mother who makes physical and spiritual sacrifices, as all mothers do, for the sake of their children.
B) A Limited Death: Deceased Wife, Eternal Mother: “Alai” is being used as a limiting word: At the time Rachel died she was lost to Yaakov, and it was only Yaakov who felt the loss as a husband. But she was not gone forever. Her time as a living, breathing wife to Yaakov had expired, but she would pray for his children, as a meilitz yosher in the olam ha’emet, for all time.
To take this a step further, in Judaism, men generally need to seek Divine connection through overt spiritual experiences and with the aid of sanctified objects. Men are bound by more obligations, need teffilin to help them attain the proper levels of spirituality for tefilah, etc. Women, in contrast, being the cornerstone of the home, are exempt from certain commandments so they can better occupy their time with the spiritual and material well-being of their families. For this reason a child’s status as a Jew is defined by the mother, whereas tribal affiliation within the Jewish community – the child’s specific role within the Jewish people – is determined by the father’s lineage. Our “Jewish nature” relates to the essence of the soul, and women are far more innately in tune with the neshama than men. Our specific roles, in contrast, relate to revealed spiritual experience, which is primarily man’s realm.
Rachel could be buried in such a seemingly mundane place, like the side of the road, and still fulfill her tafkid, without being laid to rest in the hallowed grounds of Me’arat Hamachpeilah. She had the natural ability to uplift any sphere she occupied. She was chosen to sacrifice the comfort of being buried beside her beloved husband because of her deep concern for the welfare of her children; she did this to be as close to us as possible, on Derech Beit Lechem, in our most frightening and difficult times of literal (Babylonian) exile and through our continued exile…praying for the arrival of Mashiach and the promise of v’shavu banim li’gvulam, b’meheira b’yameinu.