On many levels, the Rachel passage is a powerful counterpoint to the akeda (binding of Isaac by Abraham) in the Torah reading. Rachel is almost the polar opposite of Abraham. Abraham is the ultimate man of faith, blindly accepting what God tells him, even to the point of sending off one son (Ishmael) to die in the desert and getting ready to sacrifice his other son (Isaac). Rachel, in contrast, represents a moral paradigm in which refusing to listen to authority is good a good thing.
In Genesis Abraham argues and pleads for the city of Sedom: He is told Sedom is to be destroyed and pleads ‘God you Righteous Judge, won’t you deal justly with these people, maybe there are 50 pious people. For their sake won’t you let them live. God says I would but there aren’t. Maybe 45, 40, 30, 20, 10 … God always answers ‘there aren’t.’ After the last round of conversation “Avraham shav l’mkmomo” (he just goes home).
Rachel, in contrast, is described by Jeremiah as refusing to be comforted (ma’ana l’hinachem) when her children are led into exile and in later midrashim (elaborations on Bible passages) she chooses to be buried away from m’koma (her place) in order to intercede for the descendants. (According to the story in Genesis, she died in childbirth on the road and so was not buried with the other Matriarchs and Patriarchs in the family tomb in Hebron.)
In a very well known, even iconic, midrashic story, Abraham’s career starts when he smashes the idols in the temple in a dramatic break with polytheism. Rachel, in the Genesis story, takes the teraphim (usually translated as idols) from her father’s house when she joins her husband in his return to his community. The contrast is stark: Abraham’s actions declare that only one way – his way – is right. Rachel incorporates diverse traditions, seemingly opening herself to wisdom wherever it is found.
In Genesis, Abraham and Sarah remain childless for many years. When confronted with barrenness, Abraham doesn’t do anything, doesn’t even pray, and when God promises him children he laughs. Rachel also suffers from infertility but does everything she can to have children, include make deals, use folk remedies and pray (“hava li banim”). When she finally does have a child, she names him Joseph (Yosef), which means “I want more” or “God will give me more”.
Abraham does whatever God tells him: leave his family, send away Ishmael, sacrifice Isaac, circumcise himself and his family. Rachel names her second son – the one whom she died giving birth to – “Ben-Oni” (son of my sorrow) seems to rail against God or her fate to the very end. She rails against her barrenness in Genesis and in Jeremiah section she “refuses” to be comforted. In the midrash (exegesis) God promises Rachel that the next world will be good for her children, but she demands that also this world be good. “And our mother Rachel refused those comforts (that the next world will be good) and demanded that her children will also enjoy this world.”
Abraham represents unilineal succession – only one of his sons can get his inheritance (leading to his sending away Hagar and Ishmael). The idea of only one legitimate successor, one leader and one ritual center continues through to the building of the Temple in Jerusalem as the only place in which ritual sacrifices can be carried out. Rachel represents an opposite paradigm – she cries for “her children” writ large, not just for one child or even just for her own biological children. But more important, her tomb is an unofficial ritual center outside priestly control.
Abraham is willing to kill his son, whereas in Rachel’s case it is she herself who dies. In later traditions Rachel is said to have volunteered to die on the road in order to later intercede for her children going into Exile.
Rachel dies young, in pain and sorrow. Abraham dies “zaken v’saveah” (old and satisfied). Abraham ends up peacefully in his grave; Rachel seems to spend eternity hanging around. Of all of the Jewish figures, she and Elijah are the most ambiguous in terms of their location in between heaven and earth. Abraham, in contrast, lots of stories of him in the next world. An interesting midrash in Sefer Agada tells that Abraham possessed a special, good stone that he would wear around his neck. People who looked at it would be healed. When he died God put the stone around the sun. In contrast, after her death Rachel remained on earth available to help people “to this day.”
In Jewish conversations, Abraham is typically held up a model, but I would suggest that the juxtaposition of the Rachel text to the Binding of Isaac story indicates a rather different model: A model of someone who is not submissive, who is quite willing to cover all bases (both the god of Abraham and the teraphim are meaningful for her), and whose compassion is inclusive rather than limited to her own biological descendants.