Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
After spending nearly twenty years away from home, Jacob returns to the Land of Israel. But his return is marred by a glaring absence at home. We recall that his mother Rebecca was the one who masterminded Jacob’s flight to Haran. After overhearing that Esau was planning to murder Jacob because he had stolen his blessings, Rivka tries to separate them, sending Jacob to her parents’ home in distant Haran.
When parting from Jacob, she beseeches him to remain far away: “And you shall dwell with him for a few days until your brother’s wrath has subsided” [Gen. 27:43-44]. Stay there, she tells him, until I can be certain that Esau has calmed down, and which point I will send for you. At no point, though, do we find any explicit mention of Rebecca fulfilling this promise of hers and calling her son back home.
Our rabbis explain that Rebecca sent Deborah, her wet-nurse, to bring Jacob and his family back to the Land of Israel. Rebecca continues expressing her hesitation: “Why shall I lose both of you in one day?” [ibid., v. 45]. In other words, if Esau tries to kill Jacob, Jacob obviously will not sit idly by. He would react forcefully, and ultimately, they would slay each other, causing Rebecca to lose both her sons.
Finally, when the time has come, Jacob returns to the land he had grudgingly left two decades earlier, yet not a word is said about his encounter with Rebecca. Was she still alive? The Torah is silent on the matter. It does tell us, however, about the death of her wet-nurse: “And Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the plain; so he named it Alon Bachut” [ibid., 35:8]. Not a word about Rebecca, though!
Jacob’s reunion with his father, Isaac, is also described in a rather hesitant way: “And Jacob came to his father Isaac…in Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac dwelt” [ibid., v. 27]. No hugs and kisses, nothing about any conversation between the two on what had happened to them over the past twenty years. After all, Isaac was now blessed with 12 grandsons and three new daughters-in-law (Rachel had already died by this point). We would have expected him to take interest in his newly-reunited family!
When reading these verses, we might overlook the immense tragedy playing out before our very eyes. Jacob has come home, but it is no longer a home. When the verse states that Jacob came to Isaac but omits mention of Rebecca, it is clear that she is no longer present. We remember who loved Jacob, and who cared for him, advocating for him even against her husband’s plans. But she is no longer here, and the home is not the same one that Jacob had left long ago. It was not the house for which he had longed.
His father had deteriorated, having lost his vision many years earlier, only to lose his wife several months before his son’s return. It seems that Isaac never fully digested the meaning of Jacob’s return home with his entire family, and he would never get to know his grandchildren.
Why is the Torah silent about Rebecca’s death? It turns out to have been much more significant than we had thought. Our Sages in the Midrash taught: “When Rebecca died, it was asked, ‘Who will take care of her?’… Abraham has died, Isaac, with his dimmed vision, is sitting at home, and Jacob has gone to Padam Aram. Who will take care of her?”
Rebecca leaves this world, and no one can take care of her burial. We recall how Abraham took care of Sarah’s burial when she died, and how Jacob cared for Rachel after her death. But who could take care of Rebecca, whose blind, aged husband was holed up at home, and whose beloved son, Jacob, was living in a faraway land. There was just one person who could take care of her: Esau. But even this was ridden with complications.
The Midrash continues: “Regarding Esau, the wicked, people would say, ‘Who is the son that Rebecca brought into this world?’”. We might add that there was no guarantee that Esau would have agreed to take care of his mother’s burial, remembering that she had been responsible, to a great extent, for the fact that his blessings were stolen from him.
The Midrash concludes: “What did they do? …Rabbi Yose ben Hanina said that before they took her bed out at night in a roundabout way without publicizing her death. And this is what is written…’and they called it Alon Bachut’. Two types of crying occurred – one for Rebecca’s death, and the other for the undignified manner of her burial.”
Tragically, Rebecca would not merit to see her son return home with his magnificent family. And as if that were not enough, she was buried in secret, to protect her from those who would obviously speak at great length about Esau’s crimes, using very colorful descriptions, while neglecting to mention all of the good things Rebecca had done in her life.
Jacob has returned home, and we expect celebration and joy to accompany his arrival. He feared Esau, but on the way home, he reconciled with him. He feared economic ruin, and was prepared to suffice with some clothes and bread, yet he became incredibly rich. But there is neither celebration nor joy, only mourning over the death of the mother who Jacob never had the chance to bid a final farewell.
After Jacob and Esau bury their father, the Torah shifts its emphasis to Esau’s family, while Jacob’s family is given no mention. This is because Jacob was consumed with grief and weeping for his mother, who had raised him with such determination, but who did not receive the respect she deserved even in death. She was the righteous person who came from the home of the corrupt Betuel and Laban, extricating Jacob from Esau’s clutches, yet who would not merit to see her beloved son again.
The tears Jacob shed for his mother have since been joined by the tears wept by sons, daughters, fathers and mothers whose names we will never know, because the building of a nation over the generations is founded on the tears of anonymous heroes who don’t make the headlines. But they are truly the heroes who push the Jewish people forward.