In this week’s parsha we learn of Yaakov’s return home to Eretz Yisrael following a twenty year absence. Undoubtedly, Yaakov anticipated that this return, which he began by emerging unscathed from his confrontation with Esav, would lead to a quiet and productive life with his family in the land that had been promised to him, just as it had been promised to his forefathers. This of course, was not to be. Instead, his homecoming is marred by death and tragedy, beginning with the abduction and rape of Dina (Perek 34), continuing, according to the Midrash, with the death of his beloved mother, Rivka (35:8) before he had a chance to be reunited with her, and culminating with the death of Rachayl and the divisions within the family that were exposed as a result (35:16-22). While these tragedies were clearly tempered by the spiritual achievement of Hashem’s reappearance to him in Beit El (35:9-14) as well as the birth of Binyamin, Yaakov’s return can at best be characterized as nothing if not bittersweet.
It is the death of Rachayl that is clearly the most difficult experience that Yaakov must endure. Yet, the nagging question that continually gnaws at the mind of anyone who read the end of last week’s parsha must be was Yaakov himself responsible for the death of Rachayl?
In the end of Parshat VaYeitzai (31:17-54) Yaakov is caught by Lavan as he attempts to flee with his family and possessions to Eretz Yisrael. The ensuing confrontation is tense and characterized by accusations and counter accusations on both sides. But amongst the issues which seem to trouble Lavan most is the disappearance of his “terafim”, most commonly translated as his idols, which had been stolen. (For an alternate understanding, see Ibn Ezra in one of his explanations, as well as Ramban, Radak and Ralbag, who understands terafim as being tools of either fortune telling or sorcery.) We of course know from the passuk (31:19) that Rachayl had stolen these items. Rachayl’s motive for having done so is the subject of debate amongst the meforshim. Assuming that the terafim where in fact idols, then Rachayl’s probable motive, according to the Midrash quoted by Rashi would seem to have been her desire to pave the way for her father to do teshuva by removing the idols from his home. While, given Lavan’s history and personality, this may seem to have been somewhat na?ve on her part, Rabbenu Channael expands on the point, explaining that the very impotence of the idols that was demonstrated by the fact that they could be stolen might have convinced the hardheaded and unsentimental Lavan of their lack of value. If the terafim were tools of fortune telling or sorcery, then Rachayl’s motives would have been different. Ramban and Ibn Ezra suggest that Rachayl was afraid that using the terafim, Lavan would be able to track Yaakov down, thus preventing his escape. Either way, Yaakov was clearly unaware of Rachayl’s actions and it is fair to assume that he would have prevented or reversed them had he known about them. Instead, Yaakov is convinced that no one in his entourage would stoop to such base behavior as theft, and thus, when confronted by Lavan, responds in extreme fashion, cursing anyone who might have stolen the terafim with the words “lo yichye”, he shall not live (31:32). Might this not be the cause of Rachayl’s death in childbirth at such a young age?
In fact, there is another reason that Yaakov might have been responsible for the death of Rachayl, namely that he had married her despite the fact that he was already wedded to her sister, Leah. The idea that the Avot kept all the mitzvoth in the Torah is almost axiomatic. First quoted in the Gemara in Yoma, (28b), this assumption is difficult to maintain in the light of several instances where it seems pretty obvious that the Avot in fact did not keep observe all the Mitzvot. Ramban (Breishit 26:5) addresses these issues, including Yaakov’s marriage to two sisters, and suggests that the Avot only kept the mitzvoth when in Eretz Yisrael and not in Chutz L’Aretz. Thus, when Yaakov returns to Eretz Yisrael something has to give. Ramban suggests that that “something” is Rachayl, who as the second sister is the one who must leave the marriage. (From the outset, it should be made clear that even if this is the case, Rachayl’s death can not be viewed as punishment for being married to her sister’s husband. If it were then Yaakov himself would also have been guilty, and deserving of death! Clearly, the Avot keeping the Torah is a function of a mida tova, an extra fine obligation that they assumed, and is not punishable were they to fail to fulfill the mitzvoth. Thus, Yaakov’s “culpability” would be limited at best.)
To suggest that his commitment to Torah and mitzvoth was the cause of Rachayl’s death is problematic. To maintain this position we would have to accept the axiom of the Avot keeping mitzvoth as being normative, though its source is clearly midrashic and not in keeping with the simple meaning of the passuk. We would also have to accept Ramban’s reading of the obligation being restricted to Eretz Yisrael, which is far from universally accepted. The Ohr HaChayim, for example, suggests that the Avot tried to keep the Torah, but, given its status as non-obligatory, were perfectly willing not to do so when there was an overriding reason to ignore this mitzvah or another. (See Ohr HaChayim on Berieshit 49). Finally, we would have to ask what exactly Yaakov was thinking when he took Rachayl into Eretz Yisrael without divorcing her first. Surely he was aware of the problematic nature of entering Eretz Yisrael in violation of the prohibition of being married to two sisters! Was he merely relying on the fact that since keeping the mitzvoth was mida tova that he need not comply? This would certainly be out of character for Yaakov, or any of the Avot. Finally, it should be noted that there is something jarring about the Ramban’s claim that Rachayl died just so that Yaakov would not be in violation of a prohibition that was neither binding on him and which could presumably have been circumvented in far less radical fashion.
We must therefore turn our attention back to the first possibility, that Rachayl was affected by Yaakov’s curse. This suggestion is certainly strengthened by Rashi’s adoption of the Midrash which suggests just that (31:32). However, it is far from clear that Yaakov is cursing the thief. Yaakov’s words can clearly be interpreted differently. Both Ibn Ezra and Rashbam understand that Yaakov is informing Lavan of the punishment that he would mete out to the thief, a punishment that clearly would have been commuted had they discovered that Rachayl was the guilty party. Ibn Ezra goes as far as to mock the suggestion that Rachayl died as a result of this non-curse, sardonically asking if Eli HaCohen’s daughter in law, wife of Pinchas had also died as a result of a curse when she died in childbirth (see Shmuel I 4:18). Radak, on the other hand, sees Yaakov as giving license to Lavan to kill anyone he finds with the terafim, but was certainly not cursing them himself.
Rashi’s choice in supporting the Midrash seems to be his identification with the idea that the words of Tzadikkim have great weight and value, even when uttered in error (Sheggaga SheYatza m’lfnai hashlit, to use the words of the Midrash). Accordingly, Yaakov bore indirect responsibility for Rachayl’s death. Since we have no reason to believe that Yaakov ever learned of the true identity of the thief who stole Lavan’s terafim, he certainly did not carry a sense of guilt to the grave. Nonetheless, as Rashi makes clear, the responsibility that weighs upon us all when we speak is one that we should take most seriously.
(I wish to note that in Iyunim b’Parshat Hashavua, second series, Rav Elchanan Samet discusses our topic in an addendum to his analysis of this week’s Parsha. He rejects the idea that Yaakov bears responsibility for Rachayl’s death based on the question he raises as to why Yaakov’s mourning of Rachayl’s death was so subdued, and his analysis of that problem. While this problem was not the topic of this week’s shiur, Rav Samet’s analysis, as always, is well worth reading.)