New York Kollel 2004
After Yaakov returns with his large family from Charan, he arrives in the Shechem area, where he purchases a plot of land and settles down for a period. But after the incident with Deenah, Yaakov and his family flee and continue on towards Chevron, where his father Yitzchak lives. On the way – just as they are approaching their final destination, at the crossroads where “there was still some distance to come to Efrat” (Bereshit 35:16) – Binyamin is born, and his mother Rachel meets her death.
Rachel’s death during childbirth is both tragic and atypical. Not only is it sad that she dies before her time, but there is an element of bitter irony involved: The wife of Yaakov’s dreams dies right before he was going to introduce her to his father, Yitzchak. (And we must recall that Yitzchak specifically sent Yaakov to Charan in order to find a wife.) Moreover, Rachel dies just as her son – who must now grow up without her – is born.
Yet, we must note an additional dimension to the story. Throughout Sefer Bereshit, the Avot make a point of acting as the owners of Eretz Yisrael. Avraham Avinu initiates this approach when he refuses to bury Sarah at the side of the road, as was the custom for nomads. Instead, he purchases a burial plot within the city. He conducts himself as a landowner in Eretz Yisrael and seeks to acquire an achuzat olam (an eternal plot): Me’arat HaMachpelah. Not only does Avraham deliberately traverse the length and breadth of the Land, he wants to establish permanent ownership.
Yaakov follows in his grandfather’s footsteps. When he returns and arrives in Shechem, the first thing he does is buy land. By purchasing a plot of land near Shechem for 100 kesitah, he thereby emphasizes – to himself and to his family – that they have returned home. Here, they live as landowners and not as visitors; they have a stake in Eretz Yisrael.
Rachel’s burial in Me’arat HaMachpelah would have been a continuation of this approach. As Yaakov’s beloved and favorite wife, she certainly is worthy of being buried in Me’arat HaMachpelah – a place which symbolizes Yisrael’s connection to the Land. Instead, she is buried at the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in the manner of nomads. Thus, Rachel’s burial corresponds to the situations when Am Yisrael does not enjoy possession of Eretz Yisrael. Rachel cries for her sons specifically when they head to galut (exile). In other words, Rachel in her burial site symbolizes galut.
Nevertheless, Binyamin is born at this exact juncture. The last of the shevatim, he is specifically born during this crisis, when sadness and misery seem to prevail. And even though Rachel does not perceive this birth as a positive omen – she calls her son “Ben Oni” (son of my affliction) – forward-thinking Yaakov optimistically names the baby Binyamin (literally, son of the right).
According to the Ramban, “ma’aseh avot siman labanim” (the fathers’ actions are a signpost for the sons). Hence, geulatan shel Yisrael (Yisrael’s salvation) will occur specifically amidst bereavement, despair, galut, and darkness. Just as Shevet Binyamin emerges from Rachel’s death, so too, geulatan shel Yisrael will come out of grief and sorrow. Perhaps some will view the geulah asben oni. However, Yaakov Avinu proclaims that it is not ben oni; it is Binyamin!