The Power of the Tongue

Did Jacob's rash words kill his beloved wife? The story of Rachel’s death teaches us an important lesson about the power of the tongue.

A photo of Rachel's tomb from the 1930s. (Image: Wikimedia Commons, Source unknown)


Regular Shabbat Readings

  • Vayishlach (וַיִּשְׁלַח | He sent)
  • Torah: Genesis 32:3-36:43 *
  • Haftarah: Hosea 11:7-12:12, Obadiah 1:1-21
  • Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

Torah and Haftarah chapter/verse references are taken from the Hebrew Bible. Christian Bible references vary slightly when indicated with a *.

Regular readings above are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the current Torah Portion Schedule for all these variations, and special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Genesis 32:3 | Jacob Sends Presents to Appease Esau
    • Genesis 32:22 | Jacob Wrestles at Peniel
    • Genesis 33:1 | Jacob and Esau Meet
    • Genesis 33:18 | Jacob Reaches Shechem
    • Genesis 34:1 | The Rape of Dinah
    • Genesis 34:25 | Dinah's Brothers Avenge Their Sister
    • Genesis 35:1 | Jacob Returns to Bethel
    • Genesis 35:16 | The Birth of Benjamin and the Death of Rachel
    • Genesis 35:27 | The Death of Isaac
    • Genesis 36:1 | Esau's Descendants
    • Genesis 36:15 | Clans and Kings of Edom
  • Prophets
    • Hos 11:1 | God's Compassion Despite Israel's Ingratitude
    • Hos 12:2 | The Long History of Rebellion
    • Oba 1:5 | Pillage and Slaughter Will Repay Edom's Cruelty
    • Oba 1:10 | Edom Mistreated His Brother
    • Oba 1:17 | Israel's Final Triumph

Portion Summary

The eighth reading from the book of Genesis is named Vayishlach, which means "and he sent." The title comes from the first verse of the reading, which says, "Then Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom" (Genesis 32:3 [verse 4 in Jewish-published Bibles]). Jacob prepares to meet Esau as he returns to the Promised Land, but first he has a mysterious encounter with an angel in the darkness, who changes his name to Israel. The portion follows Jacob's adventures in the land of Canaan, including the loss of his beloved wife, Rachel.

The Proverbs say that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). In Rachel’s case, that appears to have been especially true.

Jacob and his family were making their way south through the land of Canaan, toward Hebron where his father Isaac still lived. While the family traveled, Rachel went into labor with her second child. She had named her previous son Joseph, meaning “May He add [another son].” God had answered her prayer, and she gave birth to a second son. Rachel suffered a severe labor. As the child was born, the midwife tried to cheer her, “Do not fear, for you have another son.” Rachel knew she was dying.

Rachel died some distance from Ephrath, an older name for Bethlehem. Jacob entombed her there, beside the road and set up a sacred stone over her tomb. The story provides the etiology behind a landmark. The Torah remarks, “Jacob set up a pillar over her grave; that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave to this day” (Genesis 35:20).

Jewish tradition connects the tragic death of Rachel with a story from the previous Torah portion. In the previous Torah portion, we read that Rachel stole her father Laban’s household idols when Jacob and his family fled back to Canaan. Jacob did not know about the theft. When Laban overtook Jacob, he demanded the return of his household gods. Rachel was hiding them in her tent. No one knew she had them.

Jacob swore an oath to Laban, “The one with whom you find your gods shall not live” (Genesis 31:32). With those words, Jacob inadvertently spoke a curse over his beloved wife:

Though our mother Rachel was not guilty [of any of the transgressions for which someone might ordinarily die in childbirth], nevertheless, because Jacob said, “With whomever you find your gods, he shall not live,” she was punished, but her judgment was not carried out until she was in childbirth. (Midrash Lekach Tov)

The story of Rachel’s death illustrates the Master’s warning against swearing oaths. He said, “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes ‘ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:36-37).

Rachel’s tragic and premature death sets her apart from the other six mothers. According to tradition, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah all rest with their husbands in the Machpelah in Hebron. Rachel lies alone beside the way to Bethlehem. She appeared again, alone, mourning the exiles being led off to Babylon (Jeremiah 31:15). She raised her voice again over the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem (Matthew 2). People still visit her tomb today.

Adapted From: Torah Club Commentary Set: Depths of the Torah. Learn more about Torah Club and how you can start a Club of your own, or join a Torah Club in your area. Visit TORAHCLUB.ORG

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