Yaakov set up a monument over her grave; it is the monument of Rachel’s grave until today.
– Bereishit 35:20
When we are informed that Yaakov “set up a monument over her grave,” it seems superfluous to add, “It is the monument of Rachel’s grave until today.” Why the repetition?
As we observe the yahrzeit of my grandfather Rav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran on 14th Kislev, his explanation on a remarkable passage in Tractate Shabbat (152b) affords us clarity.
An Enigmatic Passage
The Talmud relates of some workers digging on land belonging to Rav Nachman. In their labors, they happened upon a grave, disturbing a dead man’s peace. They were frightened by the man’s shriek from within the grave and, running in fear, went to inform Rav Nachman, “A deceased man scolded us!” Hearing this news, Rav Nachman hurried with the workers to the grave. There, he leaned toward the grave and inquired as to the deceased man’s name.
“I am Achai son of Yoshiya.”
Rav Nachman looked back at the cowering workmen and then faced the grave. “Didn’t Rav Meri teach that even the bodies of the tzaddikim will disintegrate in their graves?” He asked. “How is it that your body did not disintegrate?”
“Who is Rav Meri? I don’t know who he is.”
“You may not know who Rav Meri is but surely you are familiar with Kohelet: ‘… and the dust returns to the earth as it was.’” (12:2)
Rav Achai responded to Rav Nachman: “Whoever taught you the pasuk from Kohelet clearly did not teach you the pasuk from Mishlei, ‘Urkav atzamot – the rotting of the bones – kin’ah – envy.’ (14:30) That is, he who lives with jealousy in his life will turn to dust when he dies, but he who bears no jealousy, his bones will not disintegrate.
“Now, the pasuk in Kohelet speaks to the majority of people who conduct their lives driven by jealousy, but when I was alive, I did not bear jealousy in my heart and so my bones did not rot.”
Rav Nachum was much impressed with the explanation. Indeed, the Talmud concludes the passage with him reaching out and touching Achai’s body and finding that it was whole, even the flesh had not rotted.
Envy, Not Jealousy
Jealousy eats at the essence of our being. Thinkers, religious and otherwise, have noted its destructive, corrosive influence through the ages. William Penn wrote, “The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.”
It eats at us as we live. What’s more, it causes us to rot after we are in the grave.
But my grandfather taught that there could be a positive side to jealousy – envy. When we are jealous, we want things we should not. However, it is possible to be envious of a fellow’s kindness, his sensitivity, decency, understanding, knowledge and diligence. In other words, to envy these positive attributes, we might be motivated to attain those same positive attributes for ourselves. That type of envy may well enhance one’s behavior and serve as a motivator for self-improvement.
“Let not your heart envy sinners” (Mishlei 23:17). Don’t be jealous of the wicked who seem to prosper. Don’t be tempted to follow in their footsteps; Mishlei teaches, rather, to be envious of the righteous, of those “who fear Hashem.”
Such envy is commendable and will enhance one’s life and middos. That is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic expression, “Envy of the wise shall increase wisdom.”
With this perspective on the nuance between jealousy and envy, my grandfather turned his attention to the pasuk, “Yaakov set up a monument over her grave”: This matzeiva, this monument, is set on her actual burial place. Of course – so what’s the point?
Because the Torah tells us about Rachel that after seeing that she did not bear children to Yaakov, “… Rachel became envious of her sister.” (30:1). We may suspect that because of this jealousy her bones disintegrated, her body becoming as the dust of the earth without leaving a trace of her essence. But if that were so, the monument Yaakov erected would stand over nothing but a clump of earth. But that is not the case. The pasuk repeats, “It is the monument of Rachel’s grave until this day.” It is matzeivas kevuras Rachel – the grave containing Rachel’s actual remains. Her bones did not rot ad ha’yom ha’zeh – until this very day.
So, what then about the Torah’s report that Rachel was “envious of her sister?” Indeed, she was envious! Envious of her sister’s good deeds! Rachel’s envy was the type that is commendable; she was envious of good deeds, kindness, diligence and piety. She had the type of envy that leads to better and greater achievements in the world. As Rashi states in Vayetze, she was envious of Leah’s good deeds. “She said, were she not more righteous than me, she wouldn’t be privileged to have so many children.” What incredible envy!
“Your Father Was Never Jealous”
I was mindful of my grandfather’s teaching when I thought of a situation involving a dear friend of mine who passed away. Circumstances did not allow for his burial in Israel, his chosen resting place, immediately after his passing. In accordance with halacha, he was buried locally and conditionally – and when circumstances allowed, his remains would be transferred to their final resting place.
A year and a half passed.
The difficult task of exhuming the body was undertaken by a specialized Chevra Kadisha. The process is difficult for all involved, particularly the family, which relives the sadness and grief of the death.
When the body had been removed from the local grave, one of the man’s sons – who had not been at graveside but nearby – approached the man who did the actual removal of the body.
“How was my father?” he asked, his voice trembling. “What condition was he in?”
“He was in perfect shape,” he was told. “As if he had been placed in the grave only today.”
The son was relieved and astonished. “But it has been a year and a half?” he exclaimed.
The head of the Chevra Kadisha nodded gently. “Your father was never jealous.”
Indeed, knowing the man well, I can attest that this was true. Any envy he experienced was to build, increase and enhance all that was good in his long and blessed life. The Talmud story speaks not only to the righteous of old, not only of Rachel Imeinu, but also to those who may well cross our own paths even today.
So taught my grandfather, of blessed memory, HaRav Bezalel Ze’ev Shafran, zt”l.
In observance of my grandfather’s 91st yahrzeit on 14th Kislev last year, I am humbled and privileged to have been able to publish the fourth edition of my grandfather’s much sought-after work, Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’baz.
Even now, I can hear my dear father’s voice speaking to me as he did throughout his life, encouraging me and my siblings, to learn Sabba’s sefer. So, through the grace of G-d and the dedicated efforts of my dear cousin Rav Yigal Shafran of Jerusalem, I am grateful to be able to have accomplished this enormous and sacred task in order that our children, grandchildren and their children and grandchildren might share in the fulfillment of my father’s loving exhortation, Ayeunu b’sefer shel Sabba!
The volume was published by Merhavim Institute, Jerusalem headed by Rav Yigal Shafran and beautifully printed and bound by Machon Aleh Zayis.