The meeting between Yaakov and Rachel was a unique symbolic moment. The Chumash tells us that when he saw the daughter of his uncle Lavan, “And Yaakov kissed Rachel and raised his voice and cried” (Bereshit 29:11). The Midrash asks why he cried and then offers this explanation: “Because he saw in a prophetic vision that she would not enter with him to one burial. And he cried because she would die on the road, short of years” (Bereshit Rabba).
Years later, on his deathbed, Yaakov recalls his beloved wife’s untimely death: “And as for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died upon me in the Land of Canaan on the way… and I buried her there on the way to Efrat, it is Beth Lehem” (Bereshit 48:7).
Between these two verses, the former marking the first episode of Yaakov’s encounter with Rachel and the latter, its last, we have the poignant tale of Rachel’s short, dramatic life.
At the time of her first appearance, Rachel was already enveloped in a premonition of tragedy. Chazal interpret the seemingly joyous first meeting between Yaakov and Rachel as a pre-enactment of Rachel’s tragic end. Yaakov’s tears, ostensibly tears of joy, are identified by Chazal as tears of mourning for Rachel’s premature death. They are tears of foreknowledge of Rachel’s lonely tomb on the roadside and not in the ancestral burial place in the Cave of Machpela where Leah and Yaakov were to be buried. The shadow of this knowledge was to haunt Yaakov till the end of his life. As a last tribute to Rachel, Yaakov was to install the sons of Yosef, Rachel’s firstborn, as equals among the tribes of Israel.
Chazal paraphrase the deathbed dialog between Yaakov and Yosef. The Medrash tells us that Yosef inquired as to the reason for his mother’s absence from the family burial ground in the Cave of Machpela, and Yaakov replied: “I buried her there according to the commandment [of the Almighty], for it is Rachel whose entreaties will return the exiles to their Land” (Pesikta Rabbati).
This Medrash assigned an extraordinary role to Rachel. She has become the symbol of the “Return to Zion” and concomitantly a paradigm for the unity of Israel, elements that were incorporated in her image as the mother of Israel weeping for her sons in exile. Rachel’s tomb on the crossroads has been a constant reminder of that image.
Rabi Petachia ben Yaakov of Regensburg, the great 12th century traveler, relates a curious legend: “There are eleven stones on the tomb of Rachel to commemorate the eleven tribes. And because Benyamin had been born only at her death, there is no stone there for him. And there is a great stone for Yaakov on top of all the others. It is very large; many men would be needed to lift it. And the name Yaakov is carved on it. And a mile from there are monks, and they took the stone and put it in their monastery. And the next day they saw it on the tomb just like before! They did thus a few times, then they refrained from taking it again” (The Travels of Rabbi Petahia of Raitsborn).
Other medieval accounts tell of the eleven stones and the one huge stone on Rachel’s tomb and of different miraculous occurrences connected with them, keeping alive the memory of Rachel’s significance to the Children of Israel in the dark periods of exile.