There have been many attempts to characterize the essential difference between men and women. Some have been absurd male chauvinist inventions; others have sounded more acceptable and meaningful. Are there any Jewish views?

Obviously, every single individual, male or female, is created with the primary goal to connect with G‑d in the details of their daily lives, and through this to fulfill the purpose of their existence, which means also helping the world as a whole to fulfill its purpose.

In this task, each person has their own unique situation in life. Does one live now, or a thousand years ago? Is one in a time of war, or of peace? Is one poor or rich? A man or a woman? Artist or scientist? In each situation one has specific challenges, privileges and duties, as defined by the Torah. Wherever one is, and in whatever circumstances, there is a unique task which only you can achieve.

Within this, there might still be a general characterization of the distinctive natures of man and woman. A discussion of a point in this week's Torah portion brings this out, as regards our great forebears Jacob and Rachel, and perhaps for everyone.

Jacob, who has been living for the last seventeen years in Egypt, feeling that soon he will leave the world, asks his son Joseph to make sure that he will be buried in the Holy Land, in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron where Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebecca were buried. Joseph agrees at once, but Jacob asks him to take an oath that he will do so, which Joseph does willingly.1

Then, a moment later, Jacob speaks about the fact that when his wife Rachel, the mother of Joseph, passed away, he did not transport her to the Cave in Hebron, but buried her at the wayside. He did not even carry her to the nearby town of Bethlehem.

The great commenter, Rashi comments that Jacob felt that Joseph might feel upset that his father was asking him to make sure he would be buried in the ancestral burying place in Hebron, while he had not done the same for Joseph's mother.

Nonetheless, Rashi says, Jacob had acted according to G‑d's Will, and hence, Rachel's own will. For many years later, when the Jews would be led into exile by the Babylonians, they would pass near Rachel's grave, where they would take courage, for they knew that she was imploring G‑d on their behalf.2 The prophet Jeremiah, who lived through those events, said that "Rachel is weeping for her children" but also declared that G‑d reassures her that they will be redeemed.3

Here we see the difference between Jacob and Rachel. Jacob sought the highest level of holiness which could possibly be achieved. Hence he wanted to be buried in the sacred Machpelah Cave in Hebron. By contrast Rachel was concerned for her children. She was ready to forgo the sanctity of the Machpelah Cave, because instead she would have the chance to help her descendants who were going into exile.

Perhaps this distinction applies, among many other distinctions, to men and women in general. The male seeks achievement and fulfillment, through Torah study, many practical mitzvahs, and activity in the world. The woman seeks to care, to protect, to love and to help. It has been suggested that for this reason she has less mitzvahs to carry out. Of course, there is a certain level of feminine characteristic in every man, and a masculine quality in every woman. Yet in general, one represents achievement, the other caring: Jacob and Rachel. The combination of these two qualities builds a wholesome life and a wholesome world.4