As Moishe Goldberg was heading out of the synagogue one day, Rabbi Mendel pulled him aside and whispered to him, “You need to join the Army of G‑d!”

Moishe replied, “I’m already in the Army of G‑d, Rabbi.”

The rabbi questioned, “How come I don’t see you, except for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”

Moishe whispered back, “I’m in the secret service.”

Moishe Goldberg may have been justifying his lack of involvement, but I see some depth to his message. The secret service agents are the elite, and yet they’re not in the limelight; in fact, no one even knows what they’ve done.

I think this is an accurate description of the Jewish woman. She is the mainstay of the home, the foundation of the next generation, the secret to Jewish survival. And yet, she is not a conspicuous persona in Jewish history.

We find an allusion to the hidden glory of the feminine in Jacob’s enigmatic last request to his son Joseph:

When the time drew near for Israel (Jacob) to die, he called his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have now found favor in your eyes, now place your hand beneath my thigh, and you shall deal with me with lovingkindness and truth; do not bury me now in Egypt. I will lie with my forefathers, and you shall carry me out of Egypt, and you shall bury me in their grave.” And he (Joseph) said, “I will do as you say.” And he (Jacob) said, “Swear to me.” So he swore to him, and Israel (Jacob) prostrated himself on the head of the bed.1

Jacob didn’t bury Rachel with the rest of the holy patriarchs and matriarchs

Jacob insisted that Joseph bury him in the the Land of Israel with his forefathers and foremothers, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca. Jacob then described Rachel’s death and burial, which seems out of context: “As for me, when I came from Padan, Rachel died to me2 in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still a stretch of land to come to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.”3

Jacob didn’t bury Rachel in the illustrious Cave of Machpelah with the rest of the holy patriarchs and matriarchs. Instead, he buried her on the side of the road.

Rashi understands Jacob’s sudden interjection about Rachel’s burial as follows. Jacob was telling Joseph, “Although I burden you to take me to be buried in the land of Canaan—and I did not do so to your mother, for she died close to Bethlehem.”4 He was asking Joseph to not do what he did to Rachel, burying her close by, but to transport his body to a more dignified burial spot.

But why the double standard? Why didn’t Jacob take the time to bury his beloved wife in the Cave of Machpelah? (Certainly, the distance from Bethlehem to the Cave of Machpelah is quite a bit shorter than the distance from Egypt to the Cave!) Rashi finds a clue to Jacob’s motivation in Jacob’s superfluous words, “I buried her there”:

And I did not take her even to Bethlehem to bring her into the Land, and I know that you hold it against me; but you should know that I buried her there by divine command, so that she would be of assistance to her children. When Nebuzaradan exiles them (the Israelites), and they pass by there, Rachel will emerge from her grave and weep and beseech mercy for them, as it is said: “A voice is heard on high, Rachel is weeping for her children.”5 And the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her: “There is reward for your work,” says the L‑rd, “for your children will return to their own border.”6

Jacob told Joseph that he buried Rachel in Bethlehem not out of convenience, but because she needed to be there in order to advocate for the Jewish people one thousand years later. When the kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, the Jews were forced out of their land in order prevent a future rebellion. As they left, they walked along a road that passed through Bethlehem. It was then that Rachel wept bitterly, pleading to G‑d to have mercy on them. Jacob let Joseph know that Rachel had willingly given up her spot in the Cave of Machpelah in order to be there for her great-grandchildren, who would desperately need her help.

For Rachel, it was more important to be there for her children

In a sense, Jacob was both vindicating himself and praising Rachel in explaining to Joseph why he hadn’t buried her in a more dignified manner. But he was also sharing an important lesson in the male-female dynamic.

It was very important to Jacob that he be buried in the Holy Land and in a holy burial plot. For Rachel, however, it was more important to be there for her children, even if that meant sacrificing her own opportunity to be buried with her husband. She got little visibility, but her efforts went very far, ensuring that her children would be eventually returned to Israel.

Both men and women can be devoted to the service of G‑d. But oftentimes the man’s devotion is more overt and recognizable. A woman’s service of G‑d seems less spiritually oriented. Because the Torah recognizes her central role in administering her household, she is exempt from all timebound commandments. Instead of rushing out to the synagogue in the morning, she can devote her time to nurturing others. She can cook meals, and drive carpool, and volunteer at community functions. She can even take a nap to make up for lost sleep. This service of G‑d seems ordinary in contrast to reading the Torah and wrapping tefillin. So, Jacob was telling Joseph, “Don’t be mistaken. Rachel was no second-class citizen. She was from the secret service. She understood the value of nurturing human beings over public ritual. She wanted to be buried in Bethlehem.”

Serving G‑d requires humility. Doing mitzvahs compels us to focus on G‑d’s desires instead of on our own natural inclinations. But there is a danger of developing a religious ego. Even though we may be doing the right thing, the smug superiority that comes along with it is not a G‑dly sensation. That’s the trap found in the masculine service of G‑d. Masculine service is out there in the open, so it’s more susceptible to arrogance. In contrast, feminine service of G‑d is more subtle. It’s a behind-the-scenes contribution to the development of am Yisrael (the Jewish nation). It’s an investment in the future, an investment which will take years to mature. It’s a humble service.7

What did Rachel’s prayer have that others’ didn’t?

The Midrash8 tells us that at the pathetic sight of the Jews being exiled from their land, all of the patriarchs pleaded with G‑d to stop the humiliation of the Jews. But G‑d was unmoved by their pleas. After all, the Jewish people had been warned by many prophets that they would be exiled if they didn’t return to an upstanding Torah lifestyle. G‑d had given them enough opportunities to reinvent themselves. But when Rachel had her turn to advocate on their behalf, G‑d “melted” and promised her that her “children will return to their own border.” And in fact, seventy years later they returned. What did Rachel’s prayer have that the others’ didn’t? It was her self-sacrifice. Her life was about her family. Her death was about her children. That was something that G‑d couldn’t ignore. If Rachel gave up the burial place that she so rightfully deserved for the sake of the Jewish people, G‑d would mitigate the consequence that they rightfully deserved in order to help them recover.

The service of humility is irresistible up on high. This is the service of Rachel and the legacy of the Jewish woman.9