Jewish women (myself included) are notorious for advertising their martyrdom, Subtle intonations of what we give to others at our own expense tend to slide into many a conversation. For some reason, everyone else (including other martyrs) seems to find this habit annoying.

I've often wondered why my martyrdom seemed to irritate other people, until I came up with this theory: a martyr uses the façade of selflessness to win attention and recognition. In its most pathological form, a martyr is a co-dependant, desperately needing to be needed. Okay, I get how that can be annoying.

The pathological martyr is co-dependant, she needs to be neededNow let's explore the authentic side of self-sacrifice, the kind that is truly sincere; the kind that attracts recognition without trying. This martyr understands that there is something more valuable than personal comfort and is gladly willing to sacrifice for the sake of a greater ambition.

Luckily, the Torah provides us with the prototype of a true martyr, a woman (of course) who consistently puts aside her own agenda – but here's the key – with no strings attached and no hidden motive. Let's look at the story line.

Towards the end of the Book of Genesis, shortly before Jacob's death, Jacob summons his son Joseph and is about to bless his grandchildren Manasseh and Ephraim. Suddenly, however, Jacob interjects and, with no introduction at all, proceeds to address Joseph, opening an old wound in their relationship. He tells Joseph, "And when I came from Padan, Rachel died unto me in the land of Canaan on the road…. I buried her there on the road to Ephrat which is Bethlehem."1

In the next verse he is already talking about his grandchildren. What's this interjection all about?

A few verses earlier, Jacob had asked Joseph to bring his body up from Egypt and bury him in Hebron, in the vaunted Cave of Machpeilah alongside his illustrious parents and grandparents. And now Jacob is telling Joseph, Rachel's oldest son, that "although I burden you to bring me to be buried in the Land of Canaan, and I did not do likewise for your mother, for she died near Bethlehem—"

Rachel is the only Matriarch not buried in Hebron.

Joseph felt badly that his mother had lost out on the great honor of being buried in the Machpeilah Cave with the rest of the holy matriarchs and patriarchs. Jacob's request for his own burial must have aroused this latent feeling of disappointment for his mother.

"—but know that it was by the word of G‑d that I buried her there, so that she might help her children when Nebuzaradan would send them into exile [to Babylon, after the destruction of the first Holy Temple,] and when they would pass by her way Rachel would emerge from her grave and cry and beseech G‑d to have mercy on them. As it is said2 'A voices is heard On High [lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children].' And the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, 'There is reward for your work,' says G‑d… 'and the children shall return to their own border.'"3

Rachel never felt that she lost anything through givingHow does Jacob soothe the aching heart of his son? In a sense he was saying, "Yes my son, your mother was a martyr, this was her conscious choice. G‑d commanded me to bury Rachel in the outskirts of Bethlehem because this was Rachel's desire—to give up her honored burial place in order to provide comfort for her children as they passed by her grave, on their way down to exile in Babylon."

Self-sacrifice was a central theme in Rachel's life. She allowed her sister to marry the man whom she loved. And she did it with a full heart. Rachel never felt that she lost anything through giving. And she never did.

Listen to Jacob's words of affection: "When I was in Padan Rachel died unto me." She was the pillar of my home, and the pillar of my heart. She died on me. Jacob expresses his immeasurable love for Rachel within the context of her self-sacrifice.

He tells Joseph, "Don't you see my son? This was your mother's greatness. She gave endlessly of herself but never felt bereft of self-fulfillment. I loved her so, and I just knew that this is exactly where she'd want – where she'd demand! – to be interred. Being buried on the road to Bethlehem so that she could eventually come to the aid of her children—is completely in sync with her life's legacy."

True martyrdom is the conscious choice to put personal benefit on hold for the sake of a greater benefit. It leaves no room for self pity or even self aggrandizement.

And the Holy One, blessed be He, answers her, "There is reward for your work."4