And I [Jacob] 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.” 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.”1

When Jacob knew his final days were near, he charged his son Joseph with the responsibility of ensuring that he would be taken out of Egypt and buried in Israel in the holy Cave of Machpelah, where his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, his grandparents Abraham and Sarah, and Adam and Eve were buried. As Joseph listened intently to his father’s last wish and directive, his angst and pain about his mother’s burial intensified.

Joseph knew that his mother, Rachel, was his father’s most beloved wife, and that Jacob would do anything for her. After all, Jacob had worked for his deceitful uncle Laban for 14 years just to gain his consent to marry her. So why would his father bury her alongside the road, rather than bring her to the Cave of Machpelah for proper burial in the ancestral plot?

Jacob, sensing Joseph’s anguish, comforted his son by revealing the hidden story behind her unusual burial: G‑d instructed him to bury her on the way to Bethlehem so that, in the future, she could advocate for her descendants on their way into exile. Her roadside burial highlighted her greatness. G‑d instructed that she be buried on the road becauseonly her merit would guarantee the Jews’ redemption.

The descendants that Rachel sacrificed her burial place for would be passing along that road nearly 1,000 years into the future! However, knowing that she could save her children by advocating for them, she wanted to be buried there. It didn’t matter that these children she was praying for had sinned, despite repeated admonishments and warnings by the holy prophets.

Rachel’s self-sacrifice generated G‑d’s mercy and His promise to return the Jews back to their own borders in Israel. For through Rachel’s recognizing these sinning Jews as her beloved children, G‑d, too, considered them not based on their deeds, but their essence as His children. The children were promised a return to their home.

The Rebbe points out that Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice for her future descendants reflects the way in which women serve G‑d. While we are all created to serve G‑d,2 there are differences in how we achieve this objective, as can be seen in the different types of commandments given to men and women. Because of their primary responsibilities within the home, women are mostly exempt from “time-bound” commandments,3 many of which center around prayer and study.4 (Women are also obligated to learn and pray, but not in the same regimented manner.)

The Rebbe compares the woman’s primary role within the home and the man’s obligations of prayer and study to the two types of burials: along the road and in the Cave of Machpelah. Rachel’s burial on the side of the road was devoid of any noticeable spiritual meaning or significance; however, her burial there was all about her children’s lives, hope and survival. Her burial was not self-focused or personally gratifying; it was completely altruistic. Jacob’s burial, on the other hand, had the glory and bliss of Divine revelation at the holy site of the Cave of Machpelah. He cherished this site for its holiness and yearned to be buried there.

When raising a family, a significant amount of a woman’s time is devoted to seemingly mundane tasks (e.g., cooking kosher meals, shopping for clothes, running to doctor’s appointments, carpooling, etc.) that often don’t feel very spiritual. In contrast, a man’s way of serving G‑d inherently contains overtly spiritual components that inspire and uplift him on a more consistent basis. His obligations include deep religious study and joining thrice daily group prayers that provide spiritual gratification.

Obviously, there is plenty of overlap in the roles of men and women: A husband is expected to contribute in the house and in the raising of the children, and obligated to teach them Torah. And the wife’s spiritual well-being requires that she regularly sustain her soul with prayer, study, group events, etc. However, the commandments that prescribe the spiritual service of men and women correspond to the make-up of their souls and express their singular qualities and strengths.

The nature of women’s service highlights our essential bond with G‑d, serving Him without regard for self-benefit or spiritual gratification. It is for this reason that a person’s Jewishness is determined by having been born to a Jewish mother (unless one has converted). She transmits a soul—an actual part of G‑d that is independent of any particulars, giving the Jew an essential and unconditional connection to G‑d. On the other hand, tribal affiliation, and whether a Jew is a Cohen, Levi or Israel (with their varied spiritual standings), is determined by the father. These specific tribal categories reflects a man's service, which is defined by its obvious spirituality.

While on the surface, a lot of what a woman is engaged with seems physical or banal, in truth it is the essence of spirituality. She imparts an uncompromised Jewish identity. The vast majority of the Torah’s commandments take place in the home, not in shuls and study halls. Within the daily responsibilities and grueling tasks involved with caring for the needs of her family, she models and inculcates Jewish values and demonstrates how to live life according to Jewish law. It is primarily women who create that special atmosphere that evokes the feeling of anticipation and love for Judaism, the holidays and all observances. Her role is nothing short of vital.

Rachel, the quintessential Jewish mother, preferred a roadside burial over a prestigious holy tomb with Jacob, solely for the opportunity to be there for her future descendants. Her actions prompted G‑d to respond in kind, revealing His unconditional love and essential bond with His children, regardless of their spiritual standing.

Only Rachel’s prayers procured G‑d’s promise that the children would return to their borders. May the prayers and efforts of Jewish women past and present finally bring the ultimate salvation. As the Talmud states, “In the merit of the righteous women, our ancestors were redeemed from Egypt, and it will be in the merit of the righteous women that the Jews will be redeemed from exile.”5

(Based on Likkutei Sichot, vol. 30)

This article is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary, of blessed memory.