Detail from “Jacob and Rachel at the Well” by James Tissot, 1899
Detail from “Jacob and Rachel at the Well” by James Tissot, 1899

Joseph and Benjamin had two mommies


Genesis 44:18–47:27

The scene: Pharaoh has given Jacob’s family the land of Goshen in which to settle down. Joseph is visiting his brother Benjamin. They have hashed out Joseph’s ruse of holding Benjamin to bring back their brothers and then revealing to their brothers that Joseph is, well, their brother Joseph.

Readers should note that Joseph and Benjamin are the only children of Jacob and Rachel. Following their mother’s early death, they are raised by Bilhah. They are separated when Joseph is sold and taken to Egypt. The conversation turns to a private moment between the two brothers.

Benjamin: Joseph, tell me more about Mom.

Joseph: Do you mean Rachel or Bilhah?

Benjamin: Rachel, our birth mother, who died soon after I was born. I never knew her. Bilhah I remember very well, after all, she raised us after Mom died as if we were her own children (Gen. Rabbah 84:11). You hung out with her sons, Dan and Naphtali, like real brothers (Tanchuma, Vayeshev). Then you were gone. They said you were dead. Then we came here, to Egypt, and surprise, you are alive and second to Pharaoh.

Joseph: You know more about Bilhah than I do. Did she take care of Dad?

Benjamin: Oh, yes. After Rachel died, Bilhah moved in to his tent (Genesis Rabbati, Vayishlah, pp. 156-7) and took care of him when he fell ill (Pesikta Rabbati, Bayom Hashemini 3). It was Bilhah who told you he was ill. She stayed with him until he died.

Joseph: I see. That must be why our brothers went first to her after Dad died. They knew Joseph and Bilhah were close and that’s why they asked her to speak with me on their behalf. They feared that I would be vengeful for staging my death, selling me off, and telling everyone I was dead. They thought they needed Bilhah to find compassion in me. (Tanhuma, Exodus 2)

Benjamin: Why weren’t you vengeful? Was it Bilhah’s influence?

Joseph: No. I learned compassion from Rachel. Before our father died, he told me this story: When Joseph asked Rachel, “Will you marry me?” she said, “Yes, but you should know that my father’s a trickster and he will outwit you.” “And what is his trickery?” “I have a sister older than I and he will try to marry her off first.” So he gave her signs (signals by which he would ensure the bride was Rachel). Come the night of the wedding, Rachel saw Leah being led to the chuppah. She thought: Now my sister will be humiliated? And she gave over the signs.” (Talmud Megillah 13b)

Benjamin: Our mother Rachel gave the secret signs to her sister Leah?

Joseph: Yes, she supported her sister, Leah, to marry Jacob instead of her so Leah would not be humiliated. Rachel did this knowing she may never wed Jacob. Rachel knew her father Laban had set up Leah for disgrace. She alone prevented her sister’s humiliation. She defied the patriarchy and defended her sister. Her compassionate heart enabled her to see beyond herself.

That is why, every time our brothers cried out in fear and remorse, I thought: What would Rachel our mother do? I choose not to shame and humiliate them before the Egyptians.

I took away their pain and shame, saying:

“Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves that you sold me into this place, because it was to save lives that God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:5)

“God sent me before you to give you a remnant on the earth, and to save you alive for a great deliverance.” (45:7)

“It was not you who sent me here, but God.” (45:8)

You see, Benjamin, Rachel told me, “God remembered me, and God hearkened to me, and opened my womb.” (Genesis 30:22)

Rachma,” her womb. The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from rechem, meaning “a womb.”

When I heard our brothers, I remembered Rachel, and opened my heart of compassion. Tell that story of our family to our family. Remember the devotion of Bilhah and the compassion of Rachel.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].