Death Pangs

Genesis: Vayishlach

Death Pangs

“Push!” Yimeh, the midwife urged, “I can see the baby’s head.”

“There is no more strength in me;” Rachel breathed heavily, “this child has drained my life.”

Rachel was in birthing position on the bed in her tent. Bilhah and Zilpah held Rachel’s arms on either side, while Yimeh was squatting at the foot of the bed, ready to catch the newborn should it succeed in exiting Rachel’s swollen womb. Leah was running back and forth, preparing hot water, getting fresh cloths and doing anything to keep busy. Leah could not bring herself to be in direct contact with her dying sister.

Yes. Rachel was undoubtedly dying. Leah had seen the signs at the birthing-deaths of other women. Rachel’s loss of blood during labor was severe. It was a miracle she had not died already, and that the baby was not stillborn. There was only hope for the baby now, though that too was diminishing quickly.

“Save your breath,” Yimeh said more urgently to Rachel, “the only thing you need do in this world now is push.

“Call Jacob,” Rachel pleaded weakly, “I must see him one last time before I die.”

“I said stop talking!” Yimeh clamped the palm of her hand over Rachel’s mouth, “Push! Do not speak! Push! Push! Push!”

Rachel was shocked by Yimeh’s vehemence and awoke from her stupor. With renewed energy and concentration she started to push.

“That is it.” Yimeh encouraged, “Push in time with the urge.”

Leah in the meantime exited the tent to look for Jacob and at least fulfill her sister’s dying wish.

“You are doing it,” Yimeh reported, “the head is starting to descend.”

“Aaargh!” Rachel screamed, “it is killing me!”

“Do not talk!” Yimeh clamped Rachel’s mouth again, “Do not even scream. Use the pain to push. It is all about pushing now. There is nothing else in the world. Not pain, not limbs, not a baby, not even yourself. You must become a pushing machine, a pushing entity, for the next few moments. Push!”

Yimeh kept her hand on Rachel’s mouth, stifling the next scream.

“I can see the head!” Yimeh exclaimed, “That is very good. Now is the critical part. Listen, Rachel. With the next urge, you must push with all your might. As if the entire world depended on it. I am taking my hand off now. Do not speak. Take a deep breath. Do not do anything else but push at the next urge with your entire being.”

Rachel nodded her understanding. She took a deep breath. Her eyes focused on nothing. Then gritting her teeth, clenching the arms of Bilhah on her right and Zilpah on her left, she pushed.

“Yes! Now! Push!!” Yimeh yelled.

“Nnnggh!” Rachel grunted through her shut mouth.

“The head is out!” Yimeh proclaimed, as she tried to ease the baby out. “The hardest part is over Rachel. Just a few more pushes and you will be done.”

“More?” Rachel asked incredulously, dazed from her last effort.

“Yes.” Yimeh answered, focused on the baby, “Just two or three more pushes to get the rest of the body through.”

“Hah!” Rachel laughed weakly, “I am surprised the last push did not kill me. You will have to do the rest of the pushing, Yimeh.”

“You are not done yet.” Yimeh retorted.

“This body is –“ but Rachel inexorably started to push.

“Very good, Rachel,” Yimeh calmly said as she supported the baby’s head. “Save your breath and keep pushing. The first shoulder is out.”

Jacob suddenly entered the tent with Leah right behind him.

He was shocked by the large pools of blood on the bed and the floor.

He stood silently, looking at the pained and dying Rachel, whom he now understood he would lose momentarily. He then looked at the head of the baby struggling to escape the dying womb. If Rachel did not succeed, it might very well be its tomb.

“Jacob!” Rachel shouted out as soon as she noticed him.

“Quiet!” Yimeh commanded. “Do I need to clamp your mouth again? The very life of this child depends on you not speaking. You must focus on the last pushes. My lord,” Yimeh addressed Jacob, “please do not distract her. The life of your child hangs in the balance.”

Jacob moved to the back of the tent behind Rachel’s view and quietly said to Rachel:

“I am here, my love. Focus on the labor and what Yimeh instructs you. I shall not leave you. Have no fear.”

Rachel’s answer was only: “Nnngh!”

“The second shoulder is out!” Yimeh called out joyously as she delivered the baby.

“Whaaaah!” the baby wailed before Yimeh even had a chance to give it the customary slap.

Yimeh expertly wiped the baby down and clamped the umbilical cord. She then wrapped the baby in fresh cloth and gingerly handed it to the dying mother.

“Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” Yimeh said, knowing the last words Rachel would want to hear.

Rachel clasped the boy to her and cried tears of joy and of sorrow. She turned her head to look at Jacob. She thought back to their first meeting by the well. She thought of their history. She thought of all that went unsaid and undone between them. To the life that might have been. To the children she might have raised.

Clutching the boy to her chest, with tears streaming down her face, she used her last breath to name him. “He shall be called ‘Son of my Sorrow’ – Ben-oni.”

Rachel then closed her eyes for the last time, still holding the boy tightly.

The tent was as silent as a grave.

Yimeh extracted the boy from Rachel’s dead embrace and handed him to Jacob.

Jacob cradled him tenderly in his right arm, as wordless tears rolled down his beard.

“This is a day of deep sorrow for me,” Jacob finally exhaled, “and for you my son. For you shall not know your mother, the love of my life. But your existence should not be further colored by sorrow. You are the last gift of my Rachel. Oh! My beloved, Rachel!” Jacob wept.

“’Son of my Sorrow’ is not fitting for you.” Jacob continued through his tears, “Rather, you shall remain constantly by my side. You whose countenance is so much like my Rachel. You shall be named ‘Son of my Right Arm’ – Benjamin.”

“Whaah!” was Benjamin’s only answer.

* * * * * *


“They journeyed to Bet-El and there was still a stretch of land to go to Ephrath, when Rachel went into labor and had difficulty in her childbirth. And it was when she had difficulty in her labor that the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for this one, too, is a son for you.” And it came to pass, as her soul was departing – for she died – that she called his name Son of my Sorrow (Ben-oni), but his father called him Benjamin.” Genesis 35:16-18

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