And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept (Gen. 29:11, R. Alter trans.). Why is Jacob crying? The simplest explanation would seem to be relief. After fleeing in terror from his enraged brother, experiencing strange visions in the night, and vowing anxiously to repay God if he ever makes it home, Jacob has arrived empty-handed at a well. And who is the first person he meets? His cousin Rachel. He has found the only family in the world that can be expected to give him refuge, and so he weeps with relief.
Or, in the words of Rabbi David Kimhi, commenting on Jeremiah 31:8, Jacob’s tears are tears of joy. So too when he reunites with Esau and is warmly embraced, Jacob will again weep with joy. Jeremiah predicts a future return of exiles to the land, and they too will weep with joy at their reversal of fortune.
But not all traditions read Jacob’s tears as joyous. Midrash Bereshit Rabba (70:11) offers three sad explanations for his weeping. The most far-fetched of them imagines Jacob mourning—he sees Rachel and prophesies all the way to the end of their lives, knowing that they will marry, but that Rachel will not be buried with him. A second possibility is that Jacob weeps out of shame that the locals will judge him for marrying his first cousin—and also her sister—since the local people were “careful about incest.”
However, the first and most compelling midrashic explanation connects to Jacob’s sudden awareness that he is empty-handed. He recalls that when his grandfather Abraham sent a servant to find a wife for Isaac, he arrived laden with precious gifts. Until now Jacob has been intent merely on survival, but now that he is alive and in the presence of Rachel, he becomes painfully aware of his poverty. Continue reading