parasha

Vayishlach 5778

A Woman from an Earlier Generation
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites
 
In this week’s parasha, we read about Jacob’s return from Haran, where he raised his large family, to Canaan, the land of his birth and where his parents – Isaac and Rebecca – lived.  This journey was full of hardships.  At the beginning, Jacob had to deal with his father-in-law, Lavan, who chased him and tried to prevent him from returning to his land.  Then Jacob’s family got into trouble with the people of Shechem when the son of the local ruler kidnapped Jacob’s only daughter, Dina, and wanted to marry her against her will.  In a controversial military action, Jacob’s sons killed the people of Shechem and released their sister.  As the journey continued, another tragedy struck: Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, died in childbirth.

Rachel’s is not the only death we read about in this parasha.  Two others die during the timeframe of Jacob’s journey.  One is a familiar character – Isaac, Jacob’s father, dies in old age and is buried in the family plot in the Cave of the Patriarchs (Me’arat Hamachpela).  Another person who dies during the course of the journey is a mysterious and unknown woman.  We read about it in the following verse:
And Deborah, Rebecca's nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the plain; so he named it Allon Bachuth.
(Genesis 35, 8)
We know nothing more about this woman’s life other than that she was Rebecca’s nurse, meaning her educator.  Therefore, her death and burial are noted, and the place of her grave is given a name, an unusual event in the Bible.  Who was Deborah and why was it important to note her death?
Careful study shows that Deborah is mentioned one other time in the Torah, but without her name.  It was when Rebecca was parting from her parents’ home on her way to Canaan to marry Isaac.  There it says, “So they sent away Rebecca their sister and her nurse…” (Genesis 24, 59).  Deborah, it seems, was the one who accompanied Rebecca as she joined Abraham’s family.  This makes her a significant character in Rebecca’s spiritual growth and that of her children.
And what does Rebecca do in Beit El where she died and was buried? The famous biblical commentator, Rashi, explains, “What connection does Deborah have with Jacob’s household? However, since Rebecca said to Jacob, ‘and I will send and take you from there’, [it was] Deborah [whom] she sent to him, to Padan-aram [to instruct him] to leave from there, and she died on the way.”
Jacob’s stay in Haran was coerced.  He had fled from his brother Esau’s rage and found shelter with his uncle Lavan.  Then, he had to stay there for fourteen years so that Lavan would allow him to marry his daughter Rachel.  At the end of those fourteen years, we might have expected Jacob to return to his ancestral home in Canaan, but Jacob stays in Haran longer to establish himself financially.  And just as we would have expected Jacob to return to his homeland, so did his mother Rebecca.  But she was disappointed.  After several years passed, she sent Deborah to bring Jacob back.  On her way, she met Jacob who was already on his way with his family, camping in Beit El.  There, Deborah completed her mission and died.
For Jacob, Deborah was someone who symbolized the connection with previous generations.  That was why she was chosen to go bring Jacob back to his country.  The deaths of certain people cause us to remember their lives and what they symbolized for us.  A moment before Jacob returned and was reunited with his parents, the Torah tells us through this story of Deborah’s death that he was not separated from his parents’ heritage.  On the contrary, he thought about it and felt connected to it.  This was expressed by his reaction to Deborah’s death as such a significant event as to warrant naming the site of her burial Allon Bachut, meaning the Oak of Weeping, symbolizing the sadness over Deborah’s death. 

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