Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Vayishlach

“The Nurturing Leader”

The class I was teaching on the subject of leadership, using the book of Genesis as a source text, was proving to be quite a learning experience for me. The diversity of the students in the class was proving to be especially important, because each student was stressing a different aspect of leadership. The class confirmed for me that, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav put it, “Every shepherd has his own melody.”

This week’s class, focusing on the weekly Torah portion of Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) was in one sense very much like the previous class sessions. However, as we will see, it had its own unique flavor.

The class began with a statement by Carol. The reader will remember that Carol had demonstrated early on that she preferred the role of “big sister” in the group. She characteristically defended the underdog in the often heated debates among her fellow students. She showed herself to be an optimist, seeing only the good in people, and she had a way of sensitively taking care of others.

“You have all been teasing me,” she began, “and have been calling me ‘the big sister.’ Well, I am proud to play that role in the group, because I think that taking care of others in a sisterly, or even in a motherly, fashion is one important kind of leadership and one that is especially lacking nowadays. And I intend to prove it from an often overlooked verse in this week’s Torah portion.”

At this point, Carol launched into what was obviously a very well-prepared lecture. She began by briefly summarizing the events surrounding Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan. She described Jacob’s encounter with Esau, his dramatic sojourn in Shechem, and finally his arrival in Bethel, at which point we read this brief passage: “Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-Bachut, the Oak of the Weeping.”

It was at this moment that Carol became quite emotional. “There is something about this brief verse that touched me very deeply. I didn’t recall ever having learned of the existence of anyone named Deborah in our study of Genesis so far. Yet her death is not only noted in the Bible, but apparently it evoked great mourning. Obviously Jacob and his sons were very grieved by her passing. I felt almost possessed by a need to find out more about this Deborah.”

She shared her little research project with the class and told them of her discovery that Deborah was indeed referred to earlier in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, which we read three weeks ago, although there, she went unnamed.

“It was way back when, long before Rebecca’s son, Jacob, was even born,” she explained, “that his mother Rebecca departed from her home and family to journey to Canaan and marry Isaac. But her brother and mother did not let her go alone. As we read in chapter 24 verse 59, ‘They sent off their sister Rebecca and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant…’ That nurse was Deborah.”

Carol continued to report upon her probing analysis of the situation. She pointed out that many years intervened between the first mention of the nurse Deborah and her ultimate passing as a member of Jacob’s camp. She asked me and the rest of the class whether we had any idea how this old nurse ended up in Jacob’s camp in the first place. Before any of us had a chance to answer her she excitedly told us what she had discovered in Rashi’s commentary.

“Rashi suggests that Rebecca had sent Deborah back to her brother Laban’s home in Haran to send for Jacob and tell him that it was time for him to come home to Canaan, as she had promised she would do in chapter 27 verse 45: ‘When your brother’s anger subsides…I will send for you and fetch you from there.’ Deborah was Rebecca’s emissary and, although by then an aged woman, traveled at her mistress’s behest from Beersheba to Haran and ultimately back to Bethel, where she died, was buried, and was so profoundly mourned.”

It was unusual for any one student in this class to be able to hold the floor without interruption from one of the other students. But Carol clearly had the rest of the class transfixed. I was about to intervene and ask the others if they wished to participate when Carol preempted me.

“I know that I am monopolizing this session, but the research that I just shared with you has led me to speculate on why Rebecca would choose to use this old woman to travel hundreds of miles eastward to fetch Jacob and return with him to Canaan. I arrived at my own answer to this question, and it relates to the theory of the type of leadership which fits my personal style.

“We all learned, way back when, just how corrupt the environment in Laban’s home was. Rebecca knew that she herself was only able to remain immune to Laban’s influence because of the nurture and care which she experienced from infancy at the hands of her dear Deborah. She knew that Jacob and his wives and many children living under Laban’s domination were at great risk, physically and spiritually. She had to send someone who could play a role in Jacob’s life and in the lives of his children, her grandchildren, akin to the role played by Deborah in her own early childhood. Hence, she beseeched the frail, old Deborah to courageously undertake the mission of nurturing her son’s family, despite the difficult journey which was required.

“Here we have,” she concluded, “the Torah’s allusion to a different type of leadership altogether. Not one of charisma, authority, control, or power. Rather, the tender, nurturing leadership of ‘the big sister;’ in this case, the old nursemaid. Only she could offer the unique kind of leadership which could keep Jacob and his entire family spiritually pure and physically intact.”

The class sat silently, impressed by the amount of research and contemplation that Carol had clearly invested in this tour de force. It remained for Zalman, the class’s “talmid chacham,” to provide the icing for Carol’s delicious cake.

“Your beautiful insights, Carol,” he said in a soft voice suffused with genuine respect, “give extra depth to an exceptional Midrash quoted in the commentary known as Daat Zekainim MiBaalei HaTosafot. This Midrash connects Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, with another Deborah who lived hundreds of years later, Deborah the Prophetess. In the book of Judges, Chapter 4, we read: ‘Deborah…led Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.’

“The Midrash identifies the tree under which the later Deborah sat as a compassionate judge with the tree under which the earlier Deborah was buried. It is almost as if the earlier Deborah was the role model for the type of ‘big sister’ nurturing leadership which the later Deborah emulated with such historic success.”

As I said at the outset of this column, this was a very different session, and one which introduced a very different, but fundamentally important, concept of leadership.

Indeed as Rabbi Nachman, himself a leader who nurtures the Jewish people even today, 200 years after his death, insisted: “Every shepherd has his own melody.” Every leader has his, or her, own leadership style.