Vayishlach: From Devorah to Devorah

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03 Dec 2009

Dinah is violated, and Shimon and Levi do something about it – they wipe out the male Shechemites 1. In principle, it seems that Yaakov agrees – only he is worried about the consequences [Bereishis, 34:30]:

Thereupon, Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi, “You have troubled me, to discredit me among the inhabitants of the land, … and I am few in number, and they will gather against me, and I and my household will be destroyed.”

Given Yaakov’s concern, the brothers’ response seems strange:

And they said, “Shall he make our sister like a harlot?”

Yaakov certainly agrees with their basic sentiment; His is a pragmatic existential concern – something the brothers ostensibly fail to address. Apparently, says Ohr HaChaim, the brothers make the point that there are things in life that must transcend life; at some point, one must take a stand – for one who has nothing to die for barely knows why he lives.

Upon Divine dictate, Yaakov & family move on to Beit-el.

And God said to Yaakov, “Arise and go up to Beit-el. … [M]ake there an altar to the God Who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Eisav.”

A simple question arises: But didn’t Yaakov already guarantee [Bereishis, 28:22] that, on his return trip, he shall stop in Beit-El? Since
Yaakov was self-obliged, whither the Divine command?

Prior to moving to Beit-El, Yaakov has a job to do:

Thereupon Yaakov said to his household and to all those who were with him, “Remove the foreign gods, which are in your midst, purify yourselves and change your clothes. … And they gave Yaakov all the deities of the nations that were in their possession and the earrings that were in their ears, and Yaakov hid them under the terebinth that was near Shechem.

The keen reader might instantly associate this event with something that sounds eerily familiar, for, in the craziness of the Golden Calf buildup, Bnei Yisrael remove their earrings as well – only this time it is in the opposite direction! Now they are giving it all up as a rejection of idolatry. What is Yaakov’s entourage doing with foreign gods in the first place? Rashi explains they are a holdover from the Shechem booty. 2 The Torah matter-of-factly describes the remarkable result of this purge:

They traveled, and the fear of God was upon the cities that were around them, so that they did not pursue Yaakov’s sons.

Divine fear envelopes those who planned to wipe out Bnei Yisrael. Ramban records that Yaakov had engaged in three major battles until this point. But now, it is davka Bnei Yisrael’s internal purification that creates their halo effect. With Lavan, Eisav and now the natives out of the way, the coast for Yaakov finally seems clear!

But before his return, God changes his name from Yaakov to Yisrael and alas Rachel dies on the way [and is buried in Kever Rachel] – never ultimately seeing Yitzchak and Rivkah; an encounter that surely everybody wanted never was to be. Yaakov finally comes home, anticipating a tearful and joyous reunion after a 36-year hiatus. There are grandchildren, and plenty of them, and surely Rivkah deserves that nachas. But it appears that this, too, never was:

And Yaakov came to his father Isaac, to Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac dwelt.

Yaakov comes home to Yitzchak – but where is Rivkah? The answer to that mystery lies tucked in an enigmatic verse that forms the essence of our inquiry. Tucked away after the Beit-El purification/altar building and before Yaakov’s name change is a the following verse.

And Devorah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beit-el, beneath the plain; so he named it Alon Bachut… And God appeared again to Yaakov when he came from Padan aram, and He blessed him.

Several obvious questions emerge:

  1. Who is Devorah, and why have we not heard of her before?
  2. Of what relevance is this information to us?
  3. Why mention it right now?
  4. Why name the place the “tree of cryings
  5. What bracha does Hashem give here?

Ramban and Rashi fill in the picture based on midrashim. First, we must note that Rivkah’s previously unnamed nursemaid has appeared already; the scene – Rivkah’s departure from home to marry Yitzchak. Lavan and company ask Rivkah: [24:58-60]

“Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” They sent off Rivkah, their sister, along with her nurse and with Avraham’s servant. They blessed Rivkah. “Our sister, may you become thousands of myriads, and may your descendants inherit the gate of his foes.”

Remember that Rivkah promised to send for Yaakov when Eisav’s anger has subsided. 3 She feels that now is a fortuitous moment and sends Devorah, her trusted nursemaid, to bring Yaakov home. Of course this is amazing synchronicity as Yaakov has already come mostly home in fulfillment of Hashem’s command [cf. Bereishis, 31:3]

Now consider that, using midrashic calculation, Rivkah is about 122 at this time [and was all of 3 when she left home]. Devorah, Rivkah’s nursemaid is even older! Why send the old woman in the first place? Poignantly and perhaps predictably, Devorah delivers Rivkah’s message to Yaakov and then dies. 4 But there is more to the midrash – for Rivkah dies at this juncture as well:

God comforts mourners .. R. Samuel b. Nahman said: What is Alon-bachut? (tree of cryings)? While Yaakov was mourning for Devorah, the news of his mother Rivkah [‘s death] and therefore he wept two weepings. … Thus it is called “Alon-bachut.” … And God blessed him – with the blessing for mourners.

Rivkah, who knows and pines to see her son’s beautiful family, never has her moment. Rivkah’s demise prevents her from enjoying her son’s distinguished family and from hugging the grandchildren; quite literally she is not able to reap the fruits of her mesirus nefesh (sacrifice). One final sad chapter in the Rivkah saga emerges around her burial:

When Rivkah died, they asked who shall go out before her. Avraham died, Yitzchak is sitting blind at home and Yaakov has gone to Padan Aram, shall Eisav the wicked go out and people will curse Rivkah. What did they do [the residents]? They took her coffin at night; Since they took her coffin at night, the text hides her death

The text hides Rivkah’s death – for it symbolizes her covert burial. Thus the tree of cryings – we mourn Devorah’s death and certainly Rivkah’s death, but perhaps even more sad is the ignominious stealth-of-the-night funeral that Rivkah endures! In short order then, Devorah, Rivkah and Rachel die, forming a cloud cover of sadness in what should have been a radiant and victorious return for Yaakov Avinu.

But why does the text link Devorah’s death with Rivkah’s? A simple, subtle midrash fast-forwards us about 500 years later – to the period of the Shoftim (Judges), to the time of great prophetess Devorah, who presides under Devorah’s Palm Tree. [Shoftim, 4:5]

And she sat under the Devorah’s Palm Tree – this was the tree of Devorah, Rivkah’s nursemaid

In other words, Devorah’s tree is not self-named, but rather links her back in time to Devorah the nursemaid! Somehow there is a connection, even as there is no apparent link. Rav Mordechai Alon explains the depth. Here’s the short story:

For 20 years, Jews have been suffering at the mighty hands of Chatzor. Devorah pushes Barak, who is fearful, hesitant and overwhelmed, to look beyond the 900 armored chariots and the mismatch; place your trust in Hashem, do your hishtadlus and He shall take care of the rest. With your internal world in order, the external world will take care of itself. Empowered by Devorah’s words, Barak delivers a crushing blow to Chatzor.

Flash back to Beit-El. Yaakov is coming home and must return there; he is, however, justifiably worried about the Shechem aftermath and about the Canaanite people. He has already suffered 20 years of Lavan. Because he tarries, Hashem must command him to return; 5 he has delayed too much already. Yaakov thus moves on to Beit-El and erects the altar. Before that, however, he removes the foreign gods, which unknowingly creates for him a protective status.

About a hundred years earlier, nursemaid Devorah witnesses Rivkah’s departure from home and her destiny toward greatness. She hears a message [ironically delivered by Lavan] that we impart to our brides to this very day: You shall be great and can conquer your enemies. Note the order. First you become great, then you can conquer your enemies.

Devorah bears witness to the improbable. She who saw her Rivkah’le become a matriarch and witnessed a Yitzchak and helped raise Yaakov who now has yielded Bnei Yisrael – successfully imparts to Yaakov the poignant message. Don’t worry about the outside. It is your task to make sure that Bnei Yisrael is internally great. Then, you shall conquer your enemies. Perhaps this is the precise message that Rivkah through Devorah [because who better than Devorah to deliver that message!] delivers to Yaakov. It is this inspirational message that Devorah (the prophetess) learns from Devorah (the nursemaid) and imparts to Barak.

With the mesorah transmitted, Devorah’s message and messenger having fulfilled their purpose, they move on to a better world leaving behind Yaakov and his children who mourn their losses but cherish the message of inside/outside forever.


1 Cf Ramban, Ramban who explain the halachic rationale behind their actions.

2 But if they are idols – are they not asur b’hana’ah [ forbidden in benefit]? Indeed this is the position of the Midrash Cheifetz. Many explain that they were previously nullified by Gentiles or that they had the status of Bnei Noach who are not included in the prohibition of benefit. Cf Tosafot Avodah zarah 64a, Torah Shleima 35:10

3 27:44-45: Remain with him a short time until your brother’s fury has subsided … and he has forgotten what you did to him. I will then send [for you] and bring you [back] from there.

4 A slightly different approach in Ramban has Devorah returning back home at an earlier time and she helps raise Yaakov’s children. She dies on the road because she returns with Yaakov in order to see Rivkah. A 3rd Ramban approach indicates that Devorah may have been a different woman than the maidservant of chapter 24 even as she is sent by Rivkah to tel Yaakov to return home.

5 Midrash Rabah 81.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.