|וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת:|
And Deborah the nurse of Rebecca died, and she was buried below Beit El, under the oak tree. And its name was called “Oak Tree of Weeping” – Allon Bacut (Genesis 35:8)
This is the first – and last – we will hear of this particular Deborah, although of course the story – and song – of a more famous Deborah will appear in the Book of Judges.
But this Deborah is more of a puzzle. Rashi tries to solve the mystery by saying “How came Deborah to be in Jacob’s house? But the explanation is: because Rebekah had promised Jacob (Gen. 27:45) “then I will send and fetch thee from thence”, she sent Deborah to him to Padan Aram to tell him to leave that place, and she died on the return journey. I learned this from a comment of R. Moses HaDarshan (the exegete and Rosh Yeshiva of Narbonne)
What does the bible tell us? That a woman named Deborah had been the nursemaid of our matriarch Rebecca. That she died on the journey back to the land, shortly before Rachel died giving birth on the road from Beit El, and that her grave was marked not by a pillar of stone as Rachel’s was, but by a well-known oak tree, whose name refers to mourning.
Eleven verses separate the deaths of the two women. One cannot but wonder if there was a connection – whether the loss of Deborah, “meineket Rivka”– meant a loss of the wisdom she held around childbirth and nurturing. One cannot help comparing the two graves – one under a “tree of weeping”, the other by the roadside with a stone pillar “that is there till this day” (v20) .
When we read the text, we generally focus on the terrible experience of Rachel, who in her agony calls the child whose birth is killing her “son of my pain/sorrow” before she dies – and the fact that his father breaks the convention and renames the child “Benjamin”. We see this complex and traumatic death and birth, and our minds leap ahead to the problems of the sons of Rachel. Poor Deborah, the nursemaid of Rebecca, is left to her grave under the mysteriously named tree.
The Book of Jubilees also tells the story of the death of Deborah, nursemaid to Rebecca, and it adds a few details
“And in the night, on the twenty-third of this month, Deborah Rebecca’s nurse died, and they buried her beneath the city under the oak of the river, and he called the name of this place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah.”” (Jubilees 32:25ff)
So Deborah dies on what is now Simchat Torah, and there is not only an oak tree but also a river to mark her resting place. Simchat Torah is the date when we both end and begin the yearly Torah reading. There is a moment of death and of rebirth; a cliff-edge experience as we see the land in front of Moses’ eyes and hear of his death but do not enter the land of Israel, immediately followed by a retelling of the creation of the world. What can we make of a death that takes place on this date, marked by the flowing river water and the weeping tree?
The title of Deborah, “meineket Rivka” means that she literally fed Rebecca as her nursemaid. Given that Rebecca’s own children had children by now, one must ask what that role would have been, what Deborah would be “feeding” Rebecca for her to still be known by this title? It is generally understood that she was the transmitter of an important wisdom to enable Rebecca to function fully as the matriarch she was. This understanding is embodied in “Meineket Rivka” which is the title of the first known Yiddish book written by a woman – Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague – a book of ethical wisdom and piety which included stories from Talmud and midrash, and in which the writer differentiates between the wisdom of the body (guf) and the wisdom of the soul (nefesh)
The wisdom of Deborah was surely also both practical and spiritual, dealing with both material matters (body) and “beyond material” matters. The name Rebecca means “to join” or “to connect” or even to “tie firmly”. The wisdom Deborah passes on to Rebecca must then be to help her to join heaven to earth, to use both the aspects of body and of soul to create a more fulfilled world. The markers by her grave reflect her wisdom – the tree, planted in the ground, slow growing oak, represents the “guf” – the body or earthly realm. The river, fast moving and ever changing represents the “nefesh” and the flow of life.
The wisdom that Deborah brings – even if it is never explicit in biblical text – is alluded to at her death. To get a fuller understanding of this almost disappeared woman, we must turn to the natural world and its symbolism. The oak tree weeps. Someone who understood the relationship between the natural environment and the purpose of the human being in the world, has gone. The wisdom she held is partly transmitted and partly has to be learned again by another generation.
We have many texts in bible and in rabbinic literature which allude to the relationship between humanity and the earth, and how that relationship informs our relationship with God and our ability to fulfil our purpose. We learn from previous generations and we absorb from them much wisdom. But inevitably some is lost, some is deemed irrelevant, some is inconvenient and quietly forgotten. And then we have to relearn what once was understood.
The weeping tree standing guard over Deborah’s grave beneath Beit El is a living reminder of our role and responsibility in the world. The demonstrable loss of wisdom after her death, as well as the flow of life relentlessly moving onward, remind us that there is no once and for all event, but that we are part of a dynamic process, learning and relearning how to live in the world while expressing the ethics and values of what we now call the Jewish tradition. One might say that we are still called by natural objects and events to bring us back to our purpose in the world– the rain forests being destroyed, polluted waters around the world, climatic events never before seen etc call to us to learn and relearn the wisdom of our tradition, so as to bring forth a world we can live in well, and pass on respectfully to the next generations.
image of the grave of Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner, author of meineket Rivka in Prague