Vayishlach – the death of Deborah whose wisdom is mourned

L’italiano segue l’inglese

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

Vayishlach – la morte di Debora, la cui saggezza è rimpianta

 :בָּכֽוּת אַלּ֥וֹן  שְׁמ֖וֹ  וַיִּקְרָ֥א  הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן  תַּ֣חַת  לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל מִתַּ֥חַת  וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר רִבְקָ֔ה מֵינֶ֣קֶת דְּבֹרָה֙ וַתָּ֤מָת

E Debora, la nutrice di Rebecca, morì e fu sepolta sotto Beit El, ai piedi della quercia. E il suo nome divenne “Quercia del pianto” – “Allon Bacut” (Genesi 35: 8)

Questa è la prima, e ultima, volta che sentiremo parlare di questa particolare Debora, anche se, ovviamente, la storia, e la canzone, di una Debora più famosa appariranno nel Libro dei Giudici.

Ma questa Debora è più di un enigma. Rashi cerca di risolvere il mistero dicendo: “Come è arrivata Debora nella casa di Giacobbe? E la spiegazione è: poiché Rebecca aveva promesso a Giacobbe (Gen. 27:45) ‘allora ti manderò a prendere da lì’, mandò Debora da lui a Padan Aram per dirgli di lasciare quel posto, e lei morì nel viaggio di ritorno”. L’ho appreso da un commento di R. Moses HaDarshan (esegeta e Rosh Yeshivà di Narbonne)

Cosa ci dice la Bibbia? Che una donna di nome Debora è stata la balia della nostra matriarca Rebecca. Che morì sulla strada di Beit El durante il viaggio di ritorno verso la terra poco prima che Rachele stessa morisse di parto, e che la sua tomba non fu contrassegnata da una colonna di pietra come quella di Rachele, ma da una ben conosciuta quercia,  il cui nome si riferisce al lutto.

Undici versi separano la morte delle due donne. Non si può non chiedersi se ci sia una connessione, se la perdita di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, non significhi una perdita della saggezza custodita sui temi del parto e della cura. E non si può fare a meno di confrontare le due tombe: una sotto un “albero del pianto”, l’altra sul ciglio della strada con un pilastro di pietra “che è lì fino ai nostri giorni” (verso 20).

Quando leggiamo il testo, ci concentriamo generalmente sulla terribile esperienza di Rachele, che nella sua agonia chiama il bambino la cui nascita la sta uccidendo “figlio del mio dolore/dolore” prima di morire, e il fatto che suo padre rompa la convenzione e rinomini il bambino “Beniamino”. Vediamo questa morte complessa e traumatica e la nascita, e le nostre menti vanno in avanti verso i problemi dei figli di Rachele. La povera Debora, la balia di Rebecca, viene lasciata nella sua tomba sotto l’albero misteriosamente chiamato.

Anche il Libro dei Giubilei racconta la storia della morte di Debora, nutrice di Rebecca, e aggiunge alcuni dettagli:

“E nella notte, il ventitreesimo mese di questo mese, Debora la nutrice di Rebecca morì e la seppellirono dietro la città sotto la quercia del fiume, e chiamarono questo luogo ‘Il fiume di Debora’, e la quercia ‘La quercia del compianto di Debora’”. (Giubilei 32: 25 ss)

Quindi Debora muore nel giorno dell’odierna Simchat Torà, e non solo c’è una quercia, ma anche un fiume a segnare il luogo del suo riposo. Simchat Torà è la data in cui sia finiamo che iniziamo la lettura annuale della Torà. C’è un momento di morte e rinascita, un’esperienza di netta cesura in cui vediamo la terra davanti agli occhi di Mosè e sentiamo parlare della sua morte senza poter entrare nella terra di Israele, immediatamente seguiti dalla ripetizione della creazione del mondo. Cosa possiamo farne di una morte che avviene in questa data, segnata dall’acqua fluente del fiume e dall’albero piangente?

Il titolo di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, significa letteralmente che ha dato da mangiare a Rebecca in quanto sua nutrice. Dato che ormai gli stessi figli di Rebecca avevano figli, c’è da chiedersi cosa abbia comportato quel ruolo, cosa avrà “dato da mangiare” Debora a Rebecca per essere conosciuta con questo titolo? Resta generalmente inteso che fu la trasmettitrice di un’importante saggezza, che consentì a Rebecca di fungere pienamente  da matriarca. Questo significato è rappresentato in “Meineket Rivka”, che è il titolo del primo libro yiddish noto che sia stato scritto da una donna, Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner di Praga: un libro di saggezza etica e pietà che includeva storie di Talmud e midrash, e in cui il la scrittrice distingue tra la saggezza del corpo (guf) e la saggezza dell’anima (nefesh)

La saggezza di Debora era sicuramente sia pratica che spirituale, trattando sia le questioni materiali (il corpo) sia quelle “al di là dei materiali”. Il nome Rebecca significa “unire” o “connettere” o anche “legare saldamente”. La saggezza che Debora trasmette a Rebecca deve quindi essere quella di aiutarla a unire il cielo alla terra, a usare sia gli aspetti del corpo che dell’anima per creare un mondo più compiuto. Gli indicatori della sua tomba rispecchiano la sua saggezza: l’albero, piantato nel terreno, una quercia a crescita lenta, rappresenta il “guf” (il corpo o il regno terrestre), il fiume, in rapido movimento e continua evoluzione, rappresenta il “nefesh” e il flusso della vita.

La saggezza di cui Debora è portatrice, anche se mai esplicitata nel testo biblico, è menzionata alla sua morte. Per comprendere appieno questa donna quasi scomparsa, dobbiamo rivolgerci al mondo naturale e al suo simbolismo. La quercia piange. Qualcuno che ha capito la relazione tra l’ambiente naturale e gli obiettivi dell’essere umano nel mondo è scomparso. La saggezza che possedeva in parte è trasmessa, in parte deve essere riappresa da un’altra generazione.

Abbiamo molti brani nella Bibbia e nella letteratura rabbinica che alludono al rapporto tra l’umanità e la terra, e come quella relazione informi la nostra relazione con Dio e la nostra capacità di realizzare i nostri scopi. Impariamo dalle generazioni precedenti e assorbiamo da loro molta saggezza. Ma qualcosa inevitabilmente si perde, qualcosa viene considerato irrilevante, qualcos’altro è scomodo e silenziosamente dimenticato. Così poi dobbiamo riapprendere ciò che una volta fu compreso.

L’albero piangente che fa la guardia alla tomba di Debora dietro Beit El è un promemoria vivente del nostro ruolo e responsabilità nel mondo. La dimostrabile perdita di saggezza seguita alla sua morte, così come il flusso della vita che si muove incessantemente in avanti, ci ricordano che non esistono eventi definitivi, ma che siamo parte di un processo dinamico, imparando e riapprendendo come vivere nel mondo mentre esprimiamo l’etica e i valori di ciò che ora chiamiamo tradizione ebraica. Si potrebbe dire che siamo ancora chiamati da oggetti ed eventi naturali che ci riportano al nostro scopo nel mondo: le foreste pluviali vengono distrutte, le acque inquinate in tutto il mondo, eventi climatici mai visti prima ecc. Ci chiamano per imparare e reimparare la saggezza della nostra tradizione, in modo da far nascere un mondo in cui possiamo vivere bene, da trasmettere rispettosamente alle prossime generazioni.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Parashat Tzav: the life blood and the nefesh

And you shall not eat any blood of fowl or beast in any of your dwelling places. Whoever eats any blood that soul will be cut off from his people” (Lev. 7:26-27).

The prohibition against eating blood is mentioned in several places in the Torah. God tells Noah Every moving thing that lives shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all. Only flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.” (Gen 9:4).

In Leviticus 17 we read (10- 14) And whatever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among them, that eat any manner of blood, I will set My face against that soul that eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement by reason of the life. Therefore I said to the children of Israel: No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourns among you eat blood.  And whatsoever man…..that takes in hunting any beast or fowl that may be eaten; he shall pour out its the blood , and cover it with dust. For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said to the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eat it shall be cut off.

And again in Deuteronomy:  “Only be certain that you do not eat the blood, for the blood is the life and you shall not eat the life with the flesh. You shall not eat it …”. Deut. 12:23-24

What do we mean when we call the blood the life? In each case in these texts the word used is Nefesh; a word which is often translated as ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ but this isn’t a good translation. According to Genesis the human being doesn’t have a nefesh, it is a nefesh – essentially our nefesh is connected to our physical body – it is related to our blood, to our breath, to our ability to eat or take into ourselves. And yet it is also separate from our body, the animating spirit which can be seen in the body and which leaves at death. The nefesh exists on the boundary between life and death, and this has real import on its place in both the ritual purity system, and in the mystical tradition.

By connecting the nefesh to the blood, as the biblical text does again and again, it reminds us that animals that are killed for worship in the sacrificial system, and subsequently animals killed for food, have value beyond what we are using them for. They have an animating spirit which comes from God; this spirit must be treated with respect so the blood is poured into the ground and covered with dust – the animal has a place in creation, its life has significance, the part that we are allowed to eat is what remains after the life force is drained away – the deadened, irrelevant part.

Judaism has a strong imperative to life. The mitzvot are for living by, not (except for three exceptions) to die for. The mitzvah of saving life (pikuach nefesh) overrides almost all the other mitzvot – even if there is only a possibility that life can be saved.  Life belongs to God and must be respected wherever it is found and in whatever situation we find ourselves in. And blood, along with breath, is the symbol of life. So when we avoid eating blood by koshering the meat we eat, we are making a powerful statement about the value of the life of the animal whose flesh we are eating. Like us it had nefesh, it had dimensions greater than its physical existence. And so while Torah begins with a vegetarian diet for the first human beings, after Noah an exception is made so that meat can be eaten in this less perfect world although still as part of the sacrificial system. And it seems that only when the people were settled in the land of Israel, when many would only go to Jerusalem three times a year for the pilgrim festivals, only then was eating meat as part of a non-sacrificial system permitted and only as a response to their lustful physical appetites which could not be controlled– as we read in Deuteronomy “When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God promised you, and you shall say: ‘I will eat flesh’, because your soul desires to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, after all the desire of your soul. If the place which the Eternal your God shall choose to put God’s name there be too far from you, then you shalt kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat within your gates, after all the desire of your soul.” (Deut. 12:20-21)

We respect life wherever we find it; we care for it and nurture it, and when it comes to an end for whatever reason – we continue to respect it and to remember that the nefesh belongs to God.  Be it animal or human, life is life, absolute and valuable.