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

 

Ki HaAdam Etz Ha’Sadeh – human beings and trees, or “none of us thrive uprooted”

In the book of Deuteronomy in a passage describing the rules for besieging a city we find a curious phrase: “When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field human, that it should be besieged by you? Only the trees of which you know that they are not trees for food, those you may destroy and cut down, that you may build bulwarks against the city that makes war with thee, until it fall.” (20:19-20)

It begins with the prohibition against destroying trees, and clarifies that the trees to be protected are those that bear edible produce, but within the arc we find the phrase “ki ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” and this has always been a verse that has resonated for me far beyond the rules prohibiting scorched earth policies in war. It can be read either as a question or as a statement of truth, either “Are trees of the field [like] human beings?” or “Human beings are [like] trees of the field”

Trees are everywhere in bible, sometimes for good, sometimes less so. Abraham enters the land from Haran via Shechem and arrives at Elon Moreh (the terebinth (oak) tree of Moreh, he  is encamped under the terebinth of Mamre when God comes to him to tell him Isaac will be born, Deborah the nurse of Rebecca is buried under a terebinth tree,   Jacob buries the household idols of Laban under a terebinth, Deborah sits and judges under a palm tree, David fights Goliath in the valley of the Elah (terebinth), Hosea describes idolaters as worshiping at various trees – “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and offer upon the hills, under oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow thereof is good;

The Israelite religion valued trees but had an uneasy relationship with them insofar as the hated and dominant Canaanite tradition was one of tree worship. The mother goddess Asherah was associated with sacred trees,  Asherah/Asherim  are  described more than thirty times in the biblical narrative as being a cult centred on a pole or stylised tree, or else a sacred grove of trees. It was to be feared and to be rooted out.

And then of course there are famous trees right at the beginning of the biblical narrative – those planted in the Garden of Eden, not only those whose fruit could be eaten, but more particularly the two from which nothing must be taken – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life. The trees with which our ambivalence begins.

While the sacred trees of the Asherah/Asherim have been uprooted from the traditions of the biblical Israelite people, we have taken the tree for ourselves –  big time. The candelabrum in the desert tent which transferred to the Temple is modelled on a tree, and botanical terms are used. That candelabrum remains the most ancient symbol of Judaism.  We are used to Torah being described as Etz Hayim, a Tree of Life.  Trees are used in parables and as analogies. Look at Jotham’s use of them to describe the choice of Abimelech as king (Judges 9) or Ezekiel’s use of the cedar and the trees of the field to symbolise Israel and the other nations.  Look at the psalmist who describes the righteous person as like a tree planted by the waters. Wherever you look in bible you can find trees.

So this phrase “Ki Ha’adam etz ha’sadeh” fits into a long and rich tradition and certainly is the subject of a great deal of halachic and aggadic attention and interpretation.

Its plain meanings – the rhetorical question asking whether a tree should pay the price for human greed or stupidity, and the idea that human beings are comparable to trees of the field are both explored, and while for many years I have focused on this as a question which underlies the importance of preserving the fruit trees rather than weaponising them or wasting them in war, this year I found myself niggled into a slightly different direction.

Human beings are [like] trees of the field.

In what way are we like the trees of the field? I think because we put down roots and we reach to the stars. Our roots are hidden away, a complex network of sustaining relationships, anchoring us, holding us to our history, giving us the wherewithal to grow. Our bodies grow, we become a presence in the world that can be fruitful and filled with life. We yearn ever upwards, yet in so doing we can offer shade, shelter, fruit, support to each other. We respond to our environment and we shape our environment.

In the wonderful book “The hidden life of trees” the author Peter Wohlleben writes ““When trees grow together, nutrients and water can be optimally divided among them all so that each tree can grow into the best tree it can be. If you “help” individual trees by getting rid of their supposed competition, the remaining trees are bereft. They send messages out to their neighbours in vain, because nothing remains but stumps. Every tree now muddles along on its own, giving rise to great differences in productivity. Some individuals photosynthesize like mad until sugar positively bubbles along their trunk. As a result, they are fit and grow better, but they aren’t particularly long-lived. This is because a tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it. And there are now a lot of losers in the forest. Weaker members, who would once have been supported by the stronger ones, suddenly fall behind. Whether the reason for their decline is their location and lack of nutrients, a passing malaise, or genetic makeup, they now fall prey to insects and fungi.”

No tree provides everything we need, just as no one person or relationship can provide everything in life:  diversity is important for us. And trees are rarely naturally isolated, even in the biblical desert they generally grow and thrive in groups.  Like trees, we are relational beings, we need each other, we need community.

As the news every day seems to bring yet more stories of those who have been uprooted from their communities because of war and its attendant problems of violence, terror, starvation and chaos, I see how the verse comes alive. Trees are innocent bystanders in war and must be protected. They are the resource from which new society may grow, and to uproot them or damage them may destroy the potential future. As refugees flee into hopeful sanctuary, we know that they are leaving behind a barren landscape where life cannot continue. As refugees enter a new country they bring with them all the possibilities of regeneration, even where despair and terror appears  to have caused irreparable harm – still the hopeful green shoots appear from what looks like the dead stump. People who have been uprooted have lost much more than material possessions – they lose part of their history and much of their future. Their present feels fragile and vulnerable – will they be supported, will they be able to create networks and become part of community, will they be able once more to grow.

As I look at the news stories my heart breaks. Young children alone and scared in Europe, sent by parents desperate to give them a chance at life. Whole families or lone individuals trying to reach safety in rickety boats on treacherous seas.  Victims of trafficking who cannot understand the system which is trying to keep them out. Victims of violence who survive as an act of will. Everyone cut off at the roots, anxiously trying to regrow, to find some shelter and space and sustenance. No one uproots themselves willingly – it is always a final act of desperation.

At Tu b’shevat we celebrate the trees of our land. We plant more, we clear round others so they can reach the light, we mark the new year of life. And this is good, but as the bible reminds us human beings also need what trees need. And so we must find the space for those fleeing the war in their own land to put down roots in ours, help to create the networks of relationships that will support them, give them the wherewithal to flourish. If we protect a material tree from the trauma of war surrounding it, how much more should we be protecting the human being, part of our own family tree, from such trauma.?