“The Death of Deborah, Rebecca’s Nurse”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, after the traumatic rape of Dina in Shechem and the revenge at the hands of Dina’s brothers, the Al-mighty tells Jacob to leave Shechem and to go up to Beth-el. Jacob prepares his family by cleansing the camp of all impurities and idolatries, and begins to travel.

Scripture reports that the fear of G-d fell on the local population, and despite killing all the men of Shechem, Jacob and his children were not pursued or harmed.

Jacob’s entourage reaches Luz, where Jacob builds an altar, and calls the name of the place “Bet El,” confirming that this was the location where G-d had appeared to him when he fled Canaan in fear of his brother Esau’s vengeance.

At this point, scripture reports the death of a member of Jacob’s entourage. Genesis 35:8 relates:

וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה, וַתִּקָּבֵר מִתַּחַת לְבֵית-אֵל תַּחַת הָאַלּוֹן; וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת

And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died, and she was buried below Beth-El, below the plateau; and he named it “Allon-bahchut.”

Who is the nurse Deborah, and why is her death given such prominence in the Torah? According to many commentators, Deborah was the nurse who accompanied Rebecca when she left her home in Haran to marry Isaac. The verse, in Genesis 24:59, states:

וַיְשַׁלְּחוּ אֶת-רִבְקָה אֲחֹתָם, וְאֶת-מֵנִקְתָּהּ

And they [Laban and his mother] sent Rebecca, his sister, and her nurse, as well as Abraham’s servant [Eliezer] and his men.

According to the Midrash, Deborah served Rebecca all the days of her life. When Rebecca reached the ripe old age of 122, Deborah, her nurse, was still with her and in good health. Deborah, a truly righteous woman, had a particular dislike for Esau, and very much looked forward to the imminent return of Jacob and to the opportunity to finally meet Jacob’s family.

The Midrash relates, that even after the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau in Peniel, Rebecca recognized that Esau still harbored anger for Jacob. Therefore, Jacob was not invited to return to his parents’ home. Twenty four months passed, during which time Jacob spent eighteen months in Succot and Shechem, and six months in Beth-El. Throughout this time, Jacob sent monthly gifts to his brother, Esau. Only then, when Esau’s hatred was effectively assuaged, did Rebecca send Deborah to Beth-El, to summon Jacob home.

The reunion between Deborah and Jacob was joyous, but the joy did not last long. Now that Deborah had fulfilled her life’s mission, she passed on.

The righteous nurse merited to be buried in Beth-El, in a place that Jacob subsequently called Allon-bachut, the oak of crying. There he arranged a fitting funeral and delivered a moving eulogy in Deborah’s honor. The impact of the event was so great, that the funeral was recorded in the Torah for posterity, underscoring the worthiness of this righteous woman and the high praise that she merited from the great patriarch, Jacob, at the time of her passing.

The Ramban takes issue with the above scenario. The Ramban maintains that it is highly unlikely that Deborah, the aged nursemaid of Rebecca, would have been dispatched on such a strenuous mission at her advanced age. The Ramban suggests, that after accompanying Rebecca to Canaan, Deborah returned to Padan Aram. Many years later, when the fleeing Jacob arrived in Haran, and began to build a family, Deborah attached herself to Jacob’s family and began to tend to the family’s needs. When Jacob left Laban, he took Deborah along with him, so that, upon her return to Canaan, she could look after Jacob’s aged mother, Rebecca.

Rashi citing the Midrash Rabbah 81:1, maintains that the word, אַלּוֹן in Greek, means, “another,” as if to say that at this funeral, there was another cause for mourning. It was at that time, that Jacob was informed that his mother, Rebecca, had died back in Canaan. The plural Hebrew word, בָּכוּת crying, implies that there was more than one reason for crying.

Rashi notes that Rebecca’s death was not recorded explicitly in the Bible. He suggests that the matriarch’s’s funeral was kept very private in order to spare Rebecca from being disgraced by the attendance of her son, Esau, and in order to prevent people from cursing the womb from which Esau emerged.

The Ramban maintains that it is inconceivable that all the mourning and wailing should be for the old wet-nurse, Deborah. He reinforces his alternative view by referring to the verse in Genesis 35:27 reporting that Jacob came to Isaac, his father, noting that there is no mention of Rebecca, because she had died. That is why, in the very next verse, after noting the passing of Deborah, G-d consoles Jacob, by blessing him (Genesis 35:9). This blessing was the blessing of consolation given to mourners.

It is at this point in Jacob’s life, where he is entirely independent of his mother, that G-d renames him, “Israel,” (Genesis 35:10), underscoring a “rebirth” for Jacob, and the emergence of a new persona for Jacob, the third and most complex patriarch.

May you be blessed.