Parshat Vayishlach

Deciphering Devora’s Demise – Vayishlach 5780


Shira Smiles shiur 2020/5781

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Having successfully left Lavan in Charan and escaped his meeting with Esau, on his way back to his father’s home, Yaakov Avinu stops with his family at Beth El. In Beit El he builds an altar to Hashem as he had promised when he first fled. Here the narrative stops and interjects an event that seems to have no bearing on Yaakov Avinu’s journey. “Devorah, the wet-nurse of Rivkah Imenu died, and she was buried below Beth El… and he named it Alon Bachut/Plateau of weepings.”

The Torah is not a collection of random ideas. If Devorah’s death is recorded here, it must be significant. Devorah herself must have been important to have her death mentioned in the Torah. Further, why is her death mentioned specifically at this juncture? 

The Medrash fills in some of the blanks, but raises more questions in doing so The Medrash explains that both Devorah and Rivkah Imenu died, hence the plural “weepings.” Rivkah Imenu’s death is not explicitly mentioned. Since Yitzchak Avinu was blind and Yaakov Avinu was away, The one burying her would be Esau. In these circumstances, instead of being accorded proper honor and eulogies, Rivkah Imenu would have been the subject of curses for having born such an evil son, suggests Rashi. Alternately, Ramban suggests that Esau was still angry at his mother for facilitating his losing the blessing. Esau would not even bury her. Only the Hittites would have been left left to bury Rivkah Imenu, again not bestowing proper respect on Rivkah Imenu.

Rav Yedid in Arba Imahot quotes the Piskta Rabati who suggests that it was Rivkah Imenu herself who anticipated the negative comments her burial would generate if the only mourner with her coffin would be Esau. These comments would not only be disrespectful to her, but more importantly, would also constitute a chillul Hashem/desecration of God’s Name. To avoid this possibility, she herself commanded that she be buried quietly at night.

In contrast, Yitzchak Avinu did not anticipate this reaction and did not command that he be buried secretly at night. In fact, the Torah states that both Esau and Yaakov Avinu buried Yitzchak Avinu together. Yitzchak Avinu’s burial would not generate these comments because as a tzadik the son of a tzadik, the populace would attribute the righteous Yaakov Avinu to his genealogy while attributing the wicked Esau to Rivkah Imenu’s genealogy, explains Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky in Emes leYaakov Avinu.

Still, how was it that Devorah was with Yaakov Avinu at this time? According to Rashi, Devorah had accompanied Rivkah Imenu when Rivkah Imenu left Lavan’s house. Now that Rivkah Imenu felt it was safe for Yaakov Avinu to return, she sent Devorah, her trusted nurse, to tell Yaakov Avinu to come home. However, this explanation does not sound logical to Ramban. After all, the nurse would have been quite elderly at this time and would not be sent on such a long mission. Instead, Ramban posits that Devorah had remained behind in Charan when Rivkah Imenu left to marry Yitzchak Avinu. Now that Yaakov Avinu was leaving Lavan, Yaakov Avinu took Devorah with him out of respect for his mother.

Another question remains. The Chasam Sofer asks why Hashem orchestrated these two death to occur concurrently, so that Yaakov Avinu would mourn her death along with his mother’s death?

In Ohr Olam, Rav Wali notes that alon in Greek translates as “another”, alluding to the second death, that of Rivkah IImeinu. Rabbi Wali proposes that people may very well have cursed Rivkah Imenu during her life for the birth of Esau, but curses on the living may remain as curses of the physical body only, while curses after one’s death adhere to the heavenly soul. In fact, the curse of Esau had already had its effects. Rabbi Zeichick  cites the verse, “May the iniquity of his father be remembered before Hashem, and the sin of his mother not be erased,” (Tehillim 109:14) as referring to Esau whose evil had already brought so much tragedy to the family: Esau’s grandfather Avraham died five years before his time so as not to see the great sinfulness of Esau, Yitzchak Avinu was blinded to the same purpose, and Rivkah Imenu was buried without the honor due her.

There were multiple reasons for tears at this point, writes Rabbi Broide in Sam Derech. Certainly, the death of his mother and her nurse were devastating to Yaakov Avinu Avinu, but the absence of honor and eulogies in her memory compounded the tears. Now imagine the strong bond between Rivkah Imenu and Yaakov Avinu, the thirty five years of separation, and the anticipated reunion, only to be denied the joy of seeing his mother again, and we get a fuller picture of the depth of Yaakov Avinu’s grief.

Artscroll Midrash quotes the Chatam Sofer who offers a comforting insight into the juxtaposition of the deaths of these two great women. Yaakov Avinu could not eulogize his mother, for her greatest achievement was getting Yitzchak Avinu’s blessing away from her firstborn Esau for her righteous son, Yaakov Avinu. However, any mention of Esau would produce curses from the populace. Instead, he could eulogize Devorah as a reflection of Rivkah Imenu. That would grant his mother some of the honor she deserved while also painting a picture of both his mother whom his wives and children would never meet and of this saintly woman, her nursemaid. This was an insight of the Chasam Sofer whose father in law was Rabbi Akiva Eiger zt”l. Rabbi Akiva Eiger had willed that no eulogies be delivered at his funeral. However, Rabbi Eiger’s daughter, the Chasam Sofer’s wife, had predeceased him. So the Chasam  Sofer “borrowed” a eulogy for his wife that would point to the greatness of the father who had raised her.

Motherhood is more than a biological event with physical responsibilities. Our Matriarchs introduced the concept of covenantal motherhood, a role that extends beyond caring for one’s own biological children to caring for other children within the extended family, for teaching the shared covenant of the people to her children not only through observance, but also through experiencing them together, through singing, laughing, playing and crying. Devorah was part of this covenantal motherhood. This is a great lesson Rav Soloveitchick teaches us. [The Torah speaks of another wetnurse, one who happened to also be the biological mother of the child. Yocheved, mother of Moshe Rabbenu, was hired by Moshe’s adoptive mother, Pharaoh’s daughter, to nurse the child. Raised in Pharaoh’s palace, Moshe went out to observe and share in the suffering of “his brothers”. It was the “covenantal/biological mother” together with the adoptive mother who taught him to identify the Jewish slaves as his brothers. In this context, it is also important to recognize and appreciate the devotion of all parents who adopt children and toil to raise them in the Covenant of Avraham Avinu. CKS]

Rabbi Frand cites Rabbi Weinberger and builds on the medrash that Rivkah Imenu sent Devorah, to retrieve Yaakov Avinu. Albeit Devorah was 133 years old at the time, it was only someone whom Yaakov Avinu knew and who could faithfully represent a taste of his former Jewish home that could now be sent to Yaakov Avinu. Devorah would represent all that the Jewish grandmother wanted to instill in her grandchildren, grandchildren Rivkah Imenu herself would not be privileged to see. This is the taste of Yiddishkeit grandparents, even more than parents themselves, can often bring to the children.

According to Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, Rivkah Imenu sent Devorah not all the way to Charan, but only as far as Beit El. After Devorah delivered her message, Rivkah Imenu died, and there was no one for Devorah to deliver a return message to. Having completed her mitzvah, Devorah died, and Yaakov Avinu mourned them both.

It is interesting to note that Yaakov Avinu called the burial place of Devorah The Plain of Weepings, memorializing the eulogies and the memory of Devorah rather the site of her burial. After all, Devorah was Rivkah Imenu’s tutor as well as her nursemaid, keeping Devorah’s contribution rather than the site alive. In contrast, when Yaakov Avinu buried his beloved Rachel, Yaakov Avinu named the place Kever Rachel, Rachel’s grave, marking the site forever as important for their descendants, so Bnei Yisroel could pray at her grave site and ask for her intercession on their behalf, notes Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l.

Yaakov Avinu was not the only one to recognize the greatness of Devorah. It was from Devorah that Rivkah Imenu drank in not only physically nourishing milk, but also her spiritual values. Rabbi Zeichick notes that the Prophetess Devorah understood her namesake’s value, and when she became a judge in Israel, she chose to hold court under this very tree in the plains of Beit El where Rivkah Imenu’s nursemaid and tutor lay. Here the Judge Devorah would draw on the inspiration and wisdom of the earlier Devorah to render proper judgment.

Rabbi Schrage Grosbard sees Devorah as the model for all teachers. A successful teacher is one who transmits the lessons to each student as if she were feeding them and nursing them, whether the lesson is about material things or about values. In this same context, Reb Chaim of Volozhin changed the term for students from Talmidei Hayeshivah/students of the yeshivah to Bnei Hayeshivah/sons of the yeshivah. As a way of emulating Hashem, we can create children not only biologically but also through education, for a teacher or Rebbe infuses the soul with life.

Along these same lines, Rabbi Svei in Ruach Eliyahu interprets the miracle Elisha performed in resuscitating the dead child. Rabbi Svei notes that miracles require no human intervention, and indeed, the physical resuscitation of the child occurred without Elisha’s intervention. What, then, was the purpose of Elisha’s putting his eyes on the child’s eyes, his hands on the child’s hands, and his feet on the child’s feet? Rabbi Svei suggests that herein lies the key to revival of the soul, beyond physical life. A teacher or Rebbe must connect with the soul of the child, through a meeting of the eyes, the actions of the hands, and the path the legs will embark on. In this context, Devorah was the spiritual mother of Rivkah Imenu. And so Judge and Prophetess Devorah can declare in her victory song that, “I arose a mother in Israel.”

The Torah specifically omits mentioning Rivkah Imenu’s death while recording Yaakov Avinu’s crying for Devorah to highlight that Yaakov Avinu was crying for Devorah, a detail we would ignore if Rivkah Imenu’s death was recorded and he was crying for the loss of his mother. But here Yaakov Avinu was crying not for himself, but for Devorah’s soul that was undergoing the painful transition from its physical host to its heavenly abode. Yaakov Avinu eulogized her to create merit for her soul, to help carry the burden of suffering of Devorah’s soul. To feel the pain of another Jew is an obligation on each of us, adds Rabbi Kastenbaum in Olam Hamiddos. One way we can fulfill this obligation is to pray for others when we see their pain. In contrast is the rasha/evil person who tramples on others and thinks only of himself, writes the Ramchal in Mesillat Yeshorim.

When we feel the pain of others, we are in fact emulating Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, continues the Ramchal. In support, the Ramchal cites that when we visit someone sitting shiva over a loved one, even if he is the lone mourner, we recite the comforting verse, “HaMakom yenachem eschem…/May Hashem comfort you (plural),” for Hashem is experiencing the pain of the mourner and sitting shiva with him (so to speak).

Rabbi Chazkel Levenstein cites the Talmud in saying that one who cries for the loss of a tzadik, his sins are forgiven, for the eulogies at the death of a tzadik inspire us to do teshuvah. Now Yaakov Avinu was returning to Eretz Yisroel, a vessel ready to absorb the blessings Hashem had promised him. But Bnei Yisroel needed to do teshuvah and receive atonement for killing the inhabitants of Shechem. These tears for the righteous Devorah achieved that atonement.  This explains, why the death of Devorah is found after Yaakov Avinu makes an altar, and before Hashem actually conveys blessing upon him.  Teshuva was necessary to receive these blessings, and crying for this righteous woman was the conduit to achieving this level.

Parents, teachers, Rabbis officially, and friends, neighbors, even acquaintances unofficially are all part of our covenantal family, inspiring us and instilling a life force beyond our physical existence. Yaakov Avinu’s mourning for Devorah teaches us how we must honor those who impact our spiritual as well as our physical lives.

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