This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is action-packed.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, is action-packed. Jacob prepares to meet his brother Esau again, and meanwhile wrestles with a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok River, receiving the new name of Israel. His daughter Dinah is raped, and her brothers Shimon and Levi carry out revenge killings against her attacker and all the men of his city. Jacob travels from place to place, building altars everywhere he goes; God renews the covenantal promise; Jacob’s final son, Benjamin is born, and his beloved Rachel dies along the way. Jacob and Esau come together to bury their father Isaac, and the parasha ends with the genealogies of both Jacob and Esau. Whew!
The action of Parashat Vayishlach is so fast and furious that it’s easy to overlook a single verse that’s tucked away amidst Jacob’s travels – Genesis 35:8:
Va-tamot Devorah meineket Rivkah, va-tikaver mi-tachat l’veit-el tachat ha-alon, vayikra shemo alon-bachut.
Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse-maid, died, and she was buried under the oak below Beth-El; so it was named Alon-Bachut (the Oak of Weeping).
This verse cries out to us for interpretation. Who was this Deborah, whose mention has the power to stop the freight train of the narrative of Jacob’s journey in its tracks, whose death causes nature itself to mourn?! Classic commentators – including Rashi, Ramban, Radak, and Hizkuni – have lots to say about this Deborah and her connection to Jacob. Some of their commentaries link her back to the (unnamed) nurse-maid mentioned in passing back in Gen. 24:59, when Rebecca was first being recruited by Abraham’s servant to leave her father’s house and travel to a new land to meet a future husband, Isaac – which would make her very old indeed. Others assume that this is a different person, perhaps someone who would have nursed and raised Jacob himself. Yet others interpret her death and burial as encoding a double loss, of Deborah and also Rebecca (whose death is otherwise conspicuously missing from the Torah’s narrative).
In investigating this verse, I came across a beautiful interpretation by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild (a British Reform rabbi), and if you’re interested in learning more about this Deborah of Genesis, I encourage you to read the whole essay here. In it, Rabbi Rothschild reflects on the wisdom Deborah must have possessed and nurtured Rebecca with, and the intense relationship between the natural environment and the purpose of the human being in the world. As she writes, “The weeping tree standing guard over Deborah’s grave beneath Beit El is a living reminder of our role and responsibility in the world.”
Like Parashat Vayishlach, this year of 2020 has been action packed. For many of us, even if we haven’t moved very much from our physical places, navigating the “journey” we’ve been on – through Covid, the economic downturn, the racial justice reckoning turned up in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the election season and the unrelenting news-stream even during this transition time (presidential pardon scandals and more) – has been exhausting.Personal decisions, too – about who to see and how, where to go and what to do – feel heavy and fraught; pandemic fatigue is real. As we come to this point in our journey, the hidden verse about “Devorah meineket Rivkah” invites us to pause this week, just as Jacob’s whole clan and the Torah itself do. This verse summons us to reflect on life and loss, the natural world and our role in its cycles.
It’s a lovely invitation, as we prepare for Chanukah this week. Now is the time, if you haven’t done so yet, to find your menorah and procure some candles. When we light the Chanukah candles each night (starting 8 days from now!), Jewish law instructs that we shouldn’t “use” the lights of the menorah for any functional purpose; rather, while the candles are lit, we are similarly invited to pause each night and reflect, while bathed in light.
Meanwhile, though, as we await the festival of Chanukah this week, perhaps you’ll find something in nature – a special tree, or a sunset – that calls you to pause: to stand still for a moment, to catch your breath, to acknowledge the enormity of the loss of the year, and to reflect on the critical role each of us has to play in bringing light into the world anew.
I am glad to be with you on the journey, and to find these small, sacred moments together.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
This week, we begin reading a new book: Exodus / Shemot. The first chapter of Exodus is a veritable character study of Pharaoh. We meet Pharaoh in verse 8 and learn that he "knew not Joseph"... in other words, he is different than the pharaohs who have come before him. In verses 9 and 10, we hear Pharaoh's ego and fear come through from behind the text, and we witness how he manipulates through words as he tries to convince his people that the Israelites are a threat. We see how his Egyptian "base" takes up his cause in verses 13 and 14, transforming into oppressors themselves, and ruthlessly imposing upon the Israelites various labors and embittering their lives. And finally, we see Pharaoh's violent tendencies escalate -- from a place of fear yet again -- as he commands first that all baby boys be killed in private as soon as they are born (verse 15), and then, when that plan fails, that his people murder Israelite babies by drowning them publicly in the Nile River (verse 22).
As 2020 draws to a close, I’m sure many of us have been reflecting on some variant of the question: what will we carry forward with us from this year?
Last month, for my birthday, my husband bought me a new cell phone. It's a big step up for the one I've been using for many years, which didn't hold a charge well and had cracks in the screen patched with scotch tape. This new phone is fast and bright, but the most amazing feature to me is its facial recognition ability -- that is, it unlocks automatically when I'm looking directly into it and it can "see" my face.