Pausing to Catch our Breath under the “Oak of Weeping”

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