Thursday, December 15, 2016

Supporting Heroes - Torah Portion Vayishlach

"Deborah, Rebecca's nursemaid, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the oak, and [Jacob] named it the Oak of Weeping." (Gen 35:8)
Who's this "Deborah" all of the sudden? We know Rebecca had a nursemaid who came with her when she married Isaac (24:59), but she was never mentioned by name in all this time. And what's she doing with Jacob, anyway?

One idea is that Rebecca sent Deborah to Jacob in Padan Aram to let him know it was safe to come home. (See Rashi.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been around for all of Jacob's youth, probably helped raise him, just like she raised his mother before him. Deborah would've been like a grandmother to Jacob.

Another idea is that Deborah returned to Padan Aram early on but wanted to make this final journey with Jacob to see Rebecca one last time. (See Ramban.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been there with Jacob during his tenure with Laban, helping him to cope, helping him raise his own family, like a great grandmother to his children.

Either way, the Torah goes out of its way to mention Deborah's death. Her death is associated with weeping for Jacob. And I think it says a lot about the way people's death can affect us, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Part is the fact that the person is associated with certain times of our lives. Their death often brings up the emotion - the joy and pain - of those times, and also reminds us of the fact that these times are gone forever. This kind of grief can overtake us even if we've never met the person - like with the death of a musician whose music we grew up listening to, or any public figure who brings us back to certain times in our lives. That kind of "weeping" is not necessarily tied to the person, but to our own past.

For Jacob, there's no doubt that Deborah's death would have brought up so much of his complicated history - including the special close relationship he had with his mother, as well as the family stresses with his father and brother. Good times and also very trying times.

But then there's grief over Deborah herself. No, she wasn't a blood relative, any more than Eliezer was Abraham and Isaac's blood relative. But she was in a very real sense a kind of "matriarch" in the family. She was the person who provided nurturing and guidance to his mother back in Padan Aram, who was probably very much responsible for Rebecca turning out to be the person she was, the girl who would go on to marry Isaac and become a matriarch in her own right. And whether Deborah was with Jacob in his early years or later on, it seems clear that she was a rock for him, a fixture in his life. She stood by the family - loyal, trustworthy, nurturing and supportive - through thick and thin.

There's an idea that Deborah the Prophet/Judge was named after her, centuries later. Aside from the name, Deborah held court under a tree, near Beit El, where Rebecca's nursemaid was buried. If that's so, the original Deborah must have been seen as legendary in her service, as one of the founding pillars of the nation.

So I think it's particularly nice to see Deborah's death get a mention, even if Rebecca's own death isn't mentioned in the Torah. To me, it's a statement that people who dedicate their lives to service, who demonstrate such immense loyalty and commitment, who stand by us and support us in our lives - our friends, teachers, and mentors, volunteers, assistants, and helpers - these people are true heroes. Often unsung. And they deserve to be recognized and honored. They deserve to be loved and remembered.

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