Vayishlach: The tree of tears

We are in the middle of the drama of Jacob’s life. Why does the Torah pause to note the death of a woman about whom almost nothing is known?

JPost reader Tu Bishvat photos (photo credit: EITAN ASRAF)
JPost reader Tu Bishvat photos
(photo credit: EITAN ASRAF)
We are in the middle of the drama of Jacob’s life. Why does the Torah pause to note the death of a woman about whom almost nothing is known? The findings of modern science suggest an answer.
On the heels of grand, shattering events – wrestling with an angel, the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, the rape of Dinah and right before the blessing at Beth El, we read:
“Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and was buried under the road below Bethel; so it was named the tree of tears” (Genesis 35:8).
Deborah is mentioned but once before in the Torah when we are told that Rebecca, leaving home to meet Isaac, was sent off “with her nurse” (Genesis 24:59). All we know about Deborah is that she was either Rebecca’s childhood nurse or is intended to be the nurse to Rebecca’s children when they are born. Rebecca and Isaac live in Haran. What is she doing decades later with Jacob, all grown, at Bethel?
Rebecca promised the young Jacob, who was fleeing the wrath of his brother Esau, that she would one day bring him back to Haran (Genesis 27:45). Rashi, quoting Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan, assumes that Rebecca sent Deborah to Jacob fulfill this mission, and therefore she was with him when she died.
The marker of sadness suggests another answer. Deborah is buried under allon bachut, the tree of tears. We assume that Deborah took care of Jacob himself when he was a child. Noting her passing, and the mourning it evoked, the Torah is hinting at something we now know from neuroscience.
In the first few years of life, more than a million new neural connections are formed every second. Years of research have emphasized how much of our personality is shaped by our early years. This formative educational time was – and still often is – the province of mothers and nurses who brought the wisdom of the community to the newborns. As a result, the essential shaping of Jewish character was the legacy of women. By the time fathers began to educate children, their personalities were largely formed.
The great writer Robert Louis Stevenson describes the nurse of his childhood, Allison Cunningham, in a poem in his A Child’s Garden of Verses:
For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake…
For all the story-books you read:
For all the pains you comforted…
The angel of my infant life.
Perhaps, as Ramban suggests, she was with Jacob not to bring him back but to pass on the legacy of childcare to Rachel and Leah, to be their teacher. Now an old woman, having raised Jacob, Deborah would have generations of childcare wisdom to offer to the young mothers. If so, Deborah was instrumental in shaping not only Jacob, but the tribes of Israel.
The voices of women throughout the generations have been lost in the public square. We should remind ourselves however, that in terms of influence the crucial molders of character have been those who took care of children in their early years. When we hear scholars speak, we often forget that the foundation of those minds was nurtured by the early love and care of mothers and the women who trained mothers in care.
Deborah’s resting place is under a tree called “the tree of tears” tells us how precious and dear she was to Jacob and his family. Our sages tell us we do not forget girsa d’yankuta (the version of our youth). The lullabies and tendernesses of our first years shape us and stay with us and those who steady our first steps remain forever precious. Let us give a moment to Deborah. Along with Rebecca, in her wisdom, she took Israel from the cradle to the world.
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of ‘David the Divided Heart.’ Follow him on Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.