Most often, readers of the portion Vayishlach focus on the encounter between Jacob and Esau near the river Jabbok. For good reason! It is dramatic, climactic, and mysterious. Jacob's struggle with the man who "wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Genesis 32:25) has provided fodder for centuries of commentaries. But who was this "man"? An angel of God? An image of Esau? Jacob himself, confronting at long last, the demons of his own lusts and deceptions? The image of Jacob's lonely struggle by the river Jabbok has inspired and informed us, creating a paradigmatic image of the Jew as the "God-wrestler" who strives for meaning and hope in a world often seemingly devoid of both.
But there is another episode, another encounter that is equally mysterious and full of spiritual potential and power. After his reunion with Esau and the brutal rape of Dinah in the city of Shechem, Jacob makes his way back to Bethel, the very place in which he dreamed of a ladder stretching to heaven when he was fleeing his brother's anger. Bethel means "Abode of God" (see Genesis 28:17). After Jacob's return to this sacred place, the text tells us: "Deborah, Rebekah's nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Allon-Bacuth ['Oak of Weeping']." (Genesis 35:8) Now this verse raises significant questions. The death of the matriarchs Rebekah and Leah are not mentioned in the Torah, yet we are told about the death of Deborah, Rebekah's nurse. Is this the same nurse that accompanied Rebekah to Canaan when she went there to wed Isaac? (Genesis 24:59) Why is Deborah buried in a particularly sacred spot near an oak tree, which is often associated in the Torah with holy people? Some of the classic commentators, like Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), explain that the Torah is actually hinting at the death of Rebekah. Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac) offers the explanation that Deborah had been sent by Rebekah to inform Jacob that Esau's anger had abated and it was time to return home. If so, then Deborah, whose name means "Bee," is truly among the first biblical figures to be sent on a mission of peace and reconciliation. Thus just as the honeybee is instrumental in creating sweetness, so, too, was Deborah, the bringer of peace.
But neither of these explanations helps us understand the association among the symbols of spiritual importance in this parashah: the site of Bethel, the oak tree, and even the possible association with the later prophetess Deborah. (See Judges 4:4, where the prophetess Deborah sits under a (palm) tree near Bethel!)
I tend to agree with Nahum Sarna, who argues that there were ancient traditions about Rebekah's nurse, Deborah, that were simply not included in the Torah (JPS Genesis Commentary, 1989, p. 241) In other words, Deborah was a more significant biblical figure than the present text reveals. It is also quite interesting that connected with the journey to Bethel is Jacob's removal of the idols that he had brought from Haran, the "old country." Is it possible that Deborah, who also hailed from Haran, represented another religious tradition that had to be expurgated before the covenant with Jacob (now Israel) and his family could be firmly established? Was this "old country" religious tradition, more matriarchal in nature, hinted at in the death of Deborah and her association with a sacred place and tree? One of the great contributions of liberal Judaism has been its effort to hear once again the voices of women in our sacred traditions. Both tradition and modern scholarship have provided us with worthy female role models: Miriam, who was the prophetess and singer of God's praise; Hannah, who was the first to utter private prayer and who taught us that God listens to the heart; Sarah, who brought others under the wings of God's Presence. And to this list we might now add Deborah, who was the emissary of peace and reconciliation.
For Further Reading
The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Nahum Sarna, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989
Rabbi Douglas Sagal serves Temple Emanu-El of Westfield, New Jersey