And he built an altar there, and he called the place of God “Beit-El” because there God had been revealed to him in his flight from the face of his brother. And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried beneath Beit-El, beneath the great tree; and he called its name “Great Tree of Weeping”. (Genesis 35:7-8)
Why does an aged wet-nurse suddenly appear in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”)? And why does Jacob name her grave a place of weeping?
Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite son, and she mothers him well into his adulthood. When her husband, Isaac, is about to give a blessing to their other son, Esau, she arranges for Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal the blessing. She cooks the meat Isaac asked for, and she even dresses Jacob in Esau’s best clothes, as well as in goatskins to imitate Esau’s hairy hands and neck.1
After Esau finds out about the stolen blessing and vows to kill his brother, Rebecca tells Jacob to run away from home, and she arranges his journey to Charan. (See my post Toledot: Rebecca Gets It Wrong.) She tells Jacob he will only need to stay with his uncle in Charan—
Until the anger of your brother turns away from you and he forgets what you did to him; then I will send and bring you from there … (Genesis 27:45)
Jacob (who is over 40) spends his first night away from home at a place where God gives him a dream of a stairway between earth and heaven. God promises:
“I will guard you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this soil …” (Genesis/Bereishit 28:15)
When Jacob wakes up he names the place Beit-El, “House of God”. Even though God has already promised to guard him, he makes a vow to serve God on the condition that God will take care of him until he returns.
“If God is with me and guards me on this way where I am going and gives me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and I return in peace to my father’s house, then God will be my god, and this stone that I set up as a pillar will become a house of God, and everything that you give me I will repeatedly tithe to you.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
Jacob thinks in terms of deals, like the one he made with Esau when he traded lentil soup for Esau’s inheritance.2 He also thinks in terms of a parental figure providing food and clothing, as his mother just did.
Jacob stays in Charan for twenty years, working as a shepherd for his uncle Lavan in exchange for wives and his own flocks. During that whole time, the Torah does not mention any message from Jacob’s mother. Subconsciously, now that he has lost Rebecca’s apron strings, Jacob may want to stay as long as possible under God’s motherly care. The terms of the deal he offered God will end once he returns to Beit-El and builds a house (a permanent altar) for God.
Yet after twenty years Jacob does leave Charan, with a large party of wives, children, servants, and livestock. In this week’s Torah portion he sends gifts to his estranged brother, Esau. The brothers meet, embrace, and cry on one another’s necks. Having made peace with Esau, Jacob’s next order of business must be to return to his father’s house, and then build an altar at Beit-El. Right?
Wrong. Once he has crossed into Canaan, Jacob stops at Shekhem and decides to settle down there; he even buys land.3 He is in no hurry to see his parents or to complete his deal with God.
But his own children ruin his plan. The prince of Shekhem lies with Jacob’s daughter Dinah, then offers to marry her. Jacob’s sons Shimon and Levi respond by murdering every male in the town.4 Jacob complains that Shimon and Levi have destroyed his reputation in the region. He is about to despair when God reminds him to go to Beit-el and make the altar he promised.5
Jacob leads his people south and builds the altar.
And Deborah, the wet-nurse of Rebecca, died and was buried tachat Beit-El, tachat the allon; and he called its name “Allon of Weeping”. (Genesis 35:8)
tachat (תַּחַת) = beneath, under; instead of, in exchange for.
allon (אַלּוֹן) = stately tree, possibly with religious significance. (Translators guess it may be an oak or a terebinth.)
The only other time Deborah is mentioned is when Rebecca leaves Charan to marry Isaac, and she brings along her former wet-nurse, who is not named at this point.6 Presumably the woman is at least fifteen years older than Rebecca, and they have a relationship of trust and affection.
Rashi7 asked why Deborah is traveling with Jacob’s household in this week’s Torah portion. He answered that after twenty years, Rebecca finally sent to Jacob in Charan to tell him it was safe to come home. She used the aged Deborah as her messenger, and Deborah died in Beit-El on the journey back. (This would not be surprising, since by then she must have been at least 87, and probably more than 100.)
The Torah, however, does not mention Deborah or any other human messenger arriving in Charan. Instead,
God said to Jacob: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your homeland, and I will be with you.” (Genesis 31:3)
Jacob would not need a signal from his mother once he had received a signal from his new protector, God.
Another possibility is that Deborah travels to Beit-El from Hebron, where Isaac and Rebecca have settled,8 in order to tell Jacob that his mother has died. Having accomplished her final mission in life, the aged wet-nurse dies. When Jacob buries her, he weeps for both her and his mother—even though the Torah does not mention the news about Rebecca. (Although Rebecca is one of the speaking female characters in the book of Genesis, the Torah never gives her age, and mentions her death only when Jacob is giving his own burial instructions and lists who is already buried in the cave.9)
In Genesis Rabbah 81:5 (300-500 C.E.), Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman says that in Greek, allon means “another”, and therefore Jacob was mourning for another while he was mourning for Deborah. Modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has pointed out: “The word tachat—under, instead—is used twice in this verse, suggesting substitution, a hidden grief. On this other level, eluding consciousness, Jacob weeps for his mother.”10
Modern commentator Shmuel Klitsner wrote: “This, after all, is Jacob, perhaps only now belatedly ‘weaned’ from his mother Rebecca’s influence. This is Jacob, who inappropriately relinquished his autonomy to a mother who dressed her adult son in another’s clothing … Now, at this juncture, upon Jacob’s return to Beth-El and just prior to the moment of the divine reconfirmation of his new identity, he must divest himself of the last vestigial ties to that inappropriate dependence. This is expressed symbolically in the burial of a mythic woman who has silently accompanied Rebecca and then Jacob through their lives, and whose role, despite her years, is still described as one who nourishes from the breast.”11
Immediately after Deborah is buried, God appears to Jacob and confirms that his new name is Israel: Yisrael (ישְׂרָאֵל) = he struggles/argues (with) God. Jacob’s relationship with God is no easier than his relationship with his mother.
A modern adult knows God is not an anthropomorphic yet all-powerful hero who can replace Mommy or Daddy. Yet how many of us, even today, are like Jacob? How many of us, after we realize that our parents cannot protect us from harm, react by bargaining with God to protect us?
I never expected God to be parental—perhaps because I was brought up as an atheist. When I became an adult and groped my way toward an idea, or perhaps a feeling, of God, I never wanted to bargain. I have never even asked God to protect and take care of me, because I believe the world is not set up that way. I do pray in gratitude. And I pray for courage, strength, empathy, and other inner qualities that help me to face our unpredictable world, and even do some good in it. I think my prayers are slowly being answered.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in November 2010.)
- Genesis 27:1-17.
- Genesis 25:29-33.
- Genesis 33:19.
- Genesis 34:1-26.
- Genesis 35:1.
- Genesis 24:59.
- 11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Genesis 35:27.
- Genesis 50:29-31.
- Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, NewYork, 2009, p. 230.
- Shmuel Klitsner, Wrestling Jacob, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2006, p. 130.