Parashat Vayishlah 5779

The Oak of Weeping
A D’var Torah for Vayishlah
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Devorah the wetnurse of Rivkah died and was buried under Beth El, under the oak. And he called it the Oak of Weeping (Alon Bahut). (Genesis 35:8)

Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and they buried her beneath the city under the oak of the river, and he called the name of the place “the river of Devorah” and he called the name of the oak “the oak of the mourning of Devorah.” (Jubilees 32:30)

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: The word alon (oak) is Greek and means “another,” for as Yaakov was mourning for Devorah, the news came to him that his mother (Rivkah) had died. This is why it says: “God appeared to him and blessed him.” What was the blessing? The blessing to comfort mourners. (Genesis Rabbah 81:5)

 

Wedged among the many peaks of the literary landscape of Parashat Vayishlah is a small funeral announcement. This announcement comes after the narrative of Yaakov’s night wrestle and his reconciliation with Esau, and also after the story of the rape of Dinah. It comes not long before the tale of Rachel’s death. We might be forgiven for missing it entirely.

I am speaking of the announcement of the death of Devorah, Rivkah’s wetnurse. Some say she is Rebecca’s childhood nurse and comes with her from Paddan-Aram as a confidante. Others say she comes to Canaan to be the wetnurse for Rivkah’s children, and is later sent to fetch Yaakov home. Either way, Devorah is not present in the narrative until now. So why announce her death? The strangeness of this scene is even more striking when we consider that Rivkah’s death is never mentioned—only when Yaakov dies does he mention that his mother lies in the cave of Makhpelah.  Who is Devorah? Why is her death recorded in the Torah? And why does her gravesite become known as the “oak of weeping”? Does the tribe weep so greatly over a character who has never before been mentioned?

Genesis Rabbah has a poignant and heartbreaking comment on this verse. The midrash says that alon, the word for oak, should be read as a Greek word for aher, or other. That is, Devorah’s death is a precursor to the announcement of Rivkah’s “other” death. The midrash suggests that while Yaakov is mourning Devorah, a messenger comes to say that Rivkah has died. (Yaakov is soon to lose Rachel as well—a trio of losses that, when put together, seems unbearable.) A teacher of mine, Dr. Ruth Fagin, embodied the spirit of this midrash when she once said to me that Devorah is a psychological stand-in for Rivkah – Rivkah is such a powerful character that her death cannot even be mentioned lest it derail Yaakov’s life. So the Torah represses Rivkah’s death and mentions Devorah instead, as a kind of mother-substitute – a veiled allusion to the real mother-loss.

I want to extend this thinking a little farther, by examining Devorah’s burial place, the Oak of Weeping. The oak is often a sacred tree in ancient Israel. Consider Avraham’s camp at Elonei Mamrei – the Speaking Oaks – as another example (Genesis 13:18). Yet Devorah’s burial place is not only “under” an oak. It is also “under Beit El”—under the very shrine that Yaakov builds to commemorate his successful return (Genesis 35:7). Devorah’s grave lies beneath the altar of Yaakov’s new tribe. This seems to me immeasurably powerful. This place of new beginnings and fulfilled blessings is also a place of remembered mother-loss. (We might even say that repression of the mother, human and/or divine, is being placed at the core of tribal memory.) The Book of Jubilees, an ancient non-canonized telling of Genesis, says that Devorah’s grave is near a river under the city – she lies by an underground river. It is as if Devorah’s death flows under the very foundation of the people.

We should consider that Devorah the wetnurse has a very potent name. Devorah’s name, like the name of Devorah the prophetess, means “bee” and comes from the root “to speak” (davar) and also the root for “shrine” (devir; e.g., 1 Kings 6:5). She is the one who speaks at the foot of the shrine. I want to offer that Devorah’s presence speaks the unacknowledged grief of the parashah – for there is so much unacknowledged grief. Think of it: the mysterious opponent wounds Yaakov at Peniel and he never walks well again, but Yaakov doesn’t appear to grieve his injuries. Jacob and Esau reconcile and then split again, but no one talks about it. Shechem rapes Dinah, and then is himself murdered along with his family, but no one mourns these terrible events either. In fact, we never hear about Dinah’s life after this incident. Then Yaakov makes his family abandon their tribal gods as they enter Canaan and adopt only YHWH – their spiritual past, presumably once beloved, is buried under a terebinth in Shechem, and no one grieves. Rachel dies, and after setting up a pillar, Yaakov/Yisrael immediately journeys on. No mourning ensues. And, as if some kind of awful Freudian slip has occurred, the Torah does not even mention Rivkah’s death. Even when Yaakov and Esau bury Yitzhak, the word “mourning” or “weeping” does not appear. Vayishlah is the parashah of repressed mourning.

The Oak of Weeping perhaps holds all of the grief that the patriarchs and matriarchs cannot express. This subterranean tree, the tree of the One who Speaks, is a wetnurse for the people, offering them the nourishment of sorrow. It is a place to render loss visible and sacred. This shrine, this place of pilgrimage, this river of tears stands directly beneath the altar at Beit El. We cannot have our identity, our sacred places, our spiritual awakenings without the Oak of Weeping.

In these days after the murders of Jewish people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh and after the murders of people of color at a grocery store in Kentucky (and new tragedies are every day unfolding), I feel awake to this truth. I have had trouble grieving. It is easy for me to feel a fierce anger, or a deep tenderness for the people (and the People) I love, but the grief has difficulty coming out. I have prayed with my community, and with dear friends and colleagues from Pittsburgh, and witnessed their tears, but have had difficulty finding my own. Perhaps I feel as the patriarchs and matriarchs of the parashah might have felt: that the journey is too pressing, that much is demanded of me, that I cannot indulge myself. Perhaps it’s just too scary to let down my guard. Though we all grieve differently, maybe some of you can relate. When I attend my synagogue, there is a well of song and prayer and courage and love and togetherness that is so healing and precious, and yet the Oak of Weeping is probably the first thing I need.

So I take comfort from the midrash that claims the Holy One of Blessing visits Yaakov after he is struck with these multiple losses. According to this midrash in Genesis Rabbah, when the Torah says that the Holy One blessed Yaakov, it is the blessing of mourning that the Holy One speaks. May the Divine One comfort us and heal us as we work toward a loving and giving future. May we be granted tears and also the deep joy that can come when we remember how to feel. At the place of the Oak of Weeping, may we build a house for God.
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Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education of the Academy for Jewish Religion. She is the founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the author of several books including The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, and The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership.