The death of Devorah and our need to grieve


By Rabbi Marc Israel
Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43.

Over the past year, I have begun seeing references to the “fun-eral.” The idea of this fad is to rid our death rituals of mourning and sadness. According to a Washington Post article, “Funeral homes have hired event planners, remodeled drab parlors to include dance floors and lounge areas.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with a desire to celebrate our loved ones’ lives. But something is fundamentally missed if we don’t also take the time to mourn and acknowledge the sadness and empty space that is left by their departure.

In a roundabout way, we learn this lesson in Parshat Vayishlach.

As Jacob and his family return to the land of Israel, he arrives at Beit El, where he first awakened to God’s presence when fleeing from his brother, Esau. God again appears to Jacob and reiterates the name change Jacob had demanded from his encounter with God’s angel.

But before God appears, we have a verse that seems strangely misplaced in this
narrative. In Genesis 35:8, we are told that Devorah, Rivkah’s nurse, died and was
buried under the oak below Beit El and called Alon Bakut.

What makes this verse unusual is that this is the first time we learn the name of Rivkah’s nurse; the Torah never mentions the death of Rivkah, Ya’akov’s mother, so why would it mention her nurse’s? The Torah does not clearly state what Devorah was doing there or how long she had been with Jacob; and no other information about her death is mentioned, nor do we hear about anyone’s reaction.

So why does the Torah include this verse?

Rashi explains that Rikvah had sent Devorah to get Ya’akov to tell him it was safe to come back as she had promised. By recording her death, the Torah proved that Devorah was with Ya’akov and, therefore, showed that Rivka had kept her promise.

Perhaps not fully satisfied by his own answer, Rashi continues by quoting a midrash that the mention of Devorah’s death here may actually be more about giving Ya’akov an opportunity to mourn for his mother, Rivkah, who apparently died while Ya’akov was in Haran.

The midrash explains that the name Alon Bakut, literally meaning “the tree of tears,” can also mean “he cried for another.” This implies that the Torah records Devorah’s death at this time to provide Ya’akov an opportunity to make up for the opportunity he missed to mourn his mother.

The Jewish rituals around death are designed to meet a profound human need. Unlike the “fun-eral,” Jewish tradition forces us to confront sadness — to tear our clothes, to stop and focus on the loss we feel.

According to this reading of our parshah, Ya’akov, who was denied the opportunity to mourn for his mother at the time of her death, is now given the space to do so. The Torah teaches that he must work through his previously unresolved grief to allow him to move forward.

The strange inclusion of Devorah’s death reminds us we can either deal with grief at the appropriate time or we may find that it will hit us later and disrupt our lives just us as jarringly as this verse seems to interrupt the narrative of this week’s parshah.

Rabbi Marc Israel is the rabbi at Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville.

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