Vayishlach: Weaning and Weeping

April 11, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Posted in Vayishlach | Leave a comment

(This blog was first posted on November 17, 2010.)

And he built an altar there, and he called the Place of God “Beit-El” (House of God), 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”.  —And God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Padan Aram, and He blessed him.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:7-9)

tachat = beneath, under, instead of, in exchange for

Remember last week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, which begins with Jacob fleeing from his twin brother Esau and encountering “the Place”, where he dreams of a ladder between heaven and earth, and God speaks to him?

In the morning, Jacob sets up a stone pillar, pours oil on it, and names the place Beit-El.  Then he vows that if God will watch over him, and give him food and clothing, and make sure he returns in peace to his father’s house, then he will turn the pillar into a real beit-el, a house of God, and sacrifice a tenth of everything he owns to God.  Notice the “if”; Jacob is still bargaining for his own advantage!

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), Jacob returns to the land of Canaan after 20 years of exile.  Now he is the head of a large party of wives, children, servants, and livestock.  The first thing he does is send a message to his estranged brother, Esau.  The night before they meet, Jacob wrestles with an unknown being who gives him a new name, Israel (Yisra-el).  The next day the two brothers embrace and cry on one another’s necks.  Having made peace with Esau, Jacob’s next order of business must be either to “return to his father’s house” to see his very aged parents, or to return to Beit-El to fulfill his vow.  Right?

Wrong.  Jacob stops at Shechem and apparently decides to settle down there; he even buys land.  After a catastrophe at Shechem changes his mind (see my blog last year, “Mr. Shoulders”), God has to speak to Jacob to remind him to go to Beit-el and make an altar for those sacrifices he promised.   Then Jacob tells everyone in his entourage to discard their idols, their “alien gods”, and bury them.  (Apparently he has also delayed teaching his family and retainers about the god of Abraham.)  Finally the whole group travels to Beit-El, where at last Jacob fulfills his vow, and God appears to him again and blesses him.

So why does the Torah insert that sentence about Deborah’s burial, in between the building of the altar and God’s appearance?  The sentence is all the more odd because it is the sole place in the Torah where someone is identified by name only at his or her death.  Why does Deborah pop into the story and die at this point?  And why does Jacob name her grave a place of weeping?

Deborah must be Rebecca’s wet-nurse, the unnamed woman she brings along when she leaves Aram and comes to Canaan to marry Isaac (Genesis/Bereishit 24:59).  The wet-nurse is not mentioned again until her death at Beit-El, 70 to 100 years later.  Over the centuries commentators invented elaborate stories to explain what Deborah is doing all those years and why she shows up in Beit-El the same time as Jacob.  My personal opinion is that Deborah stays with her nursling until Rebecca finally dies of old age—without ever seeing Jacob again.  Then this indomitable, ancient woman finds out where Jacob is, and goes there to give him the news of his mother’s death.  Having completed her last mission in life, Deborah dies.

And Jacob weeps so much that he names her burial-place “The Great Tree of Weeping”.  Most commentary says he is really weeping for his mother’s death, which is not mentioned in the Torah.  This notion is reinforced by the use of the word tachat twice in the sentence about Deborah.  Tachat means “beneath”, but it also means “instead of” or “in exchange for”.  Deborah is the perfect stand-in for Jacob’s mother; identified exclusively as the woman who breast-fed Rebecca, she represents all mothers who take care of their children.

Earlier in the Torah, we see Rebecca mothering Jacob well into his adulthood.  She even tells him to run away from home, and arranges his journey.  Beit-El is the place where Jacob spends his first night away from home, the place where he finally has to drop his mother’s apron strings.  So he makes a vow to God on the condition that God will take care of him instead, at least until he returns.

Maybe Jacob postpones his return to both Beit-El and his father’s house because he wants to stay as long as possible under God’s motherly care.  Once he has fulfilled his vow, he is on his own, unprotected—suddenly weaned from his dependence on God.

How many of us today are like Jacob?  How many of us, once we realize that our parents cannot keep us from harm, can hardly face a world full of death and other frightening and unpredictable events?  How many of us react by praying to God to protect us?  Or even by bargaining like Jacob:  if you save me this time, God, then I’ll do whatever you want.

A modern adult knows God is not an anthropomorphic yet all-powerful hero who replaces Mommy or Daddy.  Yet after our parents or our romantic partners have been demoted to human beings, many of us cling to the idea of divine protection.  What happens, when someone finally lets go of this concept of God, and discovers a new relationship with the divine?

I don’t know.  I was brought up an atheist.  As an adult I let go of my concept of God as a sort of Tinkerbelle with a beard, a ridiculous figure that a distressing number of people believed in and bargained with.

My new relationship with God does include prayer.  I don’t ask God to protect and take care of me, because I know that’s not how the world is set up.  Instead I pray for courage, strength, empathy, and other inner qualities that help me to face our unpredictable world, and do some good in it.  I think my prayers are slowly being answered.

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