By Shlomo Riskin
Jacob has left Laban and Laban-land behind and – after more than two decades of living in exile – returned to his ancestral land of Israel. He retraces his steps to his original point of departure, Beth-El, where he had dreamt of the ladder-Temple uniting heaven and earth. There, he prepares to fulfill his vow to dedicate a monument to God. His entire household removes the last vestiges of the idolatry that they took with them from the alien environment of Laban’s home, and they appear purified as they prepare for a homecoming to God’s Promised Land.
And then – apropos of nothing and unexpectedly “in media res” – the Bible records the funeral of an unknown person: “Rebecca’s nurse Deborah died and she was buried in the valley of Beth-El under the oak tree; it was named “Weeping Oak” or perhaps “The Oak of Double Weeping” (Allon Bacchuth) (Genesis 35: 8)
Who was this Deborah whose name has not previously appeared in the narrative? Rashi records that Mother Rebecca had dispatched her to Jacob to inform that he could finally return home, Esau would not harm him. Rashi further explains that Jacob was now told of a second cause for mourning, that Mother Rebecca had also died, but her death was hidden, because had her funeral been publicized, people attending would curse the womb that bore Esau.
But is it not strange that Jacob’s mourning for his mother who loved him so much and had secured for him the birthright- is subsumed under his mourning for his mother’s nanny. Was not Rebecca deserving of a separate burial monument in her own right? Is Rebecca not the great heroine of the life of Jacob, who makes certain that we are the children of Israel and not the children of Esau?!
I would suggest that Jacob may have had mixed feelings about his mother and the role she played in securing his father’s blessings for him. Jacob is hounded, even tortured, by having deceived his father. Was he not punished again and again, “measure for measure,” for this egregious sin, by Laban’s deceiving him, by placing Leah instead of Rachel under the nuptial canopy, and later by his son’s deceiving him about Joseph’s death and by Joseph’s deceiving his brothers by dressing up as the Grand Vizier?
Moreover, now – after 22 years – Jacob has finally disgorged himself of the garb of Esau. He has shed the external, materialistic trappings that had almost totally muted his inner spiritual voice and the scholarly naïveté which was his natural persona. He is not at all certain that his mother had been correct in her scheme. Perhaps she had over-reached, underestimated the damage that the hands of Esau can wreak upon the soul of Jacob. Had he not become more Esau than Esau, more Laban than Laban, in his exile to Labanland?!
Providence, however, and Jewish history side with Rebecca. We are complex personalities, entering the world not as disembodied souls but as creatures of both sub-gartelian and supra-gartelian (below and above the belt or gartel) drives and needs. The Jewish birthright – if it is to truly create a more perfect society – requires our dream of compassionate righteousness, moral justice and world peace to be nurtured and protected by the high-tech, internet-savvy, scientifically precise, philosophically astute, and militarily advanced hands of Esau. This is what will enable us not only to survive, but also to prevail; God created a world of both heaven and earth, and wants them to somehow stand together.
Undoubtedly, it is simpler to separate the two. It is “safer,” much less “dangerous”, to isolate the voice of Jacob within a Bnei Brak Bet Midrash, leaving political statesmanship and military prowess to a secular and even a gentile world. But then we give up the dream of universal redemption, of preparing a world wherein God dwells in our midst. We forfeit our birthright.
This week’s Biblical commentary was introduced by the final verses of last week’s reading as Jacob and Laban part: “Jacob also went on his way, and the angels of God met him. When Jacob saw them, he said, ‘This is the camp of God!’ So he named that place Mahanaim”. (Genesis 32: 2-3) – “Mahanayim” means “Twin Camps” – Israel and Diaspora, Torah and cultural wisdom, the sword and the scroll. It is the very danger of living within this dialectic which creates the possibility for the most profound creativity.
A Midrashic postscript
When David, the forerunner of our Messiah was first chosen, the text (1 Samuel 16: 12) reads; “He was sent for and he came and he was ruddy red (Admoni, Edom, Esau), with beautiful eyes and goodly appearance.” And God said, “Arise and anoint him, for this is the one”. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 63: 8), adds “When Samuel saw David the red; he was frightened lest he would murder innocent people in the same way that Esau did.” The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, “He has beautiful eyes” (The Sanhedrin of Torah Scholars are Biblically referred to as the “eyes” of the community of Israel). Esau murdered indiscriminately whereas David will only take a life at the behest of the Sanhedrin and truly for the sake of Heaven.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.