It’s a fascinating phenomenon that we have so many unnamed female characters in Tanach, like the wife of Noach (she’s the mother of all humankind, and we don’t even know her name), the mother of Shimshon, Yiftach’s daughter, Lot’s wife, Potifar’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the list goes on. For reasons I don’t fathom, many women with significant contributions or roles are left nameless. However, in this week’s Torah reading we have a female character who is named but we’re clueless as to her role. Here’s the verse: Devorah, Rivka’s nursemaid, died, and was buried under the oak below Beit EL; so, it was named Alon Bachot (The Oak of Tears, Breishit 35:8). Let’s investigate Devorah.
Whenever we encounter lacunae in the Torah text, the Midrash steps up to fill in the gaps, and this example is no exception. We’re told that she is the same MEINEKET (wet nurse or nanny) who accompanied Rivka to meet Yitzchak (24:59), and that was over a century before this incident. So, what was she doing accompanying Ya’akov as he reentered Eretz Yisrael? Well, Rivka had promised Ya’akov that she would send word when, ‘your brother’s anger against you subsides, then I will fetch you from there’ (27:45). Who better to send than her 130-year-old governess?
Before we go back to our investigation of Devorah’s role and importance, we must explore another conundrum. Why is the name of this site in the Shomron referred to as Alon Bachot, ‘cryings’ in the plural? Well, apparently Devorah is a symbolic alternate for the mourning for Rivka herself. Many Midrashim assume that this was also the exact time of the death of Rivka Imeinu. Why is this unknown character the stand-in for Ya’akov’s beloved mother, who saved both his life and his mission?
Although there are numerous variations on the theme, the Ramban is representative of the opinions on the topic: Since Scripture did refer to the event (through the death of Devorah), the commentaries wondered why the matter was hidden…It is, however, possible to say that Rivka’s death lacked the proper respect and honor, for Ya’akov was not there, and Esav hated her therefore would not attend; Yitzchak’s eyes were too dim to see, and he no longer left his house. Therefore, Scripture did not want to mention that she was buried by the Hittites (the locals in Chevron).
So, in order to save Rivka the ignominy of a less than appropriate funeral, we just obliquely allude to it by hints. This is indeed sad. Rivka is a hero of immense dimension for she truly rescued the entire enterprise of the Jewish nation from the clutches of Esav. She deserved better at her demise, but circumstances intervened.
Back to Dvorah. The literal translation of Onkelos for the word MEINEKET, her job description, is the word MEINIKTA, which is the Aramaic equivalent. However, the more Midrash based translations Targum Yonatan and Targum Yerushalmi offer interesting variations. The Yerushalmi goes with MARBAYITA which is related to RABA. This implies that Devora was more than a nurse maid, but was a teacher and guide. Targum Yonatan goes even further down that path with PID’GUG’TA, which is really Greek and gives us the English ‘pedagogue’
This term which comes from the Greek ‘pedo’ for child and ‘agogas’ for leader, really means one who leads children. In modern usage, this term has become a negative reference to teachers who are old-fashioned or a stickler for rules. That’s too bad, because it’s a beautiful term for those who understand that truly great teaching is leading, hopefully, by positive example. I’m sure the Targum meant it in the most complimentary way.
When we think about Rivka becoming a major influence on Jewish destiny, we often ask, ‘How could she become a TZADEKET in the house of Betuel, with a brother like Lavan, one of the more nefarious characters in Tanach, who is considered the epitome of evil in our Hagada?’ The simple answer now is: Devorah did it!
Rav Zvi Hersch Weinreb puts this whole scenario into a beautiful framework:
Devorah is an archetype of the nameless soul who makes a powerful impact upon us, and who is forgotten for a very long time until we finally remember them and “name” them. Rivka’s nursemaid had no name when we first learned of her existence. Only when she passes on, do we finally learn, under the Oak of Weepings, that her name was Devorah. Perhaps it is of Devorah that the prophet Yeshayahu spoke when he said in the Name of the Almighty: I will give them, in My House and within My walls, A monument and a name (YAD V’SHEM) Better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name, which shall not perish. (Yeshayahu 56:5)
We, sadly, often forget those influences and influencers who made us who we are during the most formative years of our lives. But this week we remember Devorah who made Rivka into who she was to become: a founding Matriarch of God’s nation. All of us should probably be thinking about unsung heroes in our own youth who guided and molded us.
As Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno, perhaps the greatest Jewish pedagogue of the 20th century, wrote: Each child needs help and guidance from parents and teachers until the flames rise and burn on their own. I believe that behind every great person there lurks a Devora, may her memory be for a blessing, for us all.