Deborah in the Bible

The Torah portion of Vayishlach is dedicated to the epic journey that Jacob and his family took to Israel, and their challenges in settling there. One verse seems out of place: “ Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and she was buried beneath Beth-El, beneath the plain; so he named it Allon Bachuth (‘the Plain of Tears’).”1

Who was Deborah, and why is her death mentioned? What was so significant about this woman that her death moved Jacob to tears? And what possible life lesson is there to be found in this anecdote?

This is not the first time we read of Rebecca’s nurse. We were introduced to her 11 chapters prior (albeit not by name) when Rebecca left her home to travel to the future Land of Israel and marry her soulmate, Isaac: “So they sent away Rebecca their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men.”2

The previous mention of the nurse can be easily explained. At the time of her marriage, Rebecca was very young, so sending a nurse along was appropriate.

But this latter episode happened about 120 years later. Jacob was 98 years old,3 Rebecca was at least 23 years older than Jacob,4 and the nurse was obviously older than Rebecca. This would make her a very old woman. What was she doing out on the road with Jacob’s family?

Rashi: An Agent

Rashi explains that she was there because Rebecca was fulfilling a promise she made to Jacob 36 years earlier. As her son was departing to Charan, she told him, “I will send for you and bring you from there [and bring you home].”5 Sending Deborah to her son was her way of keeping her promise to send for him and bring him home.

Nachmanides: A Dedicated Caregiver

Nachmanides offers three possible explanations for Deborah’s presence during Jacob’s travels:

  1. After bringing Rebecca to Israel many years earlier, she returned home to Charan. Now she was using this opportunity to visit and check on her former charge. Unfortunately, she didn’t make it, and was buried on the road.
  2. She had gone to Jacob in Charan to help him raise his children, due to her love for Rebecca and her desire to help educate the grandchildren.
  3. She was an entirely different woman than the woman who came with Rebecca years ago. This was another nurse that Jacob was bringing along with him to help his elderly mother.

Jonathan: An Expert Teacher

Targum Jonathan renders the word we translated as “nurse” to be pedagogue, a teacher. This was Rebecca’s teacher. When Rebecca was a young girl living in an immoral society with her deceitful father and brother, she had a support system. Deborah helped her stand strong and pious in the face of immorality and deprivation.

This (and the second answer of Nachmanides) explains why Jacob was so affected by her passing. His tremendous gratitude to this woman who was his mother’s support system and his “spiritual grandmother” (and educator of his children) was immense, and the tears flowed.

This is a lesson on gratitude, a lesson on the power of a good teacher, and a lesson on how impacting one person (Rebecca, matriarch of the Jewish people) can transform history forever.

Midrash: Rebecca

Alternatively, the Midrash6 says that the Torah is referring to the death of Rebecca. For why would Jacob cry so much for a nurse? Rather, it was his mother, who died three days after Deborah,7 that caused his tears, as he never merited to see her before her passing.

The reason the Torah doesn’t mention Rebecca’s passing overtly is that her burial was done quietly, as there was no one to bury her. Abraham had passed on. Isaac was blind and couldn’t leave the home. Jacob was away. The only one left was Esau, and his presence at the funeral would be an embarrassment, for people would say, “There goes the woman who carried and gave birth to Esau.” Hence the silence. And because the family kept it quiet, the Torah chose to keep it quiet as well.8

Deborah the Prophetess

The authors of Tosafot9 opine that the tree next to Deborah’s grave was the same tree where the prophetess Deborah sat and judged the Jewish people half a millennium later. The two women were connected in name, in place and in heart. These two incredible Deborahs made an everlasting impact on the Jewish people through their strength, their teaching and their character.