In this parsha, Yaakov returns to the land of his fathers, to his native land, in accordance with the word of God in the dream mentioned in Parshat Vayetze: “And God said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your fathers and to your native land, and I will be with you.’” (Genesis 31:3) His return to Eretz Yisrael was accompanied by many challenges; for example: his confrontation with an unknown being in the form of an angel, and his encounter with Esav that concluded in a way that allowed Yaakov to arrive “whole at the city of Shechem.” (Genesis 33:18) However, one should pay attention to an unfulfilled promise. This promise was Rivka’s promise to Yaakov after he stole the blessing and the subsequent plan of Esav to kill him. Rivka asks Yaakov to flee to Lavan, her brother, and to stay with him. “…flee to my brother Lavan, to Charan. And remain with him a short while …. Until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send and bring you from there….” (Genesis 27:43-45) There is no mention in the Torah that Rivka ever sent a messenger to retrieve Yaakov —- just the opposite: if it were not for God’s revelation to Yaakov in Lavan’s house and Lavan’s corrupt behavior, it is reasonable to suggest that Yaakov would never have thought about returning. Additionally, there is no mention that Yaakov even saw his mother when he returned to Eretz Yisrael. Only his father is mentioned: “Jacob came to Isaac his father at Mamre, Kiryat Arba, that is Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac lived.” (Genesis 35:27) If so, the question arises: where was Rivka during this entire story of Yaakov’s return after so many years? Why is there no reference to her life or her death? Why didn’t she send a messenger to retrieve Yaakov?
The Torah describes a story that seemingly does not fit the flow of the narrative: the death and burial of Devorah, Rivka’s nursemaid: “Deborah, the nursemaid of Rebecca died, and she was buried below Bet-el, below the plateau; and he named it ‘Alon-bachut’.” (Genesis 35:8) This story raises a number of questions:
- What is the significance of placing this verse between the building of the altar at Beit El and the Divine revelation to Yaakov?
- Who was Devora and why is her death mentioned?
- What is the significance of the name “Alon Bachut”?
Rashi identifies Devora as the “messenger” that Rivka promised to send to retrieve Yaakov from Padan-Aram. However, Devora died before she had an opportunity to return and let Rivka know of the success of her mission. Rashi wrote: “What connection does Devora have with Jacob’s household? Since Rebecca had said to Jacob: ‘ I will send and bring you from there’ (Genesis 27:45) it was Devora whom she sent to him, to Padan-Aram, (to tell him) to leave from there; and she died on the way. I learned this from the words of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan.” Rashi continues that Devora’s death was not the only notification of a death that Yaakov received: “The Midrash Agadah (Bereishit Rabbah 81:5) says that he was informed there of another reason for mourning, for he was told about his mother who died; and the word ‘Alon’ in Greek means: ‘another’. The reason that the day of her death was hidden, was in order that people not curse the womb from which Esav emerged. Therefore the Torah did not publicize it.” Rashi claims that Yaakov was notified of his mother’s death (it is not so clear who informed him of this — was Rivka already dead when Devora started out on her way to Yaakov, or did someone else tell him?). Yaakov returns to the Promised Land after his great escape, with the sense that he fulfilled his mother’s wishes. However, he would never get to see her or show her his family. Additionally, Rivka’s death was kept secret so that it would not engender negative repercussions; it was kept secret so that it would not cause damage to her image because of Esav’s contemptible conduct. In this story, according to Rashi’s interpretation, there is a definite similarity to Yitzchak, who upon returning from the aborted sacrifice, is notified that his mother had died and that he was not present for her burial. Perhaps he felt, to a certain degree, guilty for possibly causing her death. Yaakov, all of whose success and family were a result of his mother’s wisdom, was not able to show her the final respect. A close reading reveals that Rashi, reading between the lines, describes another aspect to the lack of mention of Rivka’s death, developments not mentioned in the text of the Torah. According to the midrash that Rashi cited, Rivka’s death was concealed so that her name would not be cursed because of Esav’s deeds. This description shows a tendency in certain interpretations to describe Esav as becoming even more evil and harmful to others, after Yaakov’s taking of the blessing and his flight. To a certain degree, Esav was “homeless”, for one can assume that he did not speak with his mother, although he honored his father, but waited for the day of his death in order to exact revenge on his brother. Actually, Esav did not even wait for his father’s death; when he heard that Yaakov was on his way to return to the Land of Israel, he began to work to bring his plan to fruition. Rivka was powerless to prevent this type of behavior and was considered “guilty” in people’s eyes. Rivka left this world without her beloved son, without knowing how the story would end, and with the fear that Esav still hated Yaakov and had not forgotten what he did to him.
The Ramban understands that the location of the story of Devora’s death teaches us, not only about Rivka’s death, but also that God comforted Yaakov over his mother’s death. “The best interpretation is the one said by our Rabbis (Bereishit Rabbah 81:5): that this hints at Rivka’s death, and therefore, the place is called “Alon Bachut”, for there is no crying and sighing for an elderly nursemaid that a place would be named for it (the crying). However, Yaakov was crying and mourning for his righteous mother who loved him and who sent him there, and whom he did not merit to see upon his return. Therefore, God appeared to him and blessed him in order to comfort him, as He did with Yitzchak his father, after Abraham’s death (Bereishit Rabbah 25:11).” The Ramban continues to describe Rivka’s death in the following manner: ”However, it is possible to say that she was not honored in her death, because Yaakov was not there and Esav hated her and would not come there, and Yitzchak was blind and housebound. Therefore, the Torah did not want to mention that the Children of Heth buried her. Similarly, I found (Piskta D’Rav Kahane 3:1, Tanchuma “Ki Taytze” 4) it said: ‘You find that when Rivka died they said who would go before her, Avraham was dead, Yitzchak was stuck in the house blind, Yaakov had gone to Padan Aram, if wicked Esav would go before her, people would say,’Cursed be her breasts for suckling this man.’ What did they do? They brought out her coffin at night.’ This is what is hinted at in the text.” The Ramban describes Rivka’s death in an even more tragic manner than Rashi’s interpretation. Rivka is buried by the Children of Heth (whose daughters she did not want to marry Yaakov) in the middle of the night without any family participation. Yaakov was excited to return home and to see his mother, and, according to Ramban, he even brought with him Devora who was Rivka’s nursemaid when Rivka was young, to sustain her in her old age; “and it is possible that she is not the nursemaid about whom it is written: ‘ So they escorted Rivka their sister and her nurse ….’(Genesis 24:59) but was a different nursemaid who stayed in the house of Lavan and Betuel, and now Yaakov brings her with him to sustain her in her old age to honor his mother, for it is the way of nobles to have many nursemaids. For it is doubtful that this elderly maid would be the messenger that Yaakov’s mother would send, like the words of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan.”
According to Ramban’s explanation, and even according to Rashi, Rivka’s life was too difficult to bear. By her own doing, her beloved son was sent away to raise his family, her other son was estranged from her, her husband was blind and housebound, and the surrounding society renounced her and blamed her for the wicked conduct of her son Esav. She left this world without satisfaction, without honor, and without knowing what happened to Yaakov. And, of course, the question arises, why was this her fate, and what is the message that we must learn from this?
One could say that the message is; that Rivka had completed her purpose in this life in that Yaakov returned to the land whole and reconciled with Esav. He returned to the land with an extensive family which will become the foundation of the building of the nation of Israel. Rivka’s heart’s desires have been fulfilled, and, therefore, Yaakov has no further need of her protection. Yaakov is further blessed after her death with the name Yisrael, “for you have striven with God and with man and have overcome”. (Genesis 32:29) Yaakov no longer needs anyone to dress him, to cook for him, and prepare things for hm. He is independent and capable. Granted that her life and burial were not so filled honor, nevertheless, her dreams were fulfilled.
An additional idea that the Torah gives us first and foremost is an educational message, that Rivka was prepared to give her life for her son. She knew that when she sent Yaakov away to build a family for himself and to save himself from Esav, that she would be left alone with a passive husband and an estranged son. She did this because she believed that the future of the nation of Israel was hanging in the balance and she was prepared to sacrifice herself for this goal. This attitude places her on equal status with Yitzchak who was prepared to give his life for the nation of Israel “I sacrificed my soul before You.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 89b) The lives of our fathers and mothers teach us how to sacrifice for a higher purpose, for the building of the Nation of Israel. They did not live just for themselves, they saw the bigger picture, the creation of the Nation of Israel. Despite all the difficulties, they were prepared to do everything so that the Nation of Israel would be built. This power is given to us, to see past ourselves and our personal desires, the mutual responsibility that we have for each other, the obligation we feel towards every Jew no matter where he is, and for every person created in God’s image — this is the command of our fathers and mothers the builders of our nation to us, their children.