The nurturing leader

The nurturing leader

Vayishlach - Genesis 32:4-36:43

The diversity of the class I was teaching on leadership, using the book of Genesis as a source text, was especially important, because each student stressed a different aspect of leadership.

The class on Vayishlach had its own unique flavor. Carol, a student who characteristically defended the underdog in debates among her peers, showed herself to be an optimist and had a way of taking care of others.

“You have all been calling me ‘the big sister,’” she said. “Well, I am proud to play that role, because I think that taking care of others in a sisterly fashion is an important kind of leadership. And I intend to prove it from an often overlooked verse in this week’s portion.”

Carol briefly summarized the events surrounding Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan: his encounter with Esau, his dramatic sojourn in Shechem, and his arrival in Bethel, at which point we read this brief passage: “Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak below Bethel; so it was named Alon-Bahut, the Oak of the Weeping.”

“Something about this verse touched me very deeply,” Carol said. “I didn’t recall ever having learned of the existence of anyone named Deborah in our study of Genesis so far. Yet her death is not only noted, it apparently evoked great mourning. Obviously Jacob and his sons were very grieved by her passing. I felt almost possessed by a need to find out more about this Deborah.”

She said she had discovered that Deborah was indeed referred to earlier, in Chayei Sarah, which we read three weeks ago, although there, she went unnamed.

“It was long before Rebecca’s son, Jacob, was even born that his mother departed from her home and family to journey to Canaan and marry Isaac,” said Carol. “But her brother and mother did not let her go alone. As we read in chapter 24, verse 59, ‘They sent off their sister Rebecca and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant….’ That nurse was Deborah.”

Carol pointed out that many years had intervened between the first mention of the nurse Deborah and her passing as a member of Jacob’s camp. She asked whether we had any idea how this old nurse ended up in Jacob’s camp — then excitedly told us what she had discovered in Rashi’s commentary.

“Rashi suggests that Rebecca sent Deborah back to her brother Laban’s home in Haran to send for Jacob and tell him it was time to come home to Canaan, as she had promised in chapter 27 verse 45: ‘When your brother’s anger subsides…I will send for you and fetch you from there.’

“Deborah was Rebecca’s emissary and, although by then an aged woman, traveled from Be’er Sheva to Haran and ultimately back to Bethel, where she died, was buried, and was so profoundly mourned.”

Carol went on, explaining her research into why Rebecca would choose this old woman to travel hundreds of miles to fetch Jacob. Her answer, she said, “relates to the theory of the type of leadership that fits my personal style.

“We all learned just how corrupt the environment in Laban’s home was,” Carol said. “Rebecca knew she herself was able to remain immune to Laban’s influence only because of the nurturing she experienced from infancy at the hands of Deborah. She knew that Jacob and his wives and children living under Laban’s domination were at great risk, physically and spiritually. She had to send someone who could play a role in Jacob’s life and in the lives of his children akin to the role played by Deborah in her own early childhood. So she asked the frail Deborah to undertake the difficult journey.

“Here we have,” Carol concluded, “the Torah’s allusion to a different type of leadership. Not one of charisma, authority, control, or power — rather, the tender, nurturing leadership of ‘the big sister,’ in this case, the old nursemaid. Only she could offer the unique kind of leadership that could keep Jacob and his entire family spiritually pure and physically intact.”

Zalman, the class’s “talmid haham,” provided the icing for Carol’s delicious cake.

He said that Carol’s “beautiful insights give extra depth to an exceptional midrash quoted in the commentary known as Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot that connects Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, with another Deborah who lived hundreds of years later, Deborah the Prophetess. In Judges, chapter 4, we read: ‘Deborah…led Israel at that time. She sat under the Palm of Deborah…and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.”

Zalman continued: “The midrash identifies the tree that the compassionate judge Deborah sat under with the tree under which the earlier Deborah was buried — as if the earlier Deborah was the role model for the ‘big sister’ —nurturing leadership the later Deborah emulated with such success.”

Indeed, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslav put it, “Every shepherd has his own melody.” Every leader has his, or her, own leadership style.

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