Vayishlach — Genesis 32:4-36:43
You don’t hear much about them, and sometimes you don’t even know their names. But they are the true heroes and heroines in our lives and in our times. It was also true in biblical times that important characters in the narrative are often hardly mentioned, perhaps only hinted at.
I became interested in this phenomenon shortly after the events of Sept. 11, 2001. I was listening to one of my favorite radio talk shows while driving. The guest was a professor of sociology who was insisting, much to the chagrin of the show’s host, that the firemen who lost their lives saving others at the World Trade Center were not true heroes.
He maintained that a true hero does something unusual, something neither he nor anyone else typically does. These firemen, he argued, were simply doing their duty. They showed up to work in the morning, went through their usual routine, and responded to this assignment as part of their job.
The announcer was horrified by this opinion and pronounced it “academic snobbery.” My gut reaction was identical to the announcer’s. Of course, those firemen were heroes, great heroes. And they were heroes by virtue of the fact that they carried out their life-saving duties with such astounding courage.
I began to reflect on the definition of “hero” in the Jewish tradition. From the Jewish perspective, is a hero some kind of Superman who behaves in some extraordinarily dramatic fashion? Or is the true hero the person who, day in and day out, does what is expected of him or her in a faithful and diligent manner, humbly and anonymously, never making the headlines?
My research soon convinced me that the latter definition was the accurate one. Those who dutifully and loyally do their jobs, be they in the mundane or sacred sphere, are the true heroes or heroines.
As an example, let me introduce a person mentioned in this week’s Torah portion. Her name was Deborah.
We read in Genesis 35:8 that Jacob, his wives, and their many children have returned to the Land of Israel. They have reached Bethel, Jacob’s original starting point. Jacob erects an altar there.
Then we read: “And Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died and she was buried…under the oak, and it was called the ‘Oak of Tears.’”
Who was this woman, never mentioned by name before? Why did her demise evoke such grief? Why is she important enough to “make it” into the biblical narrative?
Turn back to Genesis 24:59, where we read that when Rebecca left her birthplace to journey to the Land of Israel and marry Isaac, she took her nurse with her. A nurse with no name, whom we know nothing about until we learn of her death in this week’s portion.
Our rabbis speculate that nurse Deborah was a major part of the entire epic drama of Rebecca’s life with Isaac and Jacob. They suggest that she was the one sent by Rebecca to retrieve Jacob from his long exile.
The rabbis tell us, too, that she was nurse to Rebecca’s many grandchildren, who shed those many tears under the oak tree.
Jewish mystical sources even aver that nurse Deborah was reincarnated into the much later Deborah, who was a judge and prophet in Israel.
Deborah is an excellent example of someone who “just did her job” regularly and consistently and who had an impact upon three generations of major biblical characters, including a matriarch, two patriarchs, and the forebears of the 12 tribes.
She exemplifies the type of person the Talmud refers to when it asks: “Who deserves a place in the world to come?” and answers, “He who slips in silently and slips out silently.”
At a critical juncture in his life, Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Jewish heroes and sages, was inspired by the fact that when a gentle waterfall drips upon stone — impenetrable by ordinary means — for hundreds of years, it succeeds in boring a hole. Quiet consistency and persistence are the true ingredients of heroism and strength.