Shabbat Vayishlach 5781

Of Deborah and Mary

Deborah, Rebecca’s nurse, died and was buried under the oak below Beth El (Genesis 35:8).

Deborah’s death is recorded following Jacob’s settling in Beth El. The Midrash was obviously curious about the cryptic reference to this woman who is simply referred to as Rebecca’s nurse. The Torah alludes to her in the verse, “So they sent off their sister Rebecca and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men.” (Genesis 44:59) Yet she remains nameless until the time of her death. This verse, that at first glance, seems to be unimportant and irrelevant conveys an important lesson.

From the moment of Rebecca’s birth, Deborah was her nurse and part of her life. When Rebecca left her parents’ home, we can assume that Deborah was the surrogate mother who was always available for comfort and counsel. While not known outside of the family, she was an important member of the household.

The Help, a book made into a movie, portrays the role of African-American maids in the South, who played significant roles in the lives of the families they served. Despite the structure of Southern society during segregation, many of the “help” had significant influence upon the white children they helped raise.

This cryptic reference to Deborah, the nursemaid, may be the Torah’s way of honoring women, who, while maintaining their roles as the household help, nonetheless had an impact on children during their formative early years. The honor given to Deborah affirms not only her personhood, but also that of all who fulfilled—and continue to, fulfill—similar roles.

In years past when in New York, Rae and I would spend the day visiting the graves of our parents, her sister, Mickey, and our grandparents. They are buried in various Jewish cemeteries in the New York area, and each stop was an important “memory” trip. Included in our itinerary were a few minutes at Mary’s grave in a large sprawling Catholic cemetery on Long Island.

For many decades, Mary was embedded in Rae’s family. She arrived from Poland in the beginning of the last century and worked for Rae’s grandparents, the Goldbergs, on their farm. Following its sale, she remained with the family caring for the grandparents and then for Rae’s mother who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Mary was very involved in raising Rae and her two sisters, Mickey and Mimi. Although illiterate, she learned a few prayers and taught the girls the Modeh Ani, the prayer recited upon awakening to thank a compassionate God for enabling us to begin another day. The girls always knew and loved their mother, but Mary was very much a part of their lives.*

Rae would place flowers at Mary’s graveside, and we would reminisce about this woman who died without any descendants, but did have an important relationship with, and a significant impact, upon these three sisters.

I think of Mary every time I see Minoso and Shulkah. Shulkah, a widow now along in years and Minoso live in an apartment close to mine in Jerusalem. Shulkah’s constant smile and bright eyes project her warm and generous spirit. Minoso, a pleasant and young Philippine woman makes it possible for Shulkah to remain in the home she shared with her husband of many years. Every afternoon, the two of them leave the apartment for their daily walk. In this regular outing that both enjoy, Shulkah sees many of her neighbors who elicit her infectious smile.

Minoso, on the other hand, entered Shulkah’s life when aging and its side effects required a caregiver to enable her to live in the home she happily shared with her husband of many years. The “Minosos,” male and female alike, are the contemporary Deborahs and Marys, who, for whatever the period of time, are embedded in families as nursemaids, companions, or caregivers for aged or terminally ill parents or spouses. Their presence and dedication are invariably a blessing that is often appropriately acknowledged and thanked in obituaries and eulogies.

May Mary’s memory be for a blessing and may Minoso and Shulkah enjoy their daily walks together for many years to come.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

*Mary adopted the family name and was legally Mary Goldberg. She was a “lapsed” Catholic, but when diagnosed with leukemia, she returned to her childhood faith. Prior to her death, Mary requested the money she had saved be used for a high mass and burial in a Catholic cemetery with a gravestone simply identifying her as Mary Goldberg. To this day Mary is fondly remembered for her endless care and love.