A Message from Rabbi David Wolpe – ADL’s Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow

Hate is generic but hatreds are specific. Different kinds of prejudice play out in different ways, and the Jewish people have spent many centuries thinking about prejudice — and love — and how each flourishes in God’s world.

When the CEO of ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt, asked me to serve as the Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow of the organization, I realized it was an opportunity to enrich the Jewish teachings of this organization whose work to combat hatred flows from the sources of our tradition. Leviticus 19:17 alone may be taken as the motto of what we seek to accomplish:

Do not hate your brother in your heart.

We are all kin. While much of ADL’s work is monitoring those who would be destructive and taking action against them, ultimately we seek to change hearts. Through a weekly parasha (weekly Torah portion) commentary and other speaking and writing, I hope to bring this message from a century old organization and a millennial tradition to a divided and needy world.

Vayishlach: The Power of Women 


Jacob returns to Beth El and prepares to build an altar to God and amidst these profound events we suddenly read this:

“Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the road below Bethel; so it was named the tree of tears.” (Gen. 35:8).

In the middle of the drama of Jacob’s life why does the Torah pause to note the death of a woman about whom almost nothing is known?

Deborah is mentioned but once before in the Torah (Gen. 24:59). Deborah was either Rebekah’s childhood nurse or is intended to be the nurse to Rebekah’s children when they are born. Rebekah and Isaac live in Haran. What is she doing decades later with Jacob, all grown, at Bethel?

Deborah is buried under “allon bachut,” the tree of tears. We assume that Deborah took care of Jacob himself when he was a child. Noting her passing, and the mourning it evoked, the Torah is hinting at something we now know from neuroscience.

In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections are formed every second. Years of research have emphasized how much of our personality is shaped by our early years. This formative educational time was – and still often is – the province of mothers and nurses who brought the wisdom of the community to the newborns. The essential shaping of Jewish character was the legacy of women. By the time fathers began to educate children, their personalities were largely formed.

Robert Louis Stevenson describes the nurse of his childhood, Allison Cunningham, in a poem in his “A Child’s Garden of Verses”:  

For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake…
For all the story-books you read:
For all the pains you comforted… 
The angel of my infant life.

Perhaps, as Ramban suggests, she was with Jacob not to bring him back but to pass on the legacy of child care to Rachel and Leah, to be their teacher. Now an old woman, having raised Jacob, Deborah would have generations of childcare wisdom to offer to the young mothers. If so, Deborah was instrumental in shaping not only Jacob, but the tribes of Israel.Deborah’s resting place is named “the tree of tears” to remind us how precious and dear she was to Jacob and his family. Our sages tell us we do not forget “girsa d’yankuta” – the version of our youth. Those who sing our first lullabies and steady our first steps remain forever precious. Let us give a moment to Deborah who like the many unsung women who shape our youth, helped take Israel from the cradle to the world.

Rabbi David Wolpe

Rabbi David Wolpe

As ADL’s Inaugural Rabbinic Fellow, Rabbi David Wolpe serves as a thought leader within the organization, advising on interfaith and intergroup affairs, and sharing his thoughts and reflections with the community at large.

Rabbi David Wolpe is the Max Webb Emeritus Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. Author of eight books, including the national bestseller Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times, Wolpe has been named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek and twice named among the 50 most influential Angelinos by LA Magazine. He is the Senior Advisor at Maimonides Fund. He has taught at a number of universities, including UCLA, Hunter College, Pepperdine and the Jewish Theological Seminary and written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Jerusalem Post among other newspapers and journals. Wolpe has also recently accepted a position as visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School.