What's in a Name? - our daughter Devorah Leah

Friday, 13 May, 2011 - 12:30 pm

Our daughter was born last Sunday morning. In the Chabad tradition, we named her Devorah Leah at the first opportunity – namely the Torah reading at Monday morning Minyan. (This is associated with the Kabbalistic notion that the soul is able to manifest itself more completely once the Jewish name – the spiritual character of the soul – is assigned to the child.)

Historically, the names Devorah and Leah have many associations. Devorah is one of the seven Biblical prophetesses, who judged and led the Jewish nation soon after their initial entry to the land of Israel. Leah is one our four matriarchs, the mother of half of the tribes of Israel. Through the ages there were many special women who bore these names, including our community’s own Natalie Brown, of blessed memory, whose Jewish middle name was Devorah.

One must however, look to Chabad history to see these two names becoming a singular entity, eventually earning an honored place in Chabad lore, with thousands of women proudly bearing the name Devorah Leah.  

The first Devorah Leah in Chabad history is a young woman who was very much ahead of her times. As a child in the early 18th century, she longed to be engaged in the study of Torah, which at that time was a boy’s domain. When she discovered her mother Rochel’s secret, that she was a gifted Torah scholar, unknown to anyone around her, she begged her mother to teach her. Unfortunately, her period of Torah study bliss were abruptly ended by the untimely passing of her mother. Through the Baal Shemtov’s orchestration, Devorah Leah was introduced to and married a young prodigy named Yosef Yitzchak, who became the dean of the Yeshiva in Vitebsk, Russia. One of their agreements before marrying was that they would study together regularly, and thus Devorah Leah became a great scholar in her own right. When her younger brother Boruch married a fine girl named Rivkah, she undertook to tutor her sister-in-law in Torah learning as well. Boruch and Rivkah’s oldest son, Schneur Zalman grew to become known as the Alter Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad school of Chassidism and author of its foundational work, the Tanya.

With his life so profoundly influenced by his aunt Devorah Leah, the Alter Rebbe honored her memory by naming his younger daughter Devorah Leah. This young Rebbetzin, daughter of Chabad royalty and mother of Chabad royalty (her son R’ Menachem Mendel became the 3rd Rebbe of Chabad,) single-handedly saved the future of Chabad through her self-sacrifice.

To read the story in full go to Briefly, in the year 1792, the Alter Rebbe sensed that there was a great spiritual threat to the continuity of the Chassidic movement in general, and Chabad in particular. He understood that in heaven a storm of opposition was raging in reaction to the great success the Baal Shemtov’s revolution had in revitalizing Judaism. He further realized, that the path of Chabad was being targeted due to the manner in which it made Chassidism accessible to all.

His daughter Devorah Leah intuited that the threat could result in the early passing of her great father, which would likely signal the end of Chabad, whose teachings and way of life may not have been rooted enough to be sustained without the Alter Rebbe’s direction. Just before Rosh Hashanah, she gathered three of her father’s most illustrious Chassidim – as a Beit Din – and swore them to secrecy. She then declared that she would give up her life to save the life of her father, along with the future of the path that he was forging in the service of Hashem. At the conclusion of the holiday she informed her father about what she had done and requested that he take her three year old Menachem Mendel, and raise him as his own. The next day she passed away. The Alter Rebbe lived for 20 more years; and the Chabad movement, not only survived, but thrived and developed and has continued to impact Jewish life until this very day.

As Chassidim we recognize the great sacrifice a mother made in giving up her life and thus the chance to raise her child, for the sake of our future. As such, we proudly honor her Mesirut Nefesh – self-sacrifice – by naming our daughter Devorah Leah. It is our hope that our daughter Devorah Leah draws inspiration from the great women whose names she bears, and the she brings honor to their lives by the way she lives her own.

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