DEVORAH

When we understand how tHashem interacts with general historical development of the people of Israel, we become tremendously grateful, which brings out a sense of self-sacrifice, the strength to give of oneself, the manifestation of unity within the people and the potential for victory. 

DEVORAH

by HaRav Shlomo Aviner, Head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim.

  1. Woman as Leader
  2. Wife of Lapidot
  3. Spiritual Greatness
  4. The Shirah

 

  1. Woman as Leader

The primary concern of Devorah the prophetess, in leading the war of liberation against the rule of Yavin the Canaanite king of Chazor, was exceptional.  She initiated and directed every aspect of the war.  An exceptional facet of Devorah is that while judges generally were not prophets, save for Shmuel the prophet, Devorah is said to have been a prophetess and a judge over Israel: “And Devorah, a prophetess…judged Israel at that time. And the children of Israel came up to her for judgment (Shoftim 4:4-5). The other unique element is the war of independence she initiated.  Although she was not in fact the commander, she directed part of the battle and influenced its course (Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, #9, Ish Ve-Isha #18).  She was the one who appointed Barak to lead the army.

 

Our early Sages issued rulings about this strange and unique situation.  Apparently, the judicial and military leadership of the country had no role for a woman.  Our Sages learn this from the verse: “You will surely appoint a king over you” (Devarim 17:15) – a king, not a queen (Sifri Shoftim 157).  The role of a woman was not to be in the public eye, but to build the future generations within the family.  Two responses are given in support of Devorah’s political inclinations. Tosafot say that Devorah was different from the other judges, for she judged according to the word (Tosafot on Niddah 50a).  In other words, she judged in a special Divine way, according to Divine inspiration. This was exceptional, because it is impossible to change Torah through prophecy.  Torah is eternal.  In Devorah’s time, the state of “hora’at sha’ah – a temporary measure” applied, namely one is entitled to disregard certain Torah requirements in order to save Israel. In another place, Tosafot say something else: Israel accepted her (Tosafot on Bava Kamma 15a).  A woman could not rule over Israel through her own power unless the people had accepted her; only then was it possible. This rule also applies to those who are not fit to judge. Such acceptance permitted those otherwise disqualified, to judge. In other words, a relative cannot judge another relative, because of his proximity.  Only if a person says to the litigant, “Your father is acceptable to me,” thereby demonstrating trust and compassion, is he entitled to judge them (see Chidushei Ha-Ran, Shevuot 30a).  Acceptance can also place the role of a judge on a person who is disqualified.  For example, a man can say: Three cattlemen are acceptable to me (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 24a).  Cattlemen who are suspected of theft because they tend their herds in someone else’s fields can serve as judges.  Cattlemen are disqualified because they are suspected of theft; the father or another relative is disqualified because of his proximity to the litigation, and a women is disqualified because of her lack of connection to certain legal matters.  But if the people consent and they accept her in the role of a judge, she is permitted to judge.

 

This is the basis of the authority of the Knesset in our time.  Of course, Torah-observant people should stand for positions at the head of the State of Israel, but Knesset members are chosen by the will of the people: This is why they have the authority to lead the people in spite of the fact that they should upgrade their Torah observance.  In the time of the monarchy in Israel, the son of the king was anointed king on the condition that he was suffused with wisdom and the fear of heaven, just as his father was (Rambam, Laws of Kings 1:7).  Wisdom refers to an understanding of state management and politics. Fear refers to morality and the fear of heaven.  If he did not yet know how to lead the people, they appointed a tutor who instructed him; because he could sharpen his acuity.  However, if he was not like his father in fear and morality, they would not anoint him king over the people: morality is difficult to teach, and it is a crucial element of leadership. A person lacking in morals and Torah observance was not anointed leader. However, if the people accepted him, he was accepted as ruler.  Accordingly, the Knesset has no authority to teach but it has the authority to legislate in social, monetary and political matters, even though such decisions touch on Torah issues.

 

The judging of Devorah is exceptionally based on prophecy [according to the word], and additionally on the acceptance by the people of Israel.  This is highlighted in the verse: “She judged Israel at that time” (Shoftim 4:4). At that time, there was no one else to lead Israel.  The entire Nation was weak.  Even Barak ben Avinoam asked Devorah to take him out to battle.  Otherwise, he refused to be the commander in the battle, and she had no choice but to agree.

 

All recorded prophecy is necessary for the generations to come, for if it were not so, it would have been written (Megillah 14a).  A prophet does not deliver prophecies for all time, unlike the Torah, which is eternal and applies from the first to last generation.  Prophecy is specific to needs of the hour, the generation and the situation (Rashi on Chulin 137a).  It is a special Divine announcement specific to the matter at hand. Possibly with the passage of generations, the circumstance reappears and for that reason an ephemeral prophecy is written: this way, when a similar situation arises in the future, people will be able to obtain guidance and learn to deal with it.  In fact, there were many prophets at the time of the Exodus from Egypt (Megillah 14a), yet many prophecies are not recorded in Tanach: Their prophecies were not relevant to the generations to come.  The written prophecies we have were not recorded to relate history.  We are not dealing with spiritual archeology.  The prophets speak to us over the generations; their voices are heard thousands of years later.

 

In this light, if they saw the need to tell us the story of a woman who headed the kingdom of Israel and the command of the armed forces, it was to teach us of the possible recurrence of a similar situation in the future; and in practice to inspire us how to relate to and deal with the situation.  In our generation it is not possible for a woman to be appointed to lead on the basis of prophecy, although such a woman could be appointed on the basis of the collective will of the people. Golda Meir was the head of state, something that had not previously, nor since happened.

 

  1. Wife of Lapidot

Devorah was a prophetess qualified to lead the army and the country; and coupled with this, she conducted herself as a proper and ordinary woman, a woman of Lapidot (Shoftim 4:4).  She was married to a man called Lapidot, and lived her life as a wife and mother.  Our Sages say that Lapidot was in fact Barak.  Another commentary says that she was called the wife of Lapidot because the vocation of her husband: He served as spinner of wicks in the Temple at Shiloh, and his wife would finish his work – a vocation related to the holy service in the Temple (Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 42).  Our Sages say that she sat under the date tree (Shoftim 4:5), to stress that she did not stay in a house that provided shelter from the cold of winter and heat of summer; she did so in order to avoid immodest situations of being alone with another man (Megillah 14a).  The date tree was a public place, and for that reason was appropriate for the sake of modesty.  There were other women in the history of our people who worked to save the people of Israel, like Queen Ester, and Yehudit bat Matityahu. They acted in a private and independent way, and did not stand on the front lines of a war of liberation; they were not women of high position in the community of Israel. Devorah had the highest form of initiative, reached the epitome of bravery and leadership, all with the deepest sense of modesty.

 

There were women in our history who accomplished great things but they often had problems of modesty, as in the case of Tamar the wife of Yehudah: She decided that Yehudah had to be the father of her child and dressed in masquerade to achieve her goal.  This proved to be a very delicate matter, because she proceeded along an immodest path.  But Devorah acted with modesty and without subterfuge.  The mystics comment (see Gilgulei Neshamot of Rav Menachem Ezaria Mi-Panu 139) on the verse “She sat under the date tree,” that she was like Tamar, the wife of Yehudah, whose initiative was directed toward the royal lineage: However, Devorah acted in a thoroughly modest way.

 

Yael was the wife of Chever the Canaanite, but she was also a judge.  The matter is not discussed in the plain text, but we know only prophecies which are necessary for the generations to come are recorded. However, it does state in the Song of Devorah: In the days of Shamgar the son of Anat, in the days of Yael, the highways were not busy, for the travelers took the side roads (Shoftim 5:6).  In the time of Yael, the roads were extremely dangerous because of enemy attacks: People were looking for secondary routes in order to avoid danger.  She was the wife of Chever the Canaanite of the descendants of Yitro who converted and left Yericho to come to Arad.  Otniel the son of Kenez, a judge and learned in the Torah lived there (ibid 1:16; Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim 38). Yael killed Sisera. Reference to her is made as: “You shall be blessed on account of women in the tent” (Shoftim 5:24).  She was doubly blessed, in regard to the tent and the building of the generations, and for what she had done.

 

Our Sages shed light on the strength of Yael which empowered her to kill Sisera with her own hands using a tent peg through his temple. They comment: She was an upright woman and did the will of her husband (Yalkut Shimoni Shoftim ibid. 42): This was her strength.  In the midst of her work in the tent and home, she had the extraordinary courage to act for her people.  Devorah also operated on these two levels.

 

Our Sages reserve a small measure of criticism toward Devorah the prophetess.  Arrogance is not a positive attribute, all the more so for a woman (Megillah 14b).  It is said of Devorah: “And she sent for and summoned Barak, son of Avinoam” (Shoftim 4:6). Barak was a special person: It would appear that she should have gone to him rather than summoning him to her.  This was an act of specific and glaring haughtiness. She said to him: “Even though the journey you take shall not be for your honor; for Hashem will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman” (ibid. 4:9).  In other words, everyone knew that a woman won the war.  She did not have to emphasize this.  In the Song of Devorah, it says: “Until I arose, Devorah arose, that I arose a mother of Israel” (ibid. 5:7). Our Sages say: Anyone who is arrogant…if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him (Pesachim 66b). A person who stresses the ‘I’ within him cannot be a prophet, for The Holy One Blessed Be He examines righteous people like a strand of hair (Yevamot 121b). It is not appropriate for a leader to speak that way; all the more so for a woman, because the honor of the princess emanates from within (Tehillim 45:14).  However, there are situations where it is impossible to hide feelings; there is often a need for a person to bring them out (see Mussar Avicha, pp. 71-73).  But even in these situations, one should internalize as much as possible.  This fault does not detract from the spiritual greatness of Devorah, although because of haughtiness, her prophecy was taken from her.

 

  1. Spiritual Greatness

Every judge stands out in a unique way; one excels in courage, and another in wisdom.  The heart of Devorah’s strength was spiritual.  On account of her spiritual power, Israel was victorious in its military campaign.  She experienced spiritual elevation.  In that period, the people of Israel suffered many hardships.  Yavin king of Chazor had a powerful army and iron chariots.  The people of Israel were not armed with iron chariots, which is why it did not succeed in rooting out the nations who lived in the valley (Shoftim 1:19).  What power did this woman Devorah, who spun wicks, have to conquer a mighty army?  It was the extraordinary spiritual power that expressed itself in prophecy and song.  At the time, we merited having the central personality of the Jewish nation possess great spiritual elevation as mentioned in her song. Along with this spiritual courage, we also were endowed with military courage. Through this spiritual vision, a spirit of strength grew which she spread to Barak, who passed it on to the entire army (Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah #9, Ish Ve-Isha #18).  However, only six tribes, not the entire people, participated in the battle; even so, she succeeded in instilling might in them.

 

This became the prototype for future generations.  A mighty spiritual personality, even if not part of the government, through her inner strength influences and guides, and strives toward uniting the people, in times of dispersion and separation as in the days when the judges judged.

 

In that period, each tribe lived as a separate community, as it says of Reuven at the sheepfold: The divisions of Reuven (Shoftim 5:15).  They were shepherds who did not volunteer; they remained to listen to the bleatings of the flocks (ibid. 5:16).  Reuven preferred to sit on the fence between decisions (ibid.) and see how things would turn out.  If Israel were victorious, it would not need his assistance.  And if it were losing, it was better that he would not be among the defeated against the Canaanites.  But Israel was victorious because of those who did not sit on the fence, and who fought.  All of the participants in the war were volunteers: “Praise Hashem for the avenging of Israel, when people willingly offered themselves” (ibid. 5:2).  The volunteers came from far away places like Zevulun and Naftali.  Devorah lived in Nachalat Efraim between Ha-Rama and Beit El (ibid. 4:5).  She succeeded in uniting and strengthening the people and in bringing them to the battlefield near Tabor and Kishon.  Sisera’s army was trained, with its soldiers coming from the south from the Yizra’el Valley. Victory was achieved with the military strategy Barak ben Avinoam based on the spiritual courage of Devorah. Spiritual courage overcame the power of weapons and iron.

 

  1. The Shira

In Devorah’s Song [shirah], we see the unfolding of her view of the events in which she was involved  The Song has a unique structure, since it is written in Tanach: A small brick atop a brick; a brick atop a small brick (Megillah 16b).  The Song is full of hints, but its meaning betrays a great vision, majestic and encompassing.

 

There is a difference between the word “shirah” and “zemirah” which both mean “song,” as it says, “Sing [shiru] to Him, sing [zamru] to Him” (Tehillim 105:2).  There are three levels.  The first and simplest is conversation.  A person expresses himself through reasoning, and dialogue, namely common prose.  Above conversation is the “zemirah,” which is filled with the excitement of emotion, which joins together all the powers of a person’s life.  The highest level is the “shirah.”  A “shirah” envisions everything, contains a profound view of life, like in Song of the Sea or the Song of Haazinu.  A “shirah” does not relate to an event by viewing it through a restricted angle, but through an overall world view (see Olat Re’eiyah vol. 1, p. 200).

 

Our Sages criticize King Chezekiah who did not sing “shirah” after the victory over his enemies.  Had he sung “shirah,” he could have been the Messiah (Sanhedrin 94a).  But he never rose above the level and depth of the events that transpired in his time.

 

Devorah reveals in her song why they merited victory. Zevulun and Naftali were a people who put their lives at risk of death in the high places of the fields (Shoftim 5:18).  They were victorious because there were people who risked their lives. Whenever there is self-sacrifice, miracles occur.  The Gemara (Berachot 20a) asks: Why did the earlier generations merit miracles while we perceive no revealed miracles? For example, when rain did not fall at the time of Rabbi Yehudah, they instituted a fast; and when Rabbi Yehudah took off his shoe before the fast, immediately the rain began to fall. Yet if we fasted several days and there is no rain, the Gemara answers that the reason is not that the earlier generations learned more Torah; rather, it was because they sacrificed their own lives for the sanctification of His Name.  In other words, there is a link between self-sacrifice and miracles.

 

We do not have a clear grasp of the details of the battle at Tabor, for little is described in the Book of Shoftim and other details given by Yosef ben Matityahu.  The Tribes of Naftali and Efraim were on top of Mount Tabor; and since Sisera could not climb the slope with iron chariots, he waited in the valley.  The Israelites were ready for tremendous self-sacrifice using a strategy of flight.  Their plan was to come down to the valley; they would engage in a frontal assault with Sisera’s iron chariots, which would certainly cause the loss of many men. Then Sisera’s iron chariots would give chase after them into an awaiting ambush by the tribe of Yissachar in the valley where it would pounce on Sisera.  Yosef ben Matityahu says that rain fell at the beginning of the summer; this was a rare event, although not impossible (see Shoftim 5: 20-21; Orot, Israel and its Revival, 12:27).  The iron chariots sank in the mud and their weight crushed them.  At any rate, the people had displayed self-sacrifice, which led to the help of G-d for the warriors (Shoftim 5:23).  Miracles only occur when there is self-sacrifice, and that is only forthcoming when there is a loftiness of spirit.

 

The Song explains the significance of the campaign against the Canaanite army.  At the beginning, there is a verse that establishes a connection: “Even Sinai melted before Hashem, G-d of Israel” (ibid. 5:5).  Rather, a person should have an overall perspective.  We are a people whose history is bound up with G-d.

 

Devorah said: “Hashem made me have dominion over the mighty” (ibid. 5:13).  G-d came down to fight with the warriors.  Regardless, there are those who evade responsibility, like the tribe of Reuven and the residents of the City of Meroz which was close to the place of the battle, but which was not prepared to help and which is referred to in the Song as “Cursed Meroz” (ibid. 5:23), cursed because they did not come to help G-d in a courageous battle.

 

The Song says: “To the help of G-d, and not with the help of G-d; which is the common term.  When we say with the help of G-d [Be-ezrat Hashem], we mean: We act and G-d helps.  The meaning of to the help of G-d [Le-ezrat Hashem] is that we help G-d and He acts.  Our entire history is replete with acts in sanctification of G-d’s name by the Jewish people.  The state of the tortuous path (Shoftim 4:5) is blasphemous.  G-d chose us over all other people and gave us His Torah; so that in everything that befalls the Jewish people, like war, there is a relationship to this substantive issue of sanctification of G-d’s Name.  The Song says that even the stars fought on their side (ibid. 5:20).  This was an event replete with Divine magic for all of humanity.  When we understand how tHashem interacts with general historical development of the people of Israel, we become tremendously grateful, which brings out a sense of self-sacrifice, the strength to give of oneself, the manifestation of unity within the people and the potential for victory.  Self-sacrifice is born of the depths of this recognition and understanding; and the greater the recognition and understanding, the greater the self-sacrifice.

 

The Song also relates to women who were involved in the battle.  Devorah and Yael, the wife of Chever the Kenite were on one side, and the enemy women, the mother of Sisera and her entourage were on the enemy side.  There were indeed women on the enemy side. The mother of Sisera looked out the window and cried through the lattice: Why is his chariot so late in coming? What is keeping the wheels of his chariot (ibid 5:28)?  What a moving and human description!  By contrast, regarding Yael: “She took a peg in hand, and with her right hand took the hammer. With the hammer, she killed Sisera. She smote off his head when she pierced and struck though his temples” (ibid. 5:26). She is described as an apparently coarse and hard woman. There is a stark contrast between the refinement of the women of the enemy and the coarseness and bloodthirstiness of our women. The verse continues: “The wisest of her ladies answers her; and she also offers an answer herself: Maybe they found booty and are dividing it” (ibid. 5:29-30).  We go out to the war of liberation in order to repulse the foreign occupation, but the enemy’s reason for invading was reducible to booty. Hence, the coarse expression:  To every man a woman or two (ibid. 4:30).  In other words, for every man there would be a woman or two.  The women would serve as booty for the men; for their woman would be suitable for the necks of those who take the spoils (ibid.).  These women not only looked out the window and cried: They were expecting booty. The women of Israel were supposed to serve the lust of their men, and as decoration and embroidery for their necks. Yael and Devorah knew the correct reality.  Therefore Devorah said “And so let all the enemies of G-d perish” (ibid. 5:31) and not only of the forces from the north. Devorah and Yael were refined women, but there were situations where there was no room for refinement, as in the case of enemies such as these.  Some things have to be done crudely and sharply.  When they oppressed us and killed us, we had to defend ourselves. We view the situation in its entirety to see things as they were, and not as we imagined them on first glance.

 

This war of liberation was driven by the strength of women, which is also underscored in the Song.  The foundation of the courage, strength and military power was the spiritual greatness of Devorah whose influence brought a long peace, as it is written: “And the land was quiet for forty years” (ibid.).

 

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