Haftarah Beshalach: A Mother in Israel
Tragedy has struck Israel. Their progress has not only been stopped, it has been reversed. For the first time since Israel conquered the land of Canaan and transformed it into the Land of Israel, the Canaanites have regained their power over the north. Jabin, King of Canaan, with his mighty general, Sisera, led a fearsome corps of nine hundred iron chariots as well as a large fighting force.
The major roads were abandoned. Travel was only possible by crooked back roads, and a pall of fear haunted village life. Israel was economically strangled. Jabin and Sisera controlled the major trade routes, such as the west-to-east road from Dor to Beth Shean and the north-to-south road from Joppa to Hazor by way of Megiddo.(5:6-7, 10)
Jabin violently extracted unjust tribute from the small villages of Israel. (5:19)
The nightmare became unbearable when Sisera, at the urging of his mother, began dividing captive Jewish girls among his soldiers. (5:30)
This twenty-year period of oppression (4:30) was the most serious threat to the unity and survival of the people since they entered the land. Israel did not have a leader.
The verses introduce an unusual leader; a woman, identified by her weak husband, a judge, not a savior, a prophetess in a time when the light of prophecy has dimmed. We meet Deborah, a “Mother In Israel”, a woman, who, when women are so vulnerable to Sisera’s armies, inspires a nation, develops brilliant strategies for battle against the area’s super-power, and brings the words of the bible to life. In fact, we will see, she actually succeeds in recreating one of the most powerful stories of the Bible.
This unusual woman, nurtures the light of the Tabernacle by providing thick wicks for her husband, Lapidut, “Mr. Wicks”, to contribute to the Tabernacle. The light increases, feeds Deborah’s inner light, and she, in turn, nurtures the light of her nation.
Deborah became known as a wise judge as she sat under the palm tree of Deborah. The judge was a savvy businesswoman, (Targum 4:5), who succeeded when the economy was in shambles. She carefully chose the tree of a “mother”; the Palm Tree of Deborah was the burial place of Deborah, the nursemaid of our Matriarch Rebecca. (Ba’alei Tosafot; Genesis 35:8) People began to stream to her for financial advice and soon realized that she was a superb judge. She carefully chose her location to preserve the privacy of her supplicants and her own dignity, (Megillah 14a), and as a way to advocate for her people; “Just as a palm tree has a single heart, so too, Israel’s has a single heart and it is for God.” (Ibid.) People began to appreciate this haughty woman (Ibid. 14b) who sat under a tree that represented nurturance, privacy and dignity, and understood that she would advocate for them before God.
Deborah grew in her role and the light she nurtured in the people infused her. She understood Israel’s situation and the absence of leadership, and turned to the pages of the Bible to learn how to save her people.
The first intimation of her prophetic powers was simply the way she read the words of the Torah. This brilliant woman carefully phrased her challenge to Barak, the general of the ragtag Jewish army; she offered a question: “Did God not command us in the Torah to destroy Canaan?” (Yalkut Shimoni, Judges # 43) As far as Deborah was concerned, if the verse commanded, then no matter the military, economic and political situation, Israel would win. She did not speak to Barak as a prophetess, but as a passionate believer in the words of the Torah. Barak would not have been allowed to hesitate to fulfill a prophetic command. He appreciated that Deborah’s passionate belief and commitment would be the source of Israel’s eventual victory. He refused to enter battle without her at his side. Her passion was matched by her strategic brilliance and her communication skills. As she traveled with Barak from Ephraim to Mt. Tabor she would meet with the elders of the tribes (5:8) to inspire them to come with her. The army grew as she traveled toward the battle. Deborah lit a fire in Israel. She brought the words of the bible alive to Israel and she reignited Israel’s passion to reconnect to God and the concomitant greatness.
Deborah chose Mt. Tabor for the launch of the battle against the mighty Sisera. It offered a vantage point that would force Sisera to marshal all his armies and military technology. Tabor was at the corner of the tribes of Naphtali, Zebulun and Yissachar. The three tribes joined with the soldiers of Ephraim and Manasseh she had gathered around her. The people were filled with a new confidence. Their unusual leader inspired them. Like Miriam, Moses’ sister, who saved her brother and led the women in song after the Splitting of the Sea, Deborah had risen to truly be the Mother of Israel.
The battle was about to begin and God responded to Deborah’s vision and passion. The skies rained down on Sisera and his army. (5:4) The Kishon river, usually safe for Sisera’s chariots, flooded and, just as happened to Pharaoh’s chariots, the nine hundred iron chariots were rendered useless. Panic spread through the Canaanite army and they all ran, including Sisera.
Another woman, Yael, horrified by the rape and pillage of the Jewish women, killed Sisera. The battle was easily won.
Deborah understood the importance of the great victory and began to sing her unequalled prophetic song. (Zohar, Volume 3 19b) Deborah’s clarity, commitment and passion won her the gift of prophecy. (Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 10) Deborah understood the potential of this moment for all of Israel and promised that her mountain, Tabor, would join as one with Sinai, Carmel and Mt. Moriah, as the place for the third and eternal Temple of God. (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah #391) Israel was forgiven for their abandonment of God, just as they were forgiven at the Red Sea. (Yalkut Shimoni, Judges #60)
Women, water, chariots, song and forgiveness. No wonder the sages understood this story as the parallel of this week’s portion. (Yalkut Shimoni, Judges #53) “Deborah,” said God, “You intended to increase My light in Israel, so too, I will spread your light throughout the nation.” (Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 10)
This is the story of the light that awaits all who read the words of the Torah with the passion, clarity and commitment of Deborah, “A Mother In Israel”.