Thursday, February 09, 2006

Beshalah (Haftarah)

“Then Deborah sang this song”

There is more than a little irony in the fact that the haftarah read this Shabbat, a few days following the Israeli elections at which Ehud Barak was soundly defeated, centers upon the great military victory of Barak ben Avinoam and Deborah. But perhaps not so ironic after all. The biblical Barak, the apparent seeming hero of our chapter, is an ambiguous, possibly even wimpish character (on which more later). Now Ehud son of Gera, hero of Judges 3:12-30 (not part of the haftarah cycle), from whom our erstwhile PM derived the other half of his “Judges” name, was a figure of real derring-do.

The connection of our haftarah to the Torah portion is quite clear: the Torah portion contains the Song of the Sea, celebrating the Jews’ triumphant and miraculous victory over the Egyptians upon the drowning of Pharaoh’s hosts; the haftarah, which minimally consists of the Deborah’s Song of Victory following the defeat of the armies of Yavin, the Canaanite king of Hatzor (under his general, Sisera), is one of the two major poems of victory found in the Prophets. The other, David’s song of victory in 2 Samuel 22, serves as haftarah when this same Torah chapter is repeated on the Seventh Day of Passover (as well as on the Shabbat of the Song of Moses, Ha’azinu, when not coincident with Shabbat Shuvah). To be more precise: Ashkenazic custom for this Shabbat is to read both the prose account of the battle (Judges 4) and the song (Judges 5), making it the longest haftarah of the entire cycle; Sephardim and Yemenites (with the addition of a few verses) read only the latter; Italians only the former. There are many impatient gabbaim who unfortunately think that “short is best,” and somewhat arbitrarily prefer the more truncated version; they thereby miss out on the reading of a fascinating story, as well as a rich mine for comparison and contrast between the two accounts.

Deborah is introduced (in 4:4) both as a “prophetess” and as one who performed the role of “judging Israel,” sitting under a date tree between Beth-el and Ramah. Later on, in the poem, she refers her to herself as a “a mother in Israel” (5:7): the connotation seems to be one of overall caring and providing for the diverse needs of the people (Now and again, one encounters political leaders who are perceived by the people as benevolent, parental figures: witness FDR, and in certain ways Menahem Begin and Rabin, albeit the latter two suffered from the chronic divisiveness of Israeli society).

Deborah calls upon Barak to muster an army toether at Mount Tabor to wage battle against the threat posed by Sisera; Barak, rather strangely, reacts by asking Deborah to accompany him, “for if you do not go with me, I will not go” (4:8). Deborah agrees, but points out that there is something unfit, possibly even unmanly, in such a request: “the way on which you are going shall not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hands of a woman” (v. 9). (There is a double entendre here: she seems to be referring to herself, but later on this turns out to refer, perhaps, to Yael, who delivered the coup de grâce to Sisera.)

Why did Barak want Deborah to accompany him? Does this suggest some weakness or insecurity in his character? Possibly. But what seems more significant here is that Devorah was clearly perceived, not only as a a “judge” in the sense of one who rendered decisions between conflicting parties, or even a “mother,” one providing overall guidance and leadership (a Golda to Barak’s Dayan or Dadu?), but as a “prophetess”—a kind of mantic, charismatic leader. One can imagine her ensconced on top of Mount Tabor, hands raised heavenwards, in an attitude reminiscent of Moses in the war with Amalek, serving as a kind of conduit of Divine energy, bringing victory to her people in an almost mystical way. If so, this makes her a singular figure in the history of Israel, man or woman.

But if so, why did she herself object to Barak asking her to come with him to serve in this way? In truth, we know very little of the figure of Deborah. In her unique combination of the usually masculine rule of adjudication, of the charismatic, prophetic role, and of the matriarchal leadership implied in the title em be-Yisrael, she seems like a remnant of ancient, almost mythic times, in which the roles of the genders were understood very differently than in later days. The second half of the story (vv. 17-24) portrays the exhausted Sisera fleeing the corpse-filled battlefield on foot, seeking somewhere, anywhere, where he may find a refuge. He arrives at the tent of Hever the Kenite, a supposed ally, whose wife Yael offers him a hiding place: and then promptly does him in, giving him milk rather than water so as to make him sleepy, and promptly smashing his skull with a tent-pin. A pretty picture! (But this story belongs to a good tradition. Yael realized, quite wisely, that even defeated generals are likely to make comebacks at unexpected times and places, and are dangerous to be left alive. Hazal, in turn, add color to the story by making her out to be a Matta Hari.)

The poem of victory in Chapter 5 presents us with a very different atmosphere from the very outset. Its aim is not to relate events as they happened, but to celebrate God’s acts of salvation. From the very beginning, the stage is set against a much broader, theological backdrop. In phrases strongly reminiscent of Moses’ blessing in Deuteronomy 33, evoking the revelation at Sinai, God is shown “going forth from Seir, marching from Edom; the earth trembled… the mountains quaked, yon Sinai before the Lord” (vv. 4-5); and later, the cosmos itself participates: “The stars in heaven, battled in their courses against Sisera” (v. 20). Secondly, we are also told in great detail of the participation of the various tribes in the battle; the war is described as an occasion on which the entire system of the twelve tribes was marshalled together to repel an enemy—not only Naphtali and Zebulun, but also Ephraim, Benjamin and Issachar. On the other hand, the poet doesn’t spare his criticism of those others who sat by the sidelines: Reuben, among whom there were “great searchings of the heart”; Gilead, Dan, Asher, and the people of Meroz (vv. 14-18, 23). The poet drips sarcasm, too, in the closing lines, where Sisera’s mother is shown awaiting her son’s triumphant return, with no doubt a damsel or two (literally, “a womb or two”) in tow, plus some embroidery and dyed stuff for her own use. And then, a pseudo-pathetic portrayal of her weeping, as she realizes the terrible truth. No: these chapters are not recommended for the squeamish, nor for the politically correct. But its sentiments are honest, and powerfully expressed, and infused with a deep and abiding faith in the mighty acts of the God of Israel—giving an important lesson to us all.


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