"Shabbat Shirah" - The Sabbath of
On this Shabbat, there are two traditions regarding what text should be used as the Haftarah. According to the Ashkenazic Tradition, the Haftarah is a combination of prose and poetry; according to the Sefardic Tradition, it is purely poetry. The Ashkenazim begin reading in "Sefer Shoftim," the Book of Judges, Chapter 4, from verse 4 till the end of the chapter, which is a prose account of the miraculous victory of a small army of Israelites over a huge force of Canaanite soldiers, followed by Chapter 5, in its entirety, the contents of which is the "Song of Devorah," celebrating that miraculous event. The Sefardim, on this Shabbat of Song, read only the Song.
Who were the Judges?
The Period of the "Shoftim," translated partially correctly as "Judges," was a period of decline of central authority after the "reign" of Moshe and afterwards, Yehoshua, and prior to the beginning of the reign of Shaul, the first King of Israel. Historians dispute the exact interval of time that it occupied, but it was approximately in the years 1220 B.C.E. - 1020 B.C.E. It has been characterized as a period of time when "in those days, there was not yet a king in Israel; and a person did whatever he chose to do." (Shoftim 17:6 and as a summation to the entire Sefer, 21:25)
There were fifteen (or sixteen) Judges in all, and Devorah, one of the heroines of our Haftarah (there was another, as we shall see), was the fourth Judge. Either she was the only Judge in her time or she presided in conjunction with her husband, generally assumed to have been Barak ben Avinoam of our Haftarah, the source of the 15-16 discrepancy, who was definitely the Israelite general in the Haftarah.
The "Shoftim" can also be identified with the "Zekanim," the "Elders," to whom Yehoshua passed the Tradition of the Torah (according to the first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot), which he had received from his lifelong Master and Teacher, Moshe, who had himself received it from G-d on Mt. Sinai. That body of interpretation, explanation and elaboration of the Laws of the Torah, was passed from "Judge" to "Judge" until they were transmitted by "Shmuel"/Samuel, the last of the Shoftim, to the "Neviim," the Prophets.
Who was Devorah?
Devorah was the only woman who was both a Judge and a Prophet. The only man who accomplished that feat was Shmuel/Samuel who, as noted above, bridged the Period of the Judges and the Prophets.
According to RASHI, there were forty eight male prophets and seven female prophetesses. Actually, the phenomenon of Prophecy was much more extensive than those numbers would indicate, as Prophecy touched the lives of thousands of individuals. The seven prophetesses were Sarah, wife of Avraham, Miriam, sister of Moshe and Aharon, Devorah of our Haftarah, Chanah, mother of Shmuel, Avigail, wife of David, Chuldah and Esther, heroine of the Purim Story.
Devorah's style is described as "sitting under the date palm of Devorah," meaning that for reasons of "tzniut," or modesty, she did not wish to meet with male litigants in private. Therefore, she "set up court," performing her duties as Magistrate and as Teacher and Transmitter of Torah, in the great out-of-doors.
The Midrash places her in good company when it says of her that "Moshe, David and Devorah sang to Hashem and the Holy Spirit rested upon them." (Mechilta Beshalach 6)
Background and Synopsis of the Haftarah
The date of the reign of Devorah was ca. 1130 B.C.E. The People of Israel had been oppressed by Yavin, King of Canaan, and his fearsome general, Sisera, for twenty years. In a prophetic message from Hashem to Devorah, Hashem informs her that the time has come to cast off the yolk of the King of Canaan, and that the task should be performed by Barak ben Avinoam along with a small army of 10,000 men taken mainly from the Tribes of Naftali and Zevulun. Other Tribes were also expected to help, but no specific numbers were required.
Sisera, hearing of this surprising and presumptuous challenge from the People of Israel, determines to destroy their army completely. He assembles a force of nine hundred iron chariots (each the probable equivalent of a modern battle tank) plus, according to (Targum Yonatan 5:8), 40,000 Officers, 50,000 swordsmen, 60,000 spear throwers, 70,000 shield carriers, and 80,000 regular soldiers - (which reminds one, incidentally, of some of the pre-war calculations of the relative armed strength of the Arabs versus Israel in modern times), the total of which by the ordinary rules of war would be expected to totally annihilate the miniscule army of Israel, G-d forbid.
But the battle is a rout, in favor of Israel, though Sisera has received aid from all the Kings of Canaan, who likewise wish to destroy Israel. Israel receives miraculous aid from the forces of Nature, caused of course by their Director. The stars approach the battlefield, scalding the army of Sisera, and causing them to seek refuge in the waters of the Brook of Kishon. But those waters, usually shallow, miraculously rise and drown all the forces of Sisera - that is, all but him.
The Fate of Sisera
Sisera, shocked and stunned by the outcome of the battle, staggers in the direction of the Tent of Chever the Kenite, who has a peace treaty with Yavin, the overall King of Canaan. Chever's wife, Yael, emerges from the tent and gestures to him to come into her tent for protection. She plies him with milk and butter, and he falls asleep. She seizes a tent peg and a hammer, and drives the peg between his eyebrows, through his head and into the ground, definitely and thoroughly killing him. When Barak, in hot pursuit of Sisera, arrives, Yael says, "the one you are looking for is in my tent, and he is quite dead."
The People of Israel follow up their victory by applying intensifying pressure on Yavin until they completely break his hold on them and in fact reverse their roles. Peace is obtained for a long period of time, forty years, in the context of those tumultuous times.
Summary of Song of Devorah
Fearless challenge to surrounding nations that Devorah will sing praises to the G-d of Israel
Who performed for Israel the greatest event in human history by giving them the Torah on Mt. Sinai.
Before the present (1130) War with Canaan, conditions were terrible - no security; people had to travel on circuitous routes between places, no confidence remained that one could live in open cities, as before;
After the war, security and happiness prevail.
Again, as at "Yericho"/Jericho, which was conquered by 40,000 unarmed soldiers, we are shown that victory does not depend on physical might!
All Praise to the Tribes who helped: Mainly Zevulun and Naftali;
"Zevulun, people who were willing to risk their lives, and Naftali, on the high battlefield" (Shoftim 5:18) of Mt. Tavor.
The Tribes of Ephraim, Menashe, Binyamin, Yissachar and Gad came and will come in the future to the aid of our People -
But Reuven, where were you? Were you caught up again in great deliberations - which barred effective action!
And Dan, once the strong guardian of the Tribes in the Desert, why were you busy loading your valuables onto ships, to prepare for escape?
Asher, who also did not come, can be excused because he lived on the border, in open cities, and had to remain;
Stars came down, and scalded the soldiers of Sisera (Midrash)!
They sought refuge from the heat in the Brook of Kishon, that ancient brook, planted there for this purpose, which overflowed, drowning them! (or perhaps they fled in panic from the battlefield and the horses of their chariots were caught in the mud and the rising tides (RADAK), (or just possibly in terror of shooting stars fled to their death into the Kishon) -
Blessed be Yael, above all other women, for her courage! For, at the end, Sisera lay dead at her feet!
Sisera's mother watches through the windows and the lattices for her son's return, for nought!
She receives "false comfort" from her ladies-in-waiting: Sisera's army is dividing up spoils - two women per soldier, etc.
May all enemies of Hashem suffer the same fate, and may all who love him shine bright as the sun!
Links to the Parshah
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU