Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Devorah (Judge and Prophet) c.1200 BCE – 1124 BCE
This parsha relates the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and their crossing of the Red Sea. The image at the top of this page shows Miriam leading the Israelite women in song and celebration. They are playing historical musical instruments with the Red Sea in the background. The piece is inspired by a miniature from “The Golden Haggadah” of 14th C. Barcelona, Spain.
The hafatarah tells of a battle waged by the Canaanites against the Israelites. The Jewish leader, Barak, goes to Devorah asking her to lead the battle with him. She accompanies him, warning Barak that if she goes a woman will be credited with the victory.
Devorah was a judge and prophet who led the Israelites for 40 years. She would sit under a palm tree to meet with her people. Yael, the other major woman in the haftarah was not a Jew, but a Kenite. After the battle Sisera, a general fleeing from the Jews, sought refuge with Yael. She gave him warm milk to drink, covered him with a blanket, then drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him. The hafatarah is unusual in that it features two women- Devorah and Yael- as the heroic characters.
Devorah sings a song of praise mentioning herself as a mother of Israel, Barak as a leader, and Yael as a heroine. The end of the song is very evocative. Devorah describes how Sisera’s mother waits at the window for her triumphant son to return home from battle. Devorah’s composition is haunting, “…The mother of Sisera…moaned…’Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why are the hoofbeats of his steeds so tardy?…Have they not found booty?Have they not divided the prey; to every man a damsel or two; to Sisera a booty of diverse colours,’…”. Devorah describes the scene- a mother waiting for her son- but we know he has been murdered. The description of the mother’s expectations- that he has been successful in killing, looting and abducting the Israelites- is disquieting.
This week’s Torah reading is given the name Shabbat Shira- the Shabbat of Song. We read three songs- Moshe’s “Song of the Sea”, Miriam’s song after crossing the Red Sea, and Devorah’s song of victory. Women figure prominently. Not only do they sing and play music in these Torah and haftarah readings, they begin and end the stories. It is Miriam, her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter who save and raise Moshe so he can grow up to lead his people to freedom. Miriam, called a prophet in this parsha, accompanies Moshe across the Sea and completes the crossing with a celebration of song and dance.
Devorah is introduced at the beginning of the haftarah as a judge and prophet. She is instrumental in the battle against the Canaanites, and Yael defeats Sisera. At the end of the haftarah Devorah’s song commemorates the battle and honours Yael.
The stories of these biblical women all show strength and leadership. I found it very interesting that there seemed to be more paintings of Yael driving a spike through Sisera’s head than I found of Devorah or Miriam leading the women in song. One site I found with some great images of the scene from manuscript art is: https://www.blogger.com/. In the image below we see Yael greeting Sisera, driving a spike through his temple, then announcing the act to Barak.
There was also an extraordinary photograph by Oscar Wolfman, a Toronto dancer and photographer. This interpretation of Yael and Sisera is provocative and original.
I am interested to hear your views on this week’s Torah and Haftarah readings, and the welcome focus on the role of women.