* * * The story of the destruction of Sisera's forces and Devora's song, Judges 4:4-24 and 5:1-31, is read as the Haftara of Parshas Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16 * * *


It was fitting that Devora should sing the song of victory over Sisera. DEVORA is from the root DAVAR, "word", as in DIBUR, "speech" (= Malchut, through which Godliness is revealed.) When speech rises to the level of song, speech is perfected through the musical notes of the melody (TA'AMEY HAMIKRA), which come from a higher level. Speech is from the Nefesh ego-soul (Malchut) while song is from the Neshamah-soul (Binah, Understanding). Understanding elevates speech.

Devorah's song was sixth of the ten great songs of history. They are listed in Targum on Shir HaShirim 1:1: Song of the Sabbath day at creation, Song at the Red Sea, Song over the well in wilderness (Numbers 21:17), Moses' song of Ha'azinu, "Hear O heavens."; Joshua's song that stopped the sun at Giv'on, Deborah's song, Hannah's song over the birth of Samuel, David's song over his victory over all his enemies, Solomon's Song of Songs and the Song of the future redemption. The Hebrew word for song is SHIR, linked to the root SHEIR, a "chain". A song is a chain of words and notes that give TA'AM -- deeper MEANING - to events and experiences that would otherwise seem disconnected. The song links everything together as part of God's symphony of creation: the melody is the song of His HASHGACHAH, His "providence" over every detail.

Deborah's song was sung with Holy Spirit. It is highly allusive, and we are in need of the commentators if we are to trace the multiple hints it contains. First among the commentators we need on any such a flighty, eloquent passage is the Aramaic Targum, which in translating simple narrative portions of NaCh is normally terse and direct, but which expands considerably on the meaning of many prophetic passages in order to explain them in greater depth. While the best known Aramaic Targum on the Five Books of Moses is that of Onkelos the Ger (Convert) our Aramaic Targum on the Prophets and Holy Writings was written by R. Yonasan ben Uzziel (who also wrote a Targum on Chumash, somewhat lengthier and with more midrash than that of Onkelos). R. Yonasan was the greatest of the students of Hillel - while Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who went on to lead the Jewish people during and after the destruction of the Second Temple , is described by the Talmud as Hillel's "smallest" pupil. Given that Raban Yochanan knew all the secrets of the universe and even the "conversations of trees", it boggles the imagination to try to understand the level of R. Yonasan ben Uzziel, who was so devoted to the Torah that he never even married.

The Targum of Yonasan brings out various allusions in Deborah's song to past and future events in Israel 's history, including the Crossing of the Red Sea and the Giving of the Torah. The miracle that Deborah's generation witnessed whereby the overwhelming forces of Sisera and his allies were swept away by the River Kishon was seen as a miracle on the soil of the Holy Land that bore comparison with that of the splitting of the Red Sea in its significance for the nation and its survival. The Targum and Midrash state that at the time of the Giving of the Torah, Mt. Tabor and Mt. Carmel had come asking for the Torah to be given on them, but God decreed that it was to be given on the humble Mount Sinai in the Wilderness. Nevertheless, Tabor and Carmel were rewarded: Elijah performed the miracle of the consumption of his offering by heavenly fire on Mt. Carmel , while Mt. Tabor was the scene of the "Giving of the Torah" in the time of Deborah.

The song of Deborah (as explained by Targum, Rashi and the other commentators) portrays the dire state of Israel prior to the victory over Sisera. It had become impossible to travel the roads because of danger from the enemies; it was impossible even for the girls to go out to draw water from the wells; it was impossible to live in open, unfortified settlements - the Israelites had to take refuge behind walls! (See Targum and Rashi on vv. 6-7, v. 11.) The Israelites were faced with an "Intifada" from the Canaanites that made life impossible in the country, not unlike today.

The song also hints at the cracks of disunity among the tribes. Reuven in particular comes in for criticism (vv. 15-16) for sitting on the east of the Jordan telling Barak "we are on your side" and Sisera "we are on your side", waiting to see who would win (Targum). The tribe of Dan is also criticized for loading their possessions into boats on the River Jordan in order to escape (v. 17), and MEIROZ is severely cursed (v. 23) although there are different opinions as to whether this was a city, a prominent individual, or perhaps a star (Moed Katan 16a).

The greatest praise goes to YAEL, who became a Judge in her own right (Rashi on v. 6). "She is blessed more than women in the tent" (v. 24). This implies that she is compared favorably to the matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah, all of whom are described in the texts as being "in the tent".

How did Yael have the strength to kill a mighty warrior like Sisera. The Talmud states that her greatness lay in carrying out a sin for the sake of God (LISHMAH), which is greater than carrying out a mitzvah not for the sake of God (SHELO LISHMAH). The Talmud infers from v. 27 that Sisera had relations with her seven times, thereby exhausting all his strength and thus enabling her to kill him (Nazir 23b).

"Thus let all your enemies be destroyed. and those who love Him are like the sun coming out in its strength" (v. 31). On the latter part of the verse, the Talmud comments, "This verse refers to those who allow themselves to be insulted and do not insult back, who hear themselves abused and do not answer, who do what they do out of love and rejoice in suffering" (Yoma 23a). In time to come the light will be seven times seven the light of the seven days of creation - i.e. 343 times greater (7 x 7 x 7; see Rashi on this verse).


The victory over Sisera brought relief to the Israelites but they did not take advantage of the victory to drive out the Canaanites and consolidate their hold on the Land. This gave the Midianites their opportunity to make ever more destructive predatory incursions. The Midianites, who were descended from Abraham's son from the "concubine" Ketura (Gen. 25:2), were a group of five clans, some shepherds, some traders and some of them marauding bandits, who lived as nomads across the vast stretch of desert east of Ammon and Moab (present day eastern Jordan and north west Saudi Arabia). They were sworn enemies of Israel (Numbers 25:18). The Israelite failure to drive out the Canaanites from their strongholds in the Jezreel valley enabled the Midianites to cross the Jordan river fords into the Land and establish a footing in the Beit She'an valley, from which they began attacking the tribes of the Galilee and advancing into the center of the country into the tribal areas of Ephraim and Menasheh.

"And Israel became very low" (vayiDAL, DAL = poor, wretched) (v. 6). "They were poor without good deeds. And they didn't even have the resources to bring a MINCHAH offering" (Tanchuma, Behar).

The prophet who came to reprove the people (verse 8) was according to tradition Pinchas ben Elazar.

Gideon was from the tribe of Menasheh, from that half of the tribe that had settled in the Land itself. The town of "Ofra" in which he lived is not to be confused with Ofra north of Jerusalem in the territory of Benjamin , an important settlement until today. RaDaK on verse 11 states that Gideon's Ofra was a town of the same name further to the north: it was probably a little to the south west of Shechem ( Nablus ).

The Zohar (I, 254) states that Gideon was not a tzaddik, nor the son of a tzaddik, but that he merited his role as savior because he spoke in defense of Israel (see Rashi on v. 13).

The depiction of Gideon helping his father to beat and sift wheat in a wine vat out of fear of the Midianites shows the dire state of affairs in Israel . According to the Midrash, Gideon said he would do all the work so that his father could go to hide from the Midianites, and it was for this act of filial piety that he was worthy of the visit from the angel (v. 11).

Our commentators make no effort to identify the angel with any human. It is clear from the text that this was a spiritual messenger from God who appeared to Gideon when he was in a state of prophecy (see RaDaK on v. 9).

From Gideon's sacrifice of MATZOT before the angel, we learn that it was Pesach (Rashi on v. 19). According to tradition, Gideon had heard his father recounting the miracles of the Exodus at the Pesach Seder and said to God, "If our ancestors were Tzaddikim, then save us in our merit, and if they were wicked, then just like you did wonders for them for free, so too perform wonders for us - WHERE ARE ALL HIS WONDERS THAT OUR FATHERS TOLD US???"

Gideon's smashing of the Baal-idol is reminiscent of Abraham's smashing the idols of his father Terach as told in the famous midrash. His father Joash's challenge to the men of the city that Baal himself should avenge those who broke his statue is somewhat reminiscent of Abraham's mocking answer to Terach when asked how the idols were smashed and he said that the biggest idol smashed all the others.

When Gideon sacrificed to God on an altar built from the stones of the altar to Baal and with vessels and fuel taken from the Ashera tree, eight Torah prohibitions were temporarily suspended to enable him to do so: (1) sacrificing outside the sanctuary (2) at night (3) by a non-Cohen (4) using vessels of an Ashera, which is forbidden for benefit even for a mitzvah (5) using the stones of an idolatrous altar (6) using the wood of the Ashera for fuel; (7) sacrificing an animal set aside as an offering to an idol - the fattened ox (8) sacrificing an animal that had been worshipped - the other ox (Temura 28b). "It is time to do for the Lord, they have broken (HEIFEIROO, = "you should break") Your Torah" (Psalms 119:126).

Even though Gideon was obliged to perform his revolutionary, iconoclastic mission at nighttime because of fear of repercussions from the local bastions of political correctness, his heroic act was the beginning of a sweeping movement of repentance from idolatry that led to victory over the Midianites. As soon as one simple Israelite was willing to get up and shatter the gods of political correctness, the redemption could take place.

If Gideon believed in God, why did he ask for a SECOND sign after God had already performed a patent miracle in drenching the fleece with dew when everything around was dry (vv. 36-40)? RaDaK (on v. 39) points out that "You shall not try the Lord" (Deut 6:16) but answers in the name of R. Saadia Gaon that it was not that Gideon had any doubt about God's ABILITY to save Israel. To test God would be to say "Prove that you can do it". But what Gideon wanted was reassurance about whether he himself was worthy to be the channel for such a great miracle.

We can learn from Gideon that even a simple person can merit God's communicating with him directly and using him as the instrument of His redemption, all through the power of simple mitzvoth, good deeds and love of the people of Israel.



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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