Haftarat Beshalach: A Woman at the Head

[Ashekanzim: Shoftim 4:4-5:31

Sefardim: Shoftim 5:1-31

Yemenite Jews: Shoftim 4:23-5:31]


When the Tanach tells us that the prophetess Devorah was our leader, it is not only to relate a unique chapter in our history, but to teach us a lesson about the future.


We know that not all prophecies were committed to writing.  "Many prophets stood for Israel, double those who left Egypt, but a prophecy which was needed for all generations was written, one which was not needed for generations was not written" (Megillah 14a).  The prophet is, before all else, a speaker and not a writer.  According to our Rabbis, there were hundreds of thousands of prophets whose teachings were passed down orally.  Contrary to the Torah, whose message is unchangeable, eternal, remains true from the beginning of time to its end and is applicable to all situations – prophecies were only stated for specific circumstances, times and places (Chulin 137a in Rashi d.h. Torah).  As a general principle, the prophecies were not written, and if there are rare circumstances when they are, it is because they contain a message for future generations.


We have a woman who stood as a leader of the Nation of Israel.  It is unusual for a woman to hold such a position, but the text is explicit: "Devorah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidot, judged Israel at that time.  She would sit under the palm tree of Devorah , between the Ramah and Beit El in Mt. Efraim, and the Children of Israel would go up to her for judgment" (Shoftim 4:4-5).  But Devorah was far from Joan of Arc riding on a horse in battle gear – though she was the leader, it was not her but Barak ben Avinoam who headed the army.  And according to tradition, he was Lapidot, her husband (Yalkut Shimoni 42).    Nonetheless, this prophetess was largely the head of the Nation of Israel and had a decisive influence upon it.


Her unique appointment is explained by the Tosafot in the following way: 1. She was a prophetess who received a unique prophetic ruling (Tosafot on Niddah 50a).  2. She was willingly accepted by The Nation of Israel for this reason (Tosafot on Baba Kamma 15a).  In fact, an individual who is usually unqualified to be a judge can be accepted as one for a special reason if both sides of a dispute agree.  In a rare case, even a family member of one of the sides, or a shepherd, who most consider unfit can serve as a judge in monetary (but not halachic) matters (Sanhedrin 24 and Chiddushei Ha-Ran on Shavuot 30a). 


Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, looked favorably upon the institution of the Knesset of Israel. He held that according to Halachah it was legitimate for the Knesset to rule on economic, national and societal matters but not on halachic matters such as Shabbat and Kashrut (Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah 9, Ish Va-Isha 18).


Returning to Devroah…there are two reasons that justify her role as judge.  First, the Divine Presence rested upon her, which – on account of Hashem's kindness, transformed her into a leader.  Second, the consent of the community strengthened her authority.  Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, mentioned that even today the Nation of Israel has given the ruling authority to a woman as the Prime Minster, and it was quite successful (ibid.): Golda Meir's relationship to Torah was better than her predecessor's, she succeeded in raising up the honor of the Nation, and made a positive impression both within the Nation and among the surrounding nations. 


In the period described in the Book of Shoftim, our neighbors caused us great troubles, similar to that described in Tehillim: "All of the nations surrounded me…they surely surrounded me" (Tehillim 118:10-11).  But in the merit of the Divine Presence resting on that judge, the prophetess, we received amazing results: "The Land was quiet for forty years" (Shoftim 5:31). This allowed us to renew our strength for what was coming next.


How did Devorah attain such results?  It was not due to military talent, but to her being a spiritual hero: a prophetess!  This central figure of the Nation of Israel reached a high level of philosophical and ethical spiritually.  The spiritual greatness given to her influenced Barak ben Avinoam, the Chief of Staff, who feared going into battle.  Devorah taught him to attack the enemy, even though "it had nine hundred chariots of iron, and greatly oppressed the Children of Israel for twenty years" (Shoftim 4:3).  "And she sent and called Barak ben Avinoam of Kedesh Naftali and said to him: Hasn't Hashem, G-d of Israel, commanded, 'Go and gather people from Mount Tabor" (ibid. v. 6).  Barak, who feared competing with an enemy who instilled fear, responded to her: "If you go with me, I will go.  But if you do not go with me, I will not go" (ibid. v. 8).  Devorah said: "I will surely go with you" (ibid. v. 9).  She is the one who filled the Chief of Staff with strength and courage.


We learn from Our Rabbi, Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah, that this type of prophecy still applies today, since spiritual strength is what provides the Nation with national, idealistic motivation, which in turn leads to military courage.  Spiritual weakness and a lack of Torah commitment endangers us on a military and national level.  We must increase our faith and connection to Hashem.  The more we develop ourselves in a spiritual sense, the more we dedicate ourselves for the sake of the Nation of Israel, the more we will influence the Nation (Sichot Ha-Rav Tzvi Yehudah ibid.).


When we sanctify Hashem's Name before the nations, they will respond with exalted awe and respect towards us.  Our weaknesses, hesitations, yielding, compromises, degradations, humbling ourselves, will have no place and will completely disappear. 


The Song of Devorah points to an additional problem – one that we still have today: different factions were created within the Nation of Israel (Shoftim 15-16).  This problem must be fixed forcefully, because it is essential that a spirit of peace, unity, respect and mutual understanding rests among us.  Our Rabbis express this idea in a harsh manner: "Great is peace, for even if they worship idols and peace prevails, Hashem says: I am able to rule over them when there is peace between them" (Bereshit Rabbah 38:6), as it says: "Efraim is united in idol-worship, [lit. joined to idols] leave him alone" (Hosea 4:17). If the Tribe of Efraim is united, even if it is involved with idol worship, no harm will befall them.


So too, if the situation in our Land is extremely complex and problematic, but we live in peace with one another, we will merit a Divine blessing.  "Hashem will give strength to His Nation, Hashem will bless His Nation with peace" (Tehilim 29:10).  Hashem will send us His blessing, despite all of the international pressure which is upon us.