Deborah, The Strong Woman Judge

I was privileged to hear Elie Wiesel, the famed Holocaust survivor and author of Night, speak. His topic of discussion was Deborah, a strong woman judge who saved the Jewish people in ancient Israel. Of the sixteen judges that served in pre-monarchic Israel, only Deborah was female. She was also a prophet, one of seven women prophets recorded in Tanakh (the Jewish Bible), that communicated directly with God.

The Text Her story is recorded in Judges 4 and 5. After the Jews sinned, God sent Canaan to subjugate them as punishment: Jabin was the king, Sisera the army general. After the Jews asked for forgiveness, God sent Deborah to save them, telling her to command Barak, the Israeli army general, to fight against Sisera, as he would win. He requested that she come with him, and she did, and the Jews won the battle. Sisera fled to the tent of Jael, who killed him by nailing a tent peg into his temple. As a result, the Jews were able to become autonomous again. Judges 5 is the Song of Deborah, describing the war and its outcome in poetic form. At the end, Deborah mentions Sisera’s mother, waiting for a son that will never come home. After Deborah’s victory, there was peace for 40 years.

The Commentary: Deborah According to Jewish law, women cannot serve as witnesses (yet) and therefore cannot be judges (yet) because their emotions may overcome their reason, leading to wrong judgment. (I don’t make up the news, I just report it.) Commentators question why Deborah was able to judge. The text says that she was a prophet, and therefore delivered justice through prophecy rather than personal opinion. Additionally, rather than giving a straight answer to a question regarding Jewish law, she would state all of the laws she knew regarding the issue, thereby giving an answer. (This is one way current women rule on Jewish law, something similar to what Rachel Kohl Finegold does.)

As with most of the other judges, little is known about her personal life; all it says is she was “the wife of Lappidoth” (Judges 4:4). Lappidoth literally means torches, which give light. As Wiesel mentioned, he is sometimes identified as Barak, the Israeli army general; his name means lightning, which also provides light.

Wiesel shared the Talmud’s opinion that Lappidoth was ignorant of Judaism. In order to make him closer to God, Deborah asked him to deliver wicks to the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Deborah’s plan to make him more spiritual worked, as he came to make his own wicks. This is indicative of how she ruled the Jews of the era: she encouraged them to work on themselves, inspiring them to want a better relationship with God. This is part of the reason the Jews chose her to be the judge, rather than another prophet that lived at the time, Phineas.

The verse also says that “she would sit under the date palm of Deborah” (Judges 4:5). The words “of Deborah” seem superfluous – if Deborah is sitting underneath it, of course it’s her date palm! There was a previous Deborah: the wet nurse of Rebecca. Rebecca’s son Jacob buried her “below Beit El” (Gen 35:6); Deborah’s date palm was “between Ramah and Beit El on Mount Ephraim,” probably the same place the original Deborah was buried. Some commentators even feel that the wet nurse’s soul was reincarnated in the judge’s body.

When Deborah told Barak to attack the Canaanites, he said, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you do not go with me, I will not go” (Judges 4:8). It seems odd that he would insist on Deborah’s attendance on the battlefront, especially after Deborah told him that his victory will be attributed to a woman as a result (Judges 4:9). To me, this shows an early example of a feminist man: Barak didn’t mind that he and Deborah would get joint credit. Barak understood that society is not complete unless both men and women are included. As a result, he wanted Deborah with him at the battle.

The Commentary: Jael Jael is also a strong woman. Little is known about her personal life, too; she is just identified as a wife, of Heber the Kenite. She might not have even been Jewish. It’s possible that she was a convert from Jethro’s family (Heber was another of Jethro’s names). I have heard opinions that say that she too was a judge.

Wiesel mentioned the possibility that Jael knew Sisera beforehand, as the text itself says that “There was peace between Jabin, king of Hazor, and the House of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 4:17), and she did invite him into her tent.

He asked her for water; however, she gave him milk. One reason for this may have been that dairy induces sleepiness, and Jael wanted to put Sisera to sleep. Once he was out, she took a tent peg and drove it through his temple. Her choice of a tent peg seems odd. I have heard the opinion that she chose it because weapons are men’s tools. Wouldn’t she have had knives, which aren’t specifically men’s tools, around the house, though? I think that she panicked, saw a sharp tent peg, and decided to use that to kill him.

Wiesel mentioned a commentary that says that “between [Jael’s] legs [Sisera] knelt, he fell, he lay” (Judges 5:27) in the Song of Deborah means that Sisera raped Jael. (Some even say that the famed Rabbi Akiva was among their descendants.) If this is true, she was probably in a state of shock, and just wanted to get rid of her attacker as fast as possible, explaining the tent peg.

The Commentary: Sisera’s Mother Another character that fascinates me is Sisera’s mother. Deborah describes the worry she felt for her son in the Song, sitting at the window and waiting for him to come home. The text uses two different terms for window: hahalon and ha’esnav. According to the Zohar, hahalon refers to a regular window, and ha’esnav is a mirror used for astrology. Ha’esnav has the same Gematria (numerical value) as Mashiah (Messiah). She may have seen Mashiah and repented for her and her son’s sins. It is even said that the 100 blasts of the shofar that we all hear every Rosh HaShanah, a time of repentance, represent her 100 cries for forgiveness.

Three strong women are featured in these two short chapters of Judges. It is imperative that we follow their examples: encouraging the people around us to explore their connections to God while building our own relationships with the Creator, pursuing leadership roles within Judaism, acting strong in the face of adversity, asking forgiveness for our misdeeds.

~ Talia Weisberg

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