The Hebrew Scriptures are not readily or easily understood by native English speakers, we post a weekly addition to regular Torah commentary. "Cutting to the Root" is intended to promote an understanding of the complexity of the Hebrew language and thereby gain a richer and deeper understanding of the Scriptures. It is our goal that these notes will teach tolerance and understanding.Please visit our web site at www.shefaisrael.com
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Parashat Beshalach - the Haftara
Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Reading date: 7th February 2009 – 13th Shvat
Our highlighted Haftara text
“Deborah, woman of Lappidoth, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time. She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.”
We see women can be role models in a community.
The military victory and Israel's redemption at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (not the Red Sea) is the climax of the Exodus narrative. It is followed by celebratory rejoicing 'Shirat HaYam', with the women singing and drumming, led by Miriam the prophetess. The Rabbis choose a fitting parallel text: The Song of Deborah. Like Miriam, Deborah is also identified as a woman prophet. Deborah is a judge and enlists the reticent general Barak to wage war with the Canaanite tribes under King Jabin and his commander, Sisera. Deborah sings a triumphant song at the conclusion of the battle.
Both Exodus and Judges include the story in prose and poetry/song (the Hebrew ‘shirah’ can mean both). Ashkenazim read both, making the Haftara the longest portion of the year; Sephardim read only the poem portion - Judges 5:1-31). Both poems are considered the oldest portions of the Torah, and use archaic language; certain poetic imagery and words are difficult to translate. Also, the two songs (the Torah song is written in a distinctive alternating brick-like pattern- likened to the waves of the sea) give this Shabbat a special name: Shabbat Shirah. Many congregations have special musical programs. (It is also a tradition to put out left over Challah bread crumbs for the birds who sing). This Shabbat also always coincides with the week of Tu B'Shevat.
In the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE, the Israelites saw themselves joined in a loose tribal confederacy with a shared historical memory and a common religious tradition. From the death of Joshua until the prophet Samuel and the appointment of the first king of Israel, Saul, the Israelites lived in a turbulent period of warfare with their neighbors. They struggled with the Canaanites and Philistines and in the frequent external or internal crises, appointed a military/judicial leader called a judge (shofet). This period of the judges is recorded in Shoftim, the second book of the Nevi'im (Prophets). The book describes 13 of these leaders; the last judge, Samson, read the week of Parashat Naso, is probably the most famous.
What is the role of women? The Bible often portrays women as minor characters and in relation to husbands, fathers, or sons. Unlike today, the birth of daughters was not celebrated publicly; the birth of Dinah, for example is missing the etymology of her name that the Torah includes for each of her 12 brothers. Many stories from a patriarchal point of view neglect and ignore the rich experiences of women. For example, Sarah is totally ignored in the Binding of Isaac narrative. Women characters are rarely well developed. Even Miriam, who appears throughout the Torah at pivotal moments in the Israelite's history, and the first person to be identified as a prophet, seems overshadowed by the roles played by her two brothers Aaron and Moses. (Although the Torah identifies Miriam as a prophet, there is no prophecy attributed to her recorded in Scripture; of course the Rabbis fill in the gap).
Three women are prominently featured in our Haftara: Deborah, and two non-Jewish women, Yael, and Sisera's mother. Sisera's mother, (unnamed) is described as sitting by the window. This classic image, a woman's head encased in a window looking outside, is prevalent in the arts and many ancient literary texts. The wicked Jezebel is also portrayed at the window as a woman with beautiful hair with painted face. This may be a figurative representative of goddess worship. There are also sexual/cultic connotations to openings.
While one can feel sympathy for the old woman, fretting over the absence of her son, Deborah's portrayal is harsher. The final verses (often glossed over in translations) graphically and crudely describe Sisera's booty as a 'womb or two for each soldier', reducing women to their sexual body parts. In addition to objectifying women, the woman at the window is being cast as a bystander, passively looking on to the man's world. The woman is 'inside the house'; the Rabbis like to quote Proverbs "Kvod bat hamelech pnimah - The beauty of the King's daughter is within" as the 'proof text' that the role of women should be inside the home. Sisera's mother characterizes the domesticity of women, while the men are represented by iron chariots, both symbols of war, mobility and the freedom of outdoors.
The second woman is the Kenite woman, Yael. Yael straddles her roles as domestic homemaker and political activist. Yael is described as both motherly (covering Sisera with a blanket and giving him milk) but also implicitly sexually, luring him into her tent. Even though there are no explicit sexual references there is an erotic tension to the story. He asks for water; she gives him milk. Milk and water have long been associated with women. (In Egyptian hieroglyphics a jar of water is the symbol of femininity). When Sisera dies, 'he falls between her legs' (again many translations miss the sexual overtones by rendering this instead as: 'he fell at her feet').
Finally, we encounter Deborah, the hero of the story. Unlike Sisera's mother behind the window, or Yael in her tent, Deborah is a woman with great power: judicial, religious, and social authority. Deborah is described judging the people under the palm tree, in the open countryside. It would be unusual, and therefore noteworthy, for a woman to be able to travel freely from place to place. Deborah was a true public leader, yet she describes herself as 'mother.' This maternal role may be more of a description of her relationship with the Israelites than it is of actual motherhood.
The Rabbis were uncomfortable with these powerful and unconventional women and their treatment of Miriam and Deborah ranges from attempts to minimize their stature or to assign them the qualities of arrogance or slander and gossip. But we should recognize Miriam and Deborah as the outstanding leaders that they were, and encourage young men and women to recognize these leaders as role models for their communities.