Looking back: on building a nation

A favorite activity of mine on Shabbat is looking for connection between the Torah portion and the Haftarah portion. This past Shabbat (Beshalach) has an obvious one: the Shira (poem/song) recited at the Sea of Reeds by Moshe and Miriam and the Shira recited by Devorah the prophetess.

I would like to suggest another connection. When we read the verses right before the Shira, we notice something interesting.

The LORD saved, on that day, Israel from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. [31] Israel saw the powerful hand that the LORD had inflicted upon Egypt. The nation feared the LORD, had faith in the LORD and in Moshe, his servant.
(Ex. 14:30-31)

Why does the Torah switch from Israel to ahm – nation?

Rav Ben-Zion Firer suggests the following: right here was the turning point for Israel starting to feel like a nation! Moshe says this explicitly:

“On this day you became a nation to the LORD your Gd.” (Deut. 27:9)

When the Children of Israel were in Egypt, they were oppressed and tormented. Pharaoh saw them as one nation:

“Look, the nation of the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are.”  (Ex. 1:9)

But Israel did not see themselves that way. Forced to live as slaves, with a desperate and desolate future awaiting them, it made them not a nation but rather a collection of tribes – suffering together.

Leaving Egypt and witnessing Gd’s miracles transformed them into a nation of Gd. Gd split for them the Sea of Reeds, Gd saved them from the Egyptians, Gd drowned their tormentors. With loving hands, Gd united them into a nation by showing them a positive future and fate.

This issue – feeling united – plagued Israel over generations.

Fast forward to the time of the Judges in the Land of Israel, after Yehoshua has passed away. This was a tumultuous time for Israel. Time after time the people sinned against Gd, only to find Gd’s wrath descending upon them and bringing down their enemies upon them. Time after time the people of Israel would fight the surrounding nations under a new leader – but each tribe would generally fight alone, without the help of the other tribes.

It is against this backdrop that we meet Devorah – the judge and prophetess – in the Haftarah. Israel has continued to do evil in the eyes Gd and find themselves in the grips of Yavin, the king of Canaan and his general Sisera. Devorah calls to Barak ben Avinoam who hails from the tribe of Naftali and is an army general. She tells him that it is time to fight back – Gd has commanded him to rise up against Sisera. However, she adds something unexpected and new: Devorah tells Barak to gather troops from the tribes of both Naftali and Zevulun. Working together, Israel’s army defeats Sisera. Later, in her famous Shira, Devorah praises those tribes who came to help and berates those who did not.

There is a lesson to be learned here. Devorah is teaching Israel what it means to be an AHM – a united nation. This is a nation who supports each other in times of need.

What was it about Devorah that enabled her to do that? We have a hint in the verse when we first meet her, that first encounter in the Bible which describes the essence of her personality:

“Devorah was a woman prophetess”. (Judges 4:4)

The word “woman” is superfluous -as ‘prophetess’ is enough to us that she is a woman. Rather, the text is adding this description to highlight the fact that being a woman was important! Israel needed a woman’s touch at that time.

We may ask: how was it that she was able to step into this  role that was generally occupied by a man? For this we turn to Barak.  When Devorah calls him and sends him out to battle Sisera on Gd’s command, Barak has an unusual response:

“Barak replied: If you go with me, I shall go; but if you do not go with me,

I shall not go.

Devorah answers:

I will indeed go with you, but [know then that] the path on which you have chosen to go will not be for your glory, for the LORD will deliver Sisera in the hand of a woman.” (Judges 4:8-9)

Devorah answers Barak: Are you sure that I should accompany you? If I do – it will be known that a woman won this war.

The text does not elaborate on Barak’s response. However – we see that Devorah joins him in battle and we understand that Barak agrees. I would suggest that – whatever his motivation – Barak knows that he needs Devorah to succeed. It is not whether that person is a man or a woman but rather – the right person at the right time. And in fact, together, they start uniting Israel as a nation and they win the battle.

On one Shabbat we saw two different models, two different ways to unite our nation.

The one – when Gd feels close to us and brings us together, caring for us like children.

The other – for times when Gd may feel further away. Devorah showed us that we can and must reach out to each other and unite as a nation.

About the Author
Bracha Jaffe is in her final year at Yeshivat Maharat, following a long career in Israeli hi-tech. She discovered her love for teaching while giving seminars and training workshops and through teaching leyning and shiurim in the Jewish world. Bracha interned at UOS in Houston, Texas and at HIR in New York. She is currently teaching at a maximum security women’s prison and facilitating a Wise Aging group in a community setting.
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