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Naomi Graetz

Shabbat Shirah: Debbie and Deborah

Deborah Judging Israel, west-facing panel at the northwest corner of the Nebraska State Capitol.

SINGING WITH DEBBIE FRIEDMAN (1951-2011)

This week is known as Shabbat Shirah, which I explain to my youngest granddaughter, is not because your name is Shirah, but because there are two songs we read on this special Shabbat. The first is the one in the torah reading of Beshalach when we read, what I like to call “Miriam’s song”, which begins with az yashir moshe (Then Moses began to sing). The second song is in the very long haftara, which includes Deborah’s song. Because I have a “hazaka” on reading this torah reading in our synagogue, twice a year (since we also read about the parting of the Reed Sea on Passover), I have been paying attention to almost every word for more than 45 years. It is also the yahrzeit of the singer Debbie Friedman. When she died in 2011, I delivered a sermon and connected (as so many other people did), shabbat shirah with Debbie, whose song “Havdalah” (despite her Reform connections) is so ubiquitous that it is considered “traditional” even among the Orthodox (see here for a great rendition   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMW832l0ZLo). A year later, I introduced her misheberach song to our congregation in Omer. Our rabbi translated it into Hebrew and for the past 12 years we have been singing it every shabbat morning as our prayer for those who need healing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHKo3CjuzpY). And then of course, Debbie has this wonderful song about God’s calling to Deborah to arise (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-40yiIvgJwY) which is perfect for this Shabbat.

WITNESSES VS. EVERYONE DYING

I also have another interest which is comparing two very similar phrases which appear in the prologues to both songs. In both the torah and haftarah reading note the almost identical words that appear:

And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea went back toward morning to its full flow, with the Egyptians fleeing toward it, and the LORD shook out the Egyptians into the sea. And the waters came back and covered the chariots and the riders of all Pharaoh’s force who were coming after them in the sea, not a single one of them remained –“לֹא נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם עַד אֶחָד (Exodus 14: 27-28).

And Barak had pursued the chariots and the camp as far as Harosheth-Goiim, and all the camp of Sisera fell by the edge of the sword, not one remainedלֹ֥א נִשְׁאַ֖ר עַד־אֶחָֽד. And Sisera had fled on foot to the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for there was peace between Jabin king of Hazor and the house of Heber the Kenite (Judges 4: 16-17).

In both it is written that not a single person (ad echad) was left. In last’s week’s blog I discussed the midrash that kept Pharaoh alive as a witness (see https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/hardened-hearts-vs-eternal-life-pharaoh-and-sera%e1%b8%a5/). If he in fact was kept alive, then there was a witness, that is, not everyone died. If you vocalize the word ad עַד differently it can be pronounced eyd עֵד.  Then it would be translated as “not a witness was kept alive”.  But that still presents a problem.  There is another possible reading, which is that the Hebrew lo   לא  spelled with an aleph, can be translated as “not”; but it can be also be vocalized as lo לו  to Him!  There are many cases in biblical Hebrew of lo with an aleph, that is either transposed or understood as lo לו with a vav.  In that case, the translation would be, “there was one witness to Him” to God’s salvation of His people:  לֹו (לאלוהים) נִשְׁאַר בָּהֶם עֵד אֶחָד .  The same would apply to the phrase in Judges 4. Sisera survives as a witness to the destruction of his people, just like Pharaoh. But unlike the midrash about Pharaoh, Sisera takes refuge in Yael’s tent, who seduces and murders him.  This is followed by Deborah’s song which glorifies the salvation and murder. Because of the similarities between Moses’s “Song of the Sea” which glorifies the drowning of the Egyptian army and Israel’s salvation, and Deborah’s song which glorifies the destruction of the Canaanite army and Israel’s salvation, it is quite clear why Judges 4-5 was chosen to be the haftarah for be-shalach.

DEBORAH, A POLITICAL MIDRASH

Thirty-five years ago, I wrote the following modern midrash. Giving the political situation we are in right now, I think it is appropriate to share this as an additional haftarah:

Deborah sat under the date‑palm tree hoping that no one would see her. The case she had just heard was exhausting and had tried her patience: the entire morning had been spent trying to convince a soldier who had killed a prisoner of war that he had sinned.

“How so?” he asked. “You said that Yael was the most blessed of women. And for what? For striking Sisera, crushing his head, smashing and piercing his temple with the tent pin when he was at her mercy. So, what’s wrong with what I did?”

Finally, she ordered him to bring a sacrifice and atone for his sin. When he left, he spat on the ground and said to the crowd gathered outside the tent, “Deborah’s become a pacifist.”

It was inconceivable to them that Deborah, who had once proudly led the people of Israel into battle, could now condemn soldiers for killing prisoners of war. Yet she was. The elders ignored the condemnations at first and continued to refer to her as The Conqueress. Yael, however, understood and avoided Deborah. At the same time, still proud of the bloody act which had won her fame in Israel, she declared in public that Deborah had turned into an “old woman”.

I was young, once! To think that Barak and I were equals—at least at first; then he wouldn’t do a thing without consulting me. He said, “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, neither will I go.” (Judges 4:8) But he changed after our victory. Though he went reluctantly into battle, he quickly forgot who had dragged him to glory. He sang my song too well. I struck up the chant and Barak dealt with the captives and the division of booty. Later it became his song—and hers! For Yael then decided to become a warrior. Did she think she was imitating me?

Deborah, however, would never go to battle again, not even if Barak called. Barak had been irresolute about the necessity of war, but success had changed him and soldiering was today his major preoccupation. Now Deborah was the reluctant one. She had appropriated his earlier uncertainty and translated it into sensitivity about the wasting of life. She had a new cause: she was determined never again to be responsible for the shedding of blood.

This type of thinking did not endear her to tribal leaders who educated their troops to exteriorize evil and project it onto the enemy. Yael, the warrior, accepted their view. In becoming one of them, she denied her feminine life‑sustaining instincts and substituted manly acts of destruction.

Lately, Deborah felt she had been regarded as an alien. She heard mumbling that it was unnatural for women to be leaders. Is it that I’m getting old, she wondered. Yet thinking back she realized that a scurrilous smear campaign had begun on the anniversary of her return from the war. She had gone, with a peace offering to one of the festivals celebrated by the people at Shiloh to commemorate their victory. Standing at the door of the Tent of Assembly was a self‑appointed zealot; he refused her entry to the sanctuary, saying, “Woe unto the generation whose leader is a woman.”

She replied, “When it suited you, you created legends about me. You said I was like a hind let loose to conquer Sisera and that I sang goodly words in my song of victory. Now you make puns about my name: ‘hornet’ you call me.”

There was no bite in her alleged sting. She was convinced it was unnatural for women to lead men into battle; moreover, she believed it was wrong to build a society which required men to waste their lives and talents leading others into battle.

If Yael sets the tone for women, who will be left to point out the wasteful and destructive side of war?

Her convictions did not sit well with the elders and they denounced her as an illegitimate prophet. Despite the fact that during Deborah’s reign the land was peaceful, they said Israel could not afford “peace then”.

Sitting under her date palm in the heat of the day Deborah wondered if history would treat her kindly.

Will they write me out, as they did my ancestor Miriam? Or will they let it be known—for posterity—that I thought war was terrible; that it was a sin to revere heroism and that I learned the hard way that our enemies’ blood was also red?

“So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!                                                                    But those who love you shall be as the sun when it rises in its strength” (Judges 5:31)!

This first appeared in The Jerusalem Post (March 4, 1988):10 as a political commentary.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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