April 21, 2024
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Parashat B’shalach

Chapters 4 and 5 of Sefer Shoftim, from which this week’s haftarah is taken, tell the story of Israel’s struggle against the northern Canaanite tribes who oppressed Israel for 20 years. The parallels of this story to the events depicted in the parsha are numerous and convincing.

Our rabbis point out (Pesachim 118b) that the victory over the Canaanites actually mirrored the victory over the Egyptians. As the Egyptians drowned in the waters of Yam Suf, so were the Canaanites swept away by the waters of Nachal Kishon. While the chariots of Egypt were mired in the muck of the sea bed, so were the Canaanite chariots stuck in the mud of the overflowing river. And just as the Egyptians lost 600 iron chariots in the Reed Sea, so the Canaanites lost 900 chariots at Har Tavor. In reaction to this miraculous and unexpected victory Moshe Rabbeinu led Israel in song and in the same way Devorah the neviah, the prophetess, led Israel in song after their miraculous and unexpected victory.

And although the parallels to, and the contrasts between, the stories are the clear reasons why this haftarah was selected to be read on Shabbat Shira, it also allows us to shed light on a most remarkable personality that is too often ignored, that of Devorah HaN’viah. When looking back on Sefer Shoftim we realize the uniqueness of the prophetess.

  • She was the only female leader of b’nai Yisrael in all of Sefer Shotim.
  • She was the only prophet(ess) among the shoftim.
  • She is the only neviah in all of Sefer Shoftim and, in fact, the only one we find during that entire historical period of over 300 years.
  • She is the only shofet(et) who was recognized as a leader BEFORE achieving any military victory and, therefore, had been recognized by the people for her outstanding prophetic and leadership qualities, and not her military prowess. In fact, she was not chosen due to any miraculous birth—as was Shimshom; nor by an angel—as was Gidon; nor by a request from the nation’s leaders—as was Yiftach. Her leadership was seemingly reached simply through popular acceptance.
  • She was the only woman who played an active role in a military effort, as her general Barak ben Avinoam refused to go to war—despite having heard the God’s command from Devorah—unless Devorah accompanied him.

Yet her uniqueness might be best seen in her accomplishments as a shofetet. The function of a “shofet” was to bring unity to the disparate tribes, to underscore their nationhood rather than their tribal identity. As part of that function, the shofet would have to highlight the fact that all the tribes were committed to the service of the One Hashem Who guides them, protects them and brings them victory over their enemies when they remain faithful to Him.

Few shoftim were even partially successful in meeting that challenge. Gidon, who at first even questioned God’s commitment to the nation, succeeded in gathering men from the tribes of Asher, Naftali, Zevulun and Menasheh to join his army. But after the battle he destroyed the Israelite cities of Sukkot and Penuel, dividing the people once again. Yiftach failed to gather other tribes into his army and, as a result, was opposed by the men of Ephraim against whom he was forced to fight in a “mini” civil war. And Shimshon never raised an army at all—neither from his shevet of Dan or any other tribe. His lifestyle was anything but “Godly,” and, one might argue, he failed to meet any of the challenges that faced the shofet/leader during that time.

Not so Devorah. She succeeded in building an army from various tribes and denouncing (in her victory celebration) those tribes who did not respond to her call. Following the victory, she composed and sang a song of praise to Hashem, teaching the populous that the victory did not belong to her or to her general Barak—but to Hashem only.

Indeed, she was the leader who was most close to achieving the goal of uniting the nation under God. The failure in doing so was not hers but was that of the people themselves. We do ourselves a disservice when we simply read through this story without delving into the prophetess’ accomplishments.

How fortunate we are to read this lengthy selection on Shabbat and to pause to appreciate the remarkable woman who led Israel at this crucial time.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and now lives in Israel.

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