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Haftorah Parshat Beshalach by Gidon Rothstein

January 13, 2011 by  
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Judges 4:4-5:31

Why is This the Haftarah for Parshat Beshalah?

We might be tempted to assume this haftarah was chosen because it contains a song of praise to God, like in the Torah reading itself.  Indeed, Sefardi custom limits the haftarah to the Shirah, the Song.  Ashkenazic custom, which reads the story leading up to the Song, seems to add another element; along these lines the Mechilta says the salvation of Devorah’s time, not just the Song, is parallel to that of the Splitting of the Sea.

Within the space I have here, the best way to show how the events, and not just the Song, somewhat replay what happened at Yam Suf is by focusing on three aspects of the haftarah—the scorn Devorah displays for Barak when he insists on her coming with him, the role of Yael and her killing of Sisera (as shown by her figuring prominently in the Song as well as in the story), and the Song’s negative reaction to those who neglected to join the battle against Sisera.

The Call to War

After introducing Devorah, the text tells us that she sent a message ordering Barak to take ten thousand men of Naftali and Zevulun to Mount Tabor, where God would cause Sisera—whom we were earlier told was the general for Yavin, the king of Canaan who had been troubling the Jews—to come fight.

Barak conditions his willingness to go on Devorah’s coming with him.  She accepts, but notes that his reluctance to act on his own has forfeited his share of any glory the victory is about to produce.  His hesitation, his insistence on better support in conducting the war, is apparently both bothersome to her and worth our while to know.

Yael’s Prominence

Of the ten verses the text devotes to telling the story of the victory, seven are devoted to Yael’s interactions with Sisera, ending with her showing his corpse to his pursuers.  Four verses of Devorah’s Song praise Yael’s role in his death.  Despite recognizing how impressive it is that a woman took upon herself to lure an Assyrian general to sleep and then killed him with a tent-peg and a hammer, I still also suspect the prophet is celebrating more than just the fact of her killing Sisera.

Denigrating Those Who Failed to Join

The key to understanding our focus on those two parts of the incident lies in the Shirah’s also taking time to curse those who did not come to help Barak fight against Sisera.  In today’s world, that kind of behavior would be criticized as unseemly; once a battle or effort is won, the winner is supposed to thank those who helped, not speak against those who did not. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, contemporary society holds, and respect involves not looking down on them for holding to their views.

Regardless of whether that is true in ordinary human interactions, it is decidedly not true when a prophetess issues a declaration.  At that point, it becomes incumbent upon all—Jew or non-Jew– to contribute to the success of the prophet’s endeavor.  The tribes that failed to heed her call—and, in the Talmud’s reading, the celestial stars that did the same—deserve blame for failing to further God’s cause.

Seeing God’s Hand, Running to Take Part—The Haftarah’s Theme

Phrasing it that way also explains Barak and Yael’s role.  Barak should have immediately and unhesitatingly followed Devorah’s directions, since she spoke in God’s Name.  Had he done so, he would have been the vehicle of God’s saving the Jewish people and celebrated as such; his insistence on her joining him is itself a mark against his character.

Yael, on the other hand, had no obvious obligation to join in the defeat of Sisera, so her decision to intervene, in ways not at all characteristic of women of her time, was all the more impressive.  It was not so much that we needed Sisera dead, since he’d been defeated already, as that we revel in someone else’s recognizing the truth of our God and our prophets and acting on that truth at great personal risk.

Taking all three together, we see that a subtext of the haftarah is the question of joining, of when and how people in the world, Jew or non-Jew, are willing to cast their lot with God, Creator of Heaven and Earth; at the Sea (in the Torah reading), no one had a choice because of how clear the Hand was.  In the rest of human history, the challenge is more complicated, and thus what Devorah sings about in her Song.

Famous Verses From the Haftarah

1) Pesachim 66b uses Devorah’s call to herself (verse 12: “עורי עורי דבורה, awake, awake, Devorah”) to prove that if a prophet acts arrogantly, his/her prophecy will be removed.  Devorah had previously (verse 7) said that Jews were afraid to live in border cities, until she came and made it safe.  That arrogance deprived her momentarily of prophecy, so she had to revive it by saying “awake, awake.”

2) Verse 23 starts with the words “אורו מרוז, curse Meroz,” (Rashi says it’s either a star or an important person), from which the Talmud derives the right to excommunicate a person who refuses a summons from a religious court, a Beit Din.   Devorah’s call to war, in other words, was binding on all Jews; refusing it lay one open to communal sanctions.  That verse ends by saying that they did not come to the aid of God, from which the Sifrei understands that helping the Jewish people is the same as helping God.

3) The Sages understand Yael to have helped Sisera fall asleep by more than just giving him milk rather that water.  Based on verse 24, the Talmud famously declares her act an “עבירה לשמה, a sin undertaken with perfectly pure purposes” which the Talmud says is greater than a “מצוה שלא לשמה, a mitzvah performed with lesser motivations.”

4) The haftarah speaks of the cries of Sisera’s mother, from which the Talmud, Rosh haShanah 33b, derives that the blasts of the shofar on Rosh haShanah should sound like crying, since Onkelos translates יום תרועה, a day of blowing as “יום יבבה, day of crying,” the same verb as describes Sisera’s mother crying for her son.

5) The last verse in the haftarah serves as the crux of a famous Talmudic declaration (e.g. at Yoma 23a), that those who “are insulted and do not insult, hear themselves reviled without replying, act out of love and are pleased with the travails [God sends them]” are the definition of the lovers of God whom our verse describes as “the going out of the sun at its full strength.”  May we all merit reaching that lofty level of personal perfection.  Shabbat Shalom.

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