Devorah Haneviah: Prophet, Wife and Judge

This week marks the fourteenth Yarzheit of Devorah bas Yitzchok Aaron, my dear mother-in-law

The name Devorah is an illustrious one in Jewish history, as it is the name of Devorah Haneviah (Devorah the prophetess).   While she was  the fourth Judge of  Israel after the death of Yehoshua (Joshua),  she is the only female judge mentioned in the Torah.  She was a fearless woman and a devoted wife who brought inspiration to a nation lacking devotion to G-d and hope for the future.  These qualities of fearlessness and devotion were shared by my mother-on-law so many generations later.

Devorah Haneviah arose at a time when the Jewish people worshiped idols.   The Canaanite King Yavin and his general, Sisera, oppressed the Jews for two decades.   In despair, the Jewish Nation cried out to Hashem and their prayers were answered with a new leader, Devorah.

וּדְבוֹרָה֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה נְבִיאָ֔ה אֵ֖שֶׁת לַפִּיד֑וֹת
הִ֛יא שֹׁפְטָ֥ה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִֽיא׃
וְ֠הִ֠יא יוֹשֶׁ֨בֶת תַּחַת־תֹּ֜מֶר דְּבוֹרָ֗ה בֵּ֧ין הָרָמָ֛ה וּבֵ֥ין בֵּֽית־אֵ֖ל
בְּהַ֣ר אֶפְרָ֑יִם וַיַּעֲל֥וּ אֵלֶ֛יהָ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לַמִּשְׁפָּֽט׃

And Devorah was a prophetess,
the wife of Lapidos. 
She judged Israel at this time. 
She would sit under the palm tree between
Ramah and Beit-El. 
The Sons of Israel came up to her for judgment

Judges 4:4-5

Devorah was a wise and pious woman who garnered the trust and respect of her people.   People flocked to her open-air court to learn from her wisdom and fear of Hashem (G-D).  They heeded her advice to leave their idol worship and return to Hashem.    

Devorah was the wife of a man named Lapidos ( “torches”).  Chazal (our sages) explain that with the help of his wife Devorah, he procured wicks and oil to spread the torchlight of Torah. 

Devorah used her wisdom, piety and influence to unify her people in repentance and to spread the light of Torah. She is described first as a prophetess, second as a wife and only last, as a judge.  So much can be learned about her life and guidance by the sequence and priority of these titles, and these were exactly the order of Mom’s priorities: the future, her family and her work. 

Devorah arose at a time that the Jewish People despaired.   While others resigned themselves to a life of oppression and idolatry under Yavin and Sisera, Devorah recognized the Divine opportunity for victory as the Jewish People were finally serving Hashem faithfully. Devorah approached the influential Barak, imploring him to gather an army at Har Tavor (Mount Tabor) to fight their oppressors.  Barak agreed to wage war on Canaan only if Devorah would accompany the troops to the battlefield.  Devorah agreed, informing Barak that Hashem would not grant him the glory of victory, but that Sisera’s demise would come through a woman.  

As Sisera’s fierce chariot-clad army fought Barak’s troops, the Cannanite army easily gained the upper hand.  In an instant, Hashem turned the tide and caused heavy rain to fall. The chariots became stuck in the battlefield mud, halting the advance of Sisera’s  troops.  They fled to Sisera’s hometown of Charoshet where they were slain by the Jewish army.  Sisera fled by foot to the tent of Chaver, who was an ally of Yavin, the Canaanite ruler. Yael, Chaver’s wife offered food and drink to Sisera who fell into a deep sleep. Seizing the opportunity to defeat the murderous Sisera, Yael drove a tent peg through his temple, killing him.  

In the aftermath of the war, the reactions of three women are described. These women are so diverse in their backgrounds and responses.  One is the reaction of Yael, who killed Sisera; the second is the reaction of Devorah who prophesied the victory; and, the third is the reaction of Sisera’s mother, waiting for her warrior son to return from war.

As Barak arrives in hot pursuit of Sisera, Yael leads him to the body of Sisera. She simply says,  “ Come.  I will show you the man that you are looking for.”

וְהִנֵּ֣ה בָרָק֮ רֹדֵ֣ף אֶת־סִֽיסְרָא֒
וַתֵּצֵ֤א יָעֵל֙ לִקְרָאת֔וֹ
וַתֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ לֵ֣ךְ וְאַרְאֶ֔ךָּ אֶת־הָאִ֖ישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֣ה מְבַקֵּ֑שׁ
וַיָּבֹ֣א אֵלֶ֔יהָ וְהִנֵּ֤ה סִֽיסְרָא֙ נֹפֵ֣ל מֵ֔ת וְהַיָּתֵ֖ד בְּרַקָּתֽוֹ׃
 Now Barak appeared in pursuit of Sisera.
Yael went out to greet him and said,
“Come, I will show you the man whom you seek.”
He went with her, and behold Sisera lie dead,
with the pin in his temple.

Judges 4:22

In contrast, witnessing the defeat of Sisera and his army, Devorah, the prophetess, sings  Shiras Devorah (Song of Deborah),  an eloquent and eternal song of thanks to Hashem:  

וַתָּ֣שַׁר דְּבוֹרָ֔ה וּבָרָ֖ק בֶּן־אֲבִינֹ֑עַם  בַּיּ֥וֹם הַה֖וּא לֵאמֹֽר׃  
בִּפְרֹ֤עַ פְּרָעוֹת֙ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהִתְנַדֵּ֖ב עָ֑ם בָּֽרְכ֖וּ יְהֹוָֽה׃    
שִׁמְע֣וּ מְלָכִ֔ים הַאֲזִ֖ינוּ רֹֽזְנִ֑ים
אָנֹכִ֗י לַֽיהֹוָה֙ אָנֹכִ֣י אָשִׁ֔ירָה אֲזַמֵּ֕ר לַֽיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃    
Devorah and Barak the son of Avinoam sang
When locks go untrimmed in Israel,
When people dedicate themselves
Bless our G-d
Hear, O kings! Pay attention, O rulers
I am to G-d and I will sing to he G-d of Israel

Judges 5:1-3

At the end of Shiras Devorah, we meet our third woman, General Sisera’s mother.  Here  is a poignant description of the fearful waiting and wailing of Sisera’s mother.  The wailing of our shofar is compared to the cries of this mother as she faces the reality that her son is not delayed by the splitting of the battle  spoils of war and the taking of captive women, but that he will never return from this last war; his absence is forever.      

בְּעַד֩ הַחַלּ֨וֹן נִשְׁקְפָ֧ה וַתְּיַבֵּ֛ב אֵ֥ם סִֽיסְרָ֖א
בְּעַ֣ד הָאֶשְׁנָ֑ב מַדּ֗וּעַ בֹּשֵׁ֤שׁ רִכְבּוֹ֙ לָב֔וֹא
    מַדּ֣וּעַ אֶֽחֱר֔וּ פַּעֲמֵ֖י מַרְכְּבוֹתָֽיו׃    
חַכְמ֥וֹת שָׂרוֹתֶ֖יהָ תַּעֲנֶ֑ינָּה אַף־הִ֕יא תָּשִׁ֥יב אֲמָרֶ֖יהָ לָֽהּ׃    
הֲלֹ֨א יִמְצְא֜וּ יְחַלְּק֣וּ שָׁלָ֗ל
  רַ֤חַם רַחֲמָתַ֙יִם֙ לְרֹ֣א צֶ֥בַע רִקְמָתַ֖יִם לְצַוְּארֵ֥י שָׁלָֽל׃     

Through the window Sisera’s mother peered
Behind the windowsill she wailed
Why are the wheels of his chariot delayed?
The wisest of her ladies reply
and she, too answers
He must be splitting the spoils of war
a maiden or two for each man
dyed cloths as spoils embroidered as collars

Judges 5:28-30

The story of Devorah is very much a story of women and specifically of my mother-in-law, Devorah bas Yitzchok Aaron.  It reflects upon uniquely feminine leadership, priorities, relationships and emotions. 

 It is not inconsequential that Devorah, which begins with a dalet standing for the number four, is the fourth of the fifteen Judges, who served  the Jewish Nation after Yehoshua. She is the third of the seven women prophets mentioned in the Torah, following Sarah and Miriam and coming before Chana, Avigail, Chulda and Esther in prophecy . 

Devorah Haneviah’s life was characterized by a deep connection to Hashem, by the power of her influence on the people surrounding her, by her value as a wife and as one who persevered when others despaired.  These are exactly the qualities that my mother in law exhibited and role-modeled.  

My mother in law inspired others to adherence to Torah and mitzvos.  I watched her invite friends and neighbors to her Shabbos and Yom Tov table, understanding that an invitation would ensure their joyful experience of these holy moments.  Her warm hospitality had a profound influence on the course of the lives of these people and the upbringing of their families.

Mom showed great fortitude and leadership during the Intifada, much as Devorah Haneviah did during her lifetime.  As others were canceling trips to Israel, Mom booked travel to Jerusalem, ensuring that our cousins in Israel wouldn’t feel abandoned by their American relatives and that the Israelis under attack felt supported by us.  I remember how her friends felt awed and inspired by Mom’s courage.

My mother-in-law took upon herself to invite family, often cajoling Dad a”H out of his comfortable armchair to enjoy the lengthy visits of both Kramer and Respler family members.  Although she had twelve other siblings, Mom was the one who cared for her mother a”H after her father z”l was niftar.  She showed leadership and hospitality by encouraging her sizable family to visit Bubby Sara on Sundays, procuring and organizing crafts for everyone to enjoy during their visits.  

While my father in law possessed the Respler gift of friendship and humor, Mom was the engine behind so many moments with friends and family. She was truly an Aishes Lapidos, lighting the torch of chesed, hospitality and Torah in their home. I can still see Mom running to the door when we visited.  I can imagine her waiting near the door much as Sisera’s mother waited at the window awaiting the arrival of her son.  

My mother-in-law was a woman of presence and influence,as was Devorah Haneviah.  When she entered a room, there was a certain vitality that she brought that energized the room and transformed it.  She never let us get too relaxed, but always inspired us to stay on our toes, looking out for each other and for others who would be otherwise overlooked.  

Just as Yael became a Jewish role model for strength and action, Mom took upon herself to act with courage and effort to imbue a deep sense of purpose and responsibility in those around her.  As Devorah led her people with light, devotion and gratitude through song, Mom lit her way through life bringing joy and optimism wherever she went.  As Sisera’s mother became the quintessential mother, yearning for her son, Mom’s central theme was the enjoyment and hospitality of her family.

Finally,  one of the most remarkable lessons taught by Devorah was by how she is introduced  in the Torah.  Her role as wife was sandwiched between her role as prophetess and judge.  Although Mom will always be recognized by the boundless influence that she had on her neighbors and friends and her wisdom in guiding others, she will most likely be remembered best for her family role as a mother and a wife, imparting life lessons for her generations.

Special thanks to my niece Ayala who provided the gorgeous picture of my in-laws for this blog post