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Deborah castigates the tribes that did not take part in battle:
"Why did the tribes of Reuben stay behind with the sheep?
The books of Joshua and Judges deal with the early period of Israelite settlement in the Holy Land - between their entry under Joshua, and the establishment of a united monarchy under David and Solomon. The Book of Judges shows how that Israelite conquest and settlement of the Land was neither immediate nor well founded. Rather, it was a slow and painful process. The Israelites faced constant harassment from the technologically superior Canaanites on the higher land, and the even more advanced Philistines on the southern coastal plain.
The recurring theme in the Book of Judges is the Deuteronomic Cycle. This is exemplified in Judges 2:11-19. The Israelites sin against G-d by following the paganism of the surrounding nations, they are delivered into the hands of the local population, they suffer Divine Justice at their hands, they realize how they left G-d, and they finally cry out to Him. He responds by sending them a judge - a savior to restore order, and lead them successfully into battle against their enemies. Once the danger passes, the Israelites become wayward once more, and the cycle starts all over again.
That is the main theme of the Book of Judges. It repeats itself with variations - always in different geographical locations - with the leading personalities of Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson. The Deuteronomic Cycle was finally broken by Samuel - the last of the judges, when 'all the House of Israel followed G-d' (Sam. I 7:2). From that time, the Israelites kept on the Torah path until the division of the kingdom after the death of Solomon.
The great lesson of the Book of Judges is that Israel's survival depended on loyalty to G-d, whilst disloyalty always led to disaster. But there was more to it than that: even when the nation was disloyal to G-d and disaster came, G-d was already to save his people when they repented and turned to Him again.
The Haftara shows one turn of the cycle. The Israelites sin, they are delivered into the hands of Jabin, the king of Hazor (in the north of the country), who succeeds in oppressing and terrorizing the technologically primitive Israelites with his nine hundred chariots of iron. The Israelites return to G-d and beg for His help. It comes in the form of Deborah the Prophetess, who commissions Barak to rid Israel of Cannanite oppression. Barak agrees, provided she accompanies him to inspire him with courage and hope. The surrounding (but not more distant) Israelite tribes mass their forces on Mt. Tabor to provoke Sisera, Jabin's commander to attack. The Israelites swoop down and successfully overwhelm and defeat the Canaanites. Sisera himself escapes to the tent of Hever the Kenite, whose family has taken no part in the battle. Jael, Hever's wife, induces Sisera to partake of liquid refreshment and rest, whereby she drives a tent peg into his head, and delivers his corpse to Barak.
In her song of joy and praise to G-d for the Israelite victory over Jabin the King of Cannan, the Prophetess Deborah heavily reprimands the tribes of Reuben, Gad, Asher, and Gad for not joining in the war effort against the Canaanites. At the same time she praises the tribes that did participate - namely Zebulun, Issachar, Naftali, Ephraim, and Manasseh.
However a simple glance at the map would excuse those who failed to turn up. The sites of the battle are Mt. Tabor, and Tannach, on the waters of Megiddo. Without exception, the participating tribes were neighbors. The absent tribes were geographically far away. And in any case the war was won without their help. So why did Deborah condemn them?
One insight may be found later in the song:
'For they did not come "le-ezrat Hashem" - which may be simply rendered into 'to the aid of G-d… with the victors' (ibid. 5:23).
G-d can fight His own battles. Deborah and Barak were the ones that needed the help. So why does the verse not say 'they did not come to the aid of Deborah and Barak' instead?
The answer is as follows. G-d does not only help people in their daily lives. But through that help, he gives people the chance to see His guidance, and that He is the source of all blessings. The success against the technologically overwhelming Canaanite threat made a deep impression on all who were part of it. They saw, what the Parasha calls 'the strong hand of G-d's deeds' (Ex. 14:31). When the Israelites witnessed the miraculous Divine intervention in their favor 'they believed in G-d and Moses his servant'. That would have not taken place so readily if they had not actually been there at the time. Knowing by hearsay is not the same as knowing by actual experience.
The absent tribes only learnt about the miracles of Deborah and Barak in battle by report. Had they been present, there would have been the unity throughout the northern part of Israel of all being present at a faith creating event - resulting in total abandonment of idolatry. As it was, a golden opportunity was lost to unite the Israelites, and they continued their tribal existence until going through the slow process of unification starting with the patient efforts of Samuel.
That is the meaning of le-ezrat Hashem" - to the place where G-d can be their aid - to let Him bring them to faith: namely to participate and gain lasting faith in the miracles He wrought for the Israelites in the area of Mt. Tabor.
In short, Deborah criticized the more distant tribes for not having participated in a golden spiritual opportunity to come close to G-d, and to create the spiritual unity that the Israelites needed for survival and success in the Holy Land.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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