Deborah: biblical judge, prophet, warrior, singer, peacemaker.
Here are three perspectives on her story: feminist, zoological, and Kabbalistic.
Deborah, The New Miriam
First, a feminist take.
Deborah is the new Miriam. She’s a more modern version of a heroic woman. A bolder version. Take a look at the parallels between their stories. Then, note the subtle differences and the really obvious ones, too.
Both women are prophets. The book of Exodus explicitly calls Miriam a prophet, Miriam Haneviah (15:20). The book of Judges explicitly calls Deborah a prophet, Ishah Neviah (Judg 4:4).
Both women are associated with an elemental force. Miriam’s name (arguably) means “master of the waters.” She is a helper to her brother Moses, whose name means, “I drew him from the waters” (Exod 2:10). We first meet her at the shore of the river, when she watches over her baby brother’s basket.
Deborah is introduced as a fiery woman, Eshet Lapidot (Judg 4:4). But she is no one’s assistant. Instead, she has a male helper. His name is Barak, lightning, a flash of fire from the sky.
Both women sing. After the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, Miriam’s brother Moses sings a song about God, the warrior and the rescuer. It’s more of a formal poem, really. Miriam picks out one line, and leads the women in singing it as a chant (Exod. 20:21).
But Deborah sings together with Barak. Their formal song praises God, the soldiers, and the crucial role of a woman named Jael (Judg 5).
Both women are leaders. The prophet Micah says that God gave the Israelites a trio of leaders in the wilderness: Moses, Aaron, and Miriam (6:4). But the Torah does not represent Miriam as equal in status to her lawgiving and high priest brothers. At least, it doesn’t share many stories about her.
Deborah, however, holds the official title “Judge.” And she holds court under a tree, locally known as Tomer Deborah, the palm tree of Deborah (Judg 4:5). When the Israelites are under attack by King Jabin and his general Sisera, Deborah calls for Barak. She tells him how many soldiers to gather, and what their military strategy will be. Barak says, “If you go with me, I will go, but if you do not go with me, I will not go.” Deborah replies, “I will definitely go with you—but you won’t find glory on the path you are walking. God will deliver Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judg 4:8-9). But Barak doesn’t care; he’s quite willing to work under the leadership of a woman warrior.
Deborah the Bee vs. Samson the Hornet
Second, a zoological perspective.
If you read the Book of Judges from start to finish, you’ll see that the narrator has definite opinions about good judges and bad judges. The narrator puts the good judge stories at the beginning, the problematic judges in the middle, and the worst judge near the end. Deborah, the second judge, is one of the best. Samson, the last judge, is the worst.
The narrator also uses some insect analogies to make this point.
Deborah’s name means “bee,” a honeybee. Like a bee, she uses her sting only for defence. She leads her people in a single defensive war. All participate; they strike quickly and brutally. But then she keeps the peace for 40 years (Judg 5:31). Deborah adds value to her community, like a bee who quietly makes sweet honey from pollen, defending its nest only when attacked.
Samson comes from the town of Tzorah, which means “hornet” (Judg 13:2). Samson is angry and aggressive. Like sensitive hornet, he attacks and kills every time he feels a threat. He even raids a beehive—sticks his hand right in and takes the honey (Judg 14:9)! He consumes and he kills. (Think: murder hornet.) Thus, there is no chance he could keep the peace for 40 years.
Channeling the Tree of Life
Third, a Kabbalistic perspective.
So, how did Deborah keep the peace? The 16th century Safed Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero had a theory. He shared it in his book Tomer Devorah. Of course, he interpreted Deborah’s palm tree in a Kabbalistic way. To him, it was the spiritual Tree of Life, the chain of sefirot (spiritual energies) that flow down from God. Deborah, he hints, used the spiritual energies of the sefirot to keep the peace. So, in his book, Cordovero teaches us how to do the same.
He starts with the highest sefirah, the energy closest to God, called keter, the crown. Each of us, he says, can express the energy of keter by wearing the crown on our heads, so to speak. We can transform our own faces into beacons of divine energy. And then, shining, we can calm the people around us.
Start, he says, with your FOREHEAD. Relax, don’t wrinkle your brow in annoyance. Next, learn to use your EARS. Don’t listen to the worst gossip about people. Then, wake up your EYES. Don’t turn away from what is painful to see, but reach out. Then, transform your CHEEKS. Greet people with a smile. Pay attention to your NOSE. Breathe slowly and deeply, calm your anger. Finally, be careful with your MOUTH. Speak only words of kindness.
Be like Deborah, he says. You can do it, even if you’re not a woman! And even if you’re not a honeybee!
Originally offered as a dvar Torah at Congregation Beth Israel (Vancouver) for Parshat Beshalach. Image: Pinterest.