Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah, 10 February 2017
Defying Gender Assumptions: A Commentary on the Haftarah to B’Shallach
The Torah portion, B’shallach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), includes a vignette about Miriam, the elder sister of Aaron and Moses. We read at Exodus 15: 20-21 that following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the song of triumph sung by ‘Moses and the Israelites’:
Miriam, the prophet (ha-n’vi’ah), the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dances with timbrels. / Then Miriam chanted for them: ‘Sing to the Eternal, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’.
Just two verses are devoted to Miriam in the entire parashah, so it is interesting that the haftarah selected by the early rabbis to accompany B’shallach is the story of the prophet and judge Deborah; a story which concludes with Deborah’s song of triumph.
Who was Deborah? The Book of Judges chapter 4 opens with the Israelites subjected to King Yabin of Canaan. We then read from verse 4, which is where the haftarah begins:
Now Deborah, a woman prophet (ishah n’vi’ah), eishet lapidot, was judging Israel at that time. / She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah, between Ha-ramah and Beit Eil in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go up to her for decisions.
Deborah’s role as a prophet and judge, clearly marked her out as a woman, who occupied an exceptional status. But there is another detail that underlines her exceptionality. In the translation of Judges 4, verses 4 above, I have chosen not to translate eishet lapidot. On the assumption that Deborah was married to somebody called ‘Lapidot’, in all the published translations of the text, these words are rendered: ‘wife of Lapidot.’ But there is a problem with this assumption. The biblical convention concerning naming an individual by reference to someone else is that the person referenced is mentioned elsewhere. There is no mention of a man called ‘Lapidot’ anywhere else in the Bible. Indeed, the word ‘lapidot’ only features in this phrase eishet lapidot in Judges 4:4 – and nowhere else. But that doesn’t mean that the word is empty of meaning. The masculine noun lapid, meaning, ‘torch’ – contained here in the feminine plural form, lapidot – is found in a number of places, including significant references in Judges Chapter 15, verses 4 and 5, in the story of Samson, where we find a vivid description of ‘torches’ used as instruments of war. The image of Samson setting fire to the enemy’s fields and produce belongs firmly in the context of military action conducted by men. Bearing this in mind, what are we to make of the description of Deborah, exceptionally and exclusively, as eishet lapidot? The image of Deborah sitting under a palm tree delivering judgements and decisions and occupying a position of leadership usually associated with men is powerful – and the fact that the palm tree was named after her, indicates that her reputation endured. But if that wasn’t enough, the narrative goes on to describe how Deborah ‘summoned’ the military commander, Barak, and went with him on the campaign against Sisera, the Canaanite commander (Judges 4:6ff). The prophet and judge is also a woman of action – not unlike Samson. Deborah is, quite literally, a ‘woman of torches’ – or ‘torch-like woman’. The description is not a metaphor: it expresses Deborah’s role in defeating the enemy – a role that is underlined in the song of triumph sung by Deborah and Barak (Judges 5).
What is striking about the portrayal of Deborah is that she is presented as powerful in the way that male figures are presented as powerful. By contrast, another important female figure in the story, Yael, the wife of Hever the Kenite, who is actually responsible for executing Sisera, accomplished this feat by behaving in a fashion more conventionally associated with women: she coaxed Sisera into her tent, where she covered him with a blanket and gave him milk to drink, before driving a tent pin into his forehead, once he had fallen asleep (4:17-21). And there is one more important female figure in the story, emblematic of another traditional way of being female: Sisera’s mother. Immediately following the vivid account of Jael’s killing of Sisera related in the song of triumph sung by Deborah and Barak (Judges 5:24-27), a poignant, heart-rending note is struck, with the image of Sisera’s mother, identified purely by her relationship to her son, peering through the lattice, anxiously waiting to hear the clatter of the wheels of her son’s chariot. The ‘wisest’ of her ‘princesses’ is swift to reassure her, as she tries to reassure herself – ‘they must be dividing the spoils they have found…’ (5: 28-30). But the reader knows that Sisera’s mother waits in vain. The presence of these more conventional presentations of women in the story of Deborah, only serves to highlight Deborah’s nonconformity.
Deborah occupied an exceptional position of power in a patriarchal society. Were there also other less powerful women, who defied the traditional female stereotypes? If so, how would they have lived? Of course, we don’t know, but the experience of those who don’t conform to binary gender expectations in our own society, reveals a high incidence of mental health issues. Last Shabbat was designated as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat. A survey conducted by LGBTQ Youth Project, Allsorts in Brighton in 2015 regarding their 11 to 15-year-olds, found that 77% had experienced mental health problems, 68% had contemplated suicide, and 54% had done something to injure or harm themselves. Allsorts’ 2016 results for their Trans young people, aged 11-25, were even more concerning: 91% had experienced mental health problems, 61% had done something to injure or harm themselves, 64% had contemplated suicide, and 24% had attempted suicide. And all these figures come from LGBTQ young people fortunate enough to have the support of a rare LGBTQ Youth Project! We have a long way to go before we live in a society that overcomes the binary trap and embraces plural genders.
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