Parashat B’shallach 5784

25 January 2024 – 15 Shevat 5784

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah



This week’s Torah portion, B’shallach, relates the Exodus from Egypt. It’s a well-known story, whose main characters are very familiar – except that one of them, Miriam, the elder sister of Aaron and Moses, is largely absent from the Torah narrative.

We first meet the unnamed ‘sister’ when, along with the unnamed ‘mother’, she saves her baby brother from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree (Exodus 2:1-10). She does not appear again until the conclusion of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds on dry land, when in two short verses, we learn her name, her status, her family connection, and her song (15:20-21):

Miriam, the prophet [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.’

After this brief appearance, there is no other mention of Miriam in the Book of Exodus, and she does not feature again in the Torah narrative until the Book of Numbers chapter 12, when paired once more with Aaron, Miriam ‘spoke against Moses’ (12:1).

Interestingly, the early rabbis, took seriously Miriam’s role as a prophet, making up for her marginalisation in the Torah by elaborating the legend of ‘Miriam’s Well’ (Babylonian Talmud Ta’anit 9a), which accompanied the Israelites on their journeys through the wilderness, ensuring that they were never without water, until Miriam died in the fortieth year of their wanderings (Numbers 20:1-2). Even more important, the sages of Babylonia highlighted the significance of the two Exodus verses about Miriam by selecting the story of Deborah as the haftarah – the ‘concluding’ biblical passage selected from the prophetic books for reading on Shabbat and Festivals – to accompany the reading of B’shallach (Judges 4:4-5:31). Like Miriam, Deborah was a leader who sang a song of triumph, and her 30-verse-long song provides an amplification of Miriam’s one-liner. But the attachment of the story of Deborah to B’shallach does more than amplify Miriam. We read (4:4-5):

Now Deborah, a woman prophet [ishah n’vi’ah], eishet lappidot, 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 was one of the early leaders of the Israelites, following their entry into Canaan, before the institution of monarchy was established. Her role as a prophet and judge marked her out as a woman, who occupied an exceptional status. All the other ‘judges’ that populate the Book of Judges are men. But there is another detail that demonstrates that her way of living as a woman was exceptional. In the translation above, I have chosen not to translate eishet lappidot. In all the English versions of the text, these words are rendered: ‘wife of Lappidot.’ Writing in the 1980s, when feminist biblical scholarship was a new discipline, Cheryl Exum (‘“Mother” in Israel: A Familiar Figure reconsidered’. In Russell, Letty M. Russell, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, pp. 73-85) states that ‘usually rendered “wife of Lappidoth”’, eishet lappidot ‘may be translated “fiery woman”’ (p. 85). Noting that ‘the narrative has nothing else to say about him [Lappidot]’, Exum does not give a reason for the alternative translation.

A man called Lappidot is not only absent from the story of Deborah, there is no mention of any man called ‘Lappidot’ anywhere else in the Bible. Indeed, the Hebrew word ‘lappidot’, which is in the form of a feminine plural, only features in this phrase eishet lappidot in Judges 4:4, and nowhere else. But that does not mean that the word is empty of meaning. Exum’s suggestion of the translation ‘fiery woman’ draws attention to the masculine singular noun lappid, meaning, ‘torch’, which is found in a number of places, including significant references in Judges in the story of Samson (Judges 15:4-5):

Samson went and caught 300 foxes. He took torches [lappidim], and turning [the foxes] tail to tail, he placed a torch [lappid] between each pair of tails. / He lit a fire with the torches [ba-lappidim] and sent [the foxes] among the standing grain of the Philistines, setting fire to stacked grain, standing grain, vineyards, [and] olive trees.

In this brief passage we have a vivid image of torches in action as instruments of war.

Bearing this in mind, what are we to make of the description of Deborah, exceptionally and exclusively, as eishet lappidot? Deborah did not only sit under a palm tree delivering judgements and decisions, she ‘summoned’ the military commander, Barak, and went with him on the campaign against Sisera, the Canaanite commander (Judges 4:6ff.). The prophet and judge, was also a woman of action, not unlike Samson. Rather than identifying Deborah as the ‘wife of’ someone called ‘Lappidot’, eishet lappidot signals that she was, quite literally, a ‘woman of torches’. 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.

In that song, Deborah proclaims herself as a ‘mother in Israel’, eim b’Yisrael (Judges 5:7). Deborah was neither a wife nor a mother. However, she can be seen as the ‘mother’ of the nation at that time. In her article, ‘The “Mothers” Who Were Not: Motherhood Imagery and Childless Women Warriors in Early Jewish Literature’ (in Lehman, Marjorie, Kanarek, Jane L. and Simon J. Bronner, Eds., Mothers in the Jewish Cultural Imagination, Liverpool University Press, Littman Library, 2017, pp.185-206), Caryn Tamber-Rosenau points out (p. 191) that the Talmudic sages were critical of Deborah’s proclamation that she was ‘a mother in Israel’ because it displayed her ‘haughtiness’ (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b). Nevertheless, despite the rabbinic censure of Deborah, their selection of Judges 4.4-5.31 as the haftarah for B’shallach has ensured that Deborah’s story is retold year after year.

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