Sefer Shofetim Chapter 5
This chapter contains the “song” or poem that Devorah and Baraq composed following the triumph over Yavin, King of Hatzor. Prophetic poetry is designed to be recited or chanted and places events into perspective in the context of some “bigger picture”. Usually, when we encounter Biblical poetry in the midst of stories, it is an indication that the narrative represents a major development or breakthrough of some kind in the unfolding of the Divine plan.
For obvious reasons, attempting to “summarize” a poem would eviscerate it and would not do justice to its beauty, nuance or power. It needs to be read and experienced to be appreciated. However, it behooves us to at least identify some of the key themes Devorah and Baraq speak about in their song.
A key element of Shirat Devorah is its depiction of how severe the persecutions were under the regime of Yavin. Normal everyday activities like traveling on open roads and drawing water from public wells was made difficult or impossible for the Jews. They would be attacked, have arrows shot at them, and otherwise be terrorized for simply going about their business. They were “demilitarized” by Yavin, to the point that the army under Baraq’s command didn’t even have spears or shields with which to engage in battle when the hour arrived. This underscores how dramatic the salvation was; even more, it highlights how miraculous the battle was from the standpoint of the Jewish people (and perhaps allows us to see why Baraq was so nervous about it.)
Another motif of the song is the emphasis on “hitnadvut”, voluntary involvement. Because there was no central political authority in Israel with the means to compel citizens to follow any program or course of action, participation in the rebellion was totally voluntary on their part. Some of the tribes, like Yissakhar, Zevulun, Binyamin, Menashe, Ephraim and Naftali, willingly and enthusiastically committed themselves to the effort.
Those who lived on the other side of the Yarden, however – Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe – as well as Dan and Asher were hesitant to take any risks on behalf of their people and therefore remained neutral until the conflict was settled. These tribes, either due to the location of their territory or the nature of their occupations, were more economically independent than the others and seemingly had little to gain and much to lose by getting involved.
The confederacy of tribes, like our far flung Jewish communities today, will only survive and thrive if we are concerned with the welfare of all Jews, even when their crises don’t impact us directly. Nobody can or will compel us to act; we must internalize a sense of responsibility for one another based on the transcendent values that unite us and not based upon practical calculations alone.
Shirat Devorah praises those who stood up of their own accord to support their nation and casts some aspersions on those who were resistant to doing so. The song contrasts the behavior of these tribes with that of many of the Kings of Canaan who, without any financial incentive, joined the battles against Israel; they volunteered for what they believed in, even if it was wrong! Why did some tribes not do the same for the sake of their own brethren?
The manifestation of the Divine presence in the history of Israel is another element of the song. Shirat Devorah makes references back to the Revelation at Sinai as well as to the miraculous assistance that attended the triumph against Yavin and Sisera, which many commentaries infer was facilitated by some kind of natural disaster that rendered their chariots immobile. Ultimately, Hashem is the King, and human despots, no matter how intimidating, are subject to His will and His will alone.
Finally, Shirat Devorah revisits the “feminine” or “motherly” motif of the story, describing the roles of Devorah (“a mother in Israel”) and Yael (“of the women in the tent she shall be blessed”, women in the tent meaning matriarchs, mothers) as well as the reaction of the mother of Siserah, another maternal character who had not been mentioned before but is now inserted into the narrative.
The mother of Sisera is in denial about the outcome of the battle and imagines her son raping and pillaging in Israel (what a comforting thought!!!???); of course, these are all illusions and as she comes to terms with the reality that he himself has been vanquished, she sobs. The song concludes with the prayer that just as the wicked designs of the enemies of Israel evaporated in this instance so should they evaporate in the future…Hashem has the power to make that happen as long as we are worthy of His providential care.