Sefer Shofetim Chapter 4
After the death of Ehud ben Gera, the Jewish people again sink to the depths of idolatry and assimilation. As a result, they find themselves subservient to and persecuted by Yavin, King of Hatzor and his general Sisera. The oppression suffered by the Jews at the hands of Yavin is particularly intense and extends for twenty years. Realizing that Yavin’s power is backed by highly intimidating and heavily armed military forces and that his regime cannot be resisted by human means, the Jewish people cry out to Hashem, Who sends them a distinguished leader – Devorah – to guide them.
First, we witness a spiritual reawakening and return to Torah, as the nation of Israel embrace Devorah as a Judge and listen carefully to her instructions. Then Hashem commands Devorah to direct Baraq ben Avinoam to mobilize the Jewish military in a rebellion against Yavin. Baraq is hesitant and refuses to go unless Devorah is willing to accompany him to battle. Although she warns him that he will not achieve glory in this conflict because a woman will be credited with the victory, she agrees to join the military forces as a representative of Hashem Who is the true source of success in battle.
The forces of Yavin, led by Sisera, are defeated soundly by the soldiers of Israel, despite the fact that the latter were neither well-armed nor well-prepared. Sisera abandons his chariot and runs on foot to the estate of a prominent ally of Yavin, Hever HaQeni. Ironically, Hever HaQeni was a descendant of the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbenu and had historically maintained close ties with the Jews; Sisera relied upon the assumption that the alliance of King Yavin with Hever was genuine and assumed he would be granted refuge at his home despite this. As we know, this turned out to be a faulty assumption; once the tides had turned against Yavin, Hever and Yael immediately sided with their natural allies, the Jewish people.
Yael, the wife of Hever HaQeni, receives him warmly and reassures him that she will keep his visit a secret. She provides him with a blanket to rest and some milk to quench his thirst. As soon as he dozes off, she takes a tent-spike and drives it through his skull, killing him. Not long after, Baraq arrives in pursuit of Sisera and is informed of what transpired. This marks a decisive turning point in the struggle and eventuates in the Jewish people regaining its political autonomy in the Land of Israel.
This narrative is rich in detail and drama and much commentary could be written about it. For the sake of brevity, I would like to highlight just two noteworthy aspects of the story.
First, it is remarkable that the undisputed leader of the Jewish people is a woman, Devorah. Moreover, another woman, Yael, plays a critical role in resolving the military conflict (typically a manly enterprise) when she assassinates Sisera.
On the other hand, the male characters in the story are rather weak. Baraq is afraid to go out to battle without Devorah, a spiritual mother-figure, present. Moreover, in his moment of weakness and humiliation, Sisera runs to another “mother-figure”, Yael, who provides him with a place to rest and a glass of milk, emblematic of her nurturing role. Two maternal personalities are contrasted here with two “mama’s boys”.
Second, this is the first time we see the roles of religious and political leader bifurcated. Devorah is the prophetess, the teacher, the religious visionary; Baraq, although he believes in Hashem and in the message of His representative, is essentially a military leader whose task is to implement the instructions of Devorah.
Moshe Rabbenu, Yehoshua, Otniel ben Qenaz and Ehud ben Gera all embodied both spiritual and political greatness – they combined and integrated the religious and the secular, the holy and the mundane, and provided an all-encompassing, holistic form of leadership to the Jewish people. During their career, the blend of Torah life and political-social life in Israel was smooth and seamless.
By contrast, the era of Baraq and Devorah is one of significant disintegration and fragmentation – it is a period of time in which there is no ONE LEADER fully capable of guiding the nation at every level and for every purpose. This loss of unification of the transcendent and the practical is indicative of increased disconnection between the Jewish people and the ideals and principles of Torah, and is a harbinger of even further decline that will be documented in future chapters of Sefer Shofetim.