In Eastern countries, in the days of old, and even nowadays among backward peoples, women are usually looked down upon by men, and they are often treated not much better than servants or even slaves. This has never been the case in the Jewish family, where the Jewish woman is called “the foundation of the home” because of the many duties she has in keeping a kosher home, bringing up the children in the Jewish way of life, and generally helping create the right “atmosphere” of Torah and Mitzvot in the Jewish home. Every Friday night, when the menfolk come from Shul, finding the table set for the holy Shabbat, with the candles giving a glow of light and warmth throughout the home, the father and the boys sing that well-known hymn “Eishet Chayil” to the Jewish “Woman of Worth,” which was composed by King Solomon in Proverbs. We are proud of the mothers of our people, and are proud especially of the fact that we had seven women prophetesses who played an important part in shaping the history of our people, and who inspire us to this day. One of these seven prophetesses was Deborah, whose story we bring you here, and whose famous “Song of Deborah” we read on the very Shabbath when we read the famous “Song of Moses,” which was recited for the first time after the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea.
Deborah lived more than three thousand years ago, about the year 2650 after Creation. This was less than 200 years after Joshua led the Jewish people into the Holy Land (in the year 2488). The period in which Deborah lived is known as the period of the Judges, and she was in fact the judge in her time.
This was the time when the Jewish people had not yet become united under one king, which came later, in the times of King Saul and King David. During Deborah’s time the twelve tribes of Israel lived more or less independently, each one in his part of the country. The neighboring peoples often took advantage of this fact, making trouble now for one tribe, now for another. The trouble came whenever the Jewish people abandoned the ways and laws of the Torah and started to imitate the ways of their heathen neighbors. But under the cruel oppression of the enemy, they cried out to G‑d and returned to Him with all their heart. Then G‑d sent them a great leader who delivered them from the oppression, and who continued to teach them and keep them in the way of the Torah as long as he lived. When this leader, who was called a Judge, passed on, the Jews—left without a spiritual guide—fell back into their old ways, and immediately trouble waited at their door.
So it was in the time of Deborah. It was the cruel Canaanite King Jabin of Hazor who mercilessly oppressed the Jews. He had an equally cruel and brutal general named Sisera who, for twenty years, did everything possible to make the lives of his Jewish neighbors miserable. When the Jews could stand it no longer, they cried out to G‑d to send them a deliverer.
At that time there lived a wise and G‑d-fearing woman named Deborah who, in the midst of sin and idolatry, remained loyal and true to Judaism. She and her husband Lapidoth lived in a place between Ramah and Beth-El, in the mountain of Ephraim.
Deborah used to sit under a palm tree and speak to the people who flocked to hear her words of wisdom and encouragement, which lifted them out of their despair. G‑d told Deborah to free her people from the oppression of the cruel Jabin and Sisera. So she sent for Barak the son of Abinoam, and asked him to head the Jewish army and lead it to victory against the Canaanites. Barak agreed to accept Deborah’s plan, on condition that she would accompany the Jewish army into battle.
Meanwhile, Sisera learned of the battle being planned against his Canaanite army. He brought out his iron chariots and cavalry in preparation, confident that he would be able to crush the ill-prepared Jewish army.
At the beginning of the battle things certainly seemed to be on the side of the mighty Canaanites, but suddenly Sisera’s army was thrown into confusion and terror, causing his terrified warriors to flee in all directions. Sisera, unable to regain control of his demoralized army, also took to his heels and fled to a house, where he intended to hide until it would be safe for him to return.
This was the home of Heber the Kenite, who was a descendant of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. Heber had been on good terms with Jabin, king of Hazor, and Sisera felt safe in hiding there. But he did not reckon with Jael, the wife of Heber. She was a fair-minded woman who was shocked at Sisera’s cruel treatment of the oppressed Jews. Now she decided to punish him for it, seeing it was in her hands to do so. She tiptoed into the room where Sisera had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion. Cautiously she approached him and, with all her might, drove a long nail through his temple, putting an end to his chances of doing any further harm to anybody.
In the meantime Barak had been hot on the track of Sisera, and traced him to Heber’s house. Just as he reached the entrance, Jael came out to meet him, with a flushed look of triumph on her face.
“Come in,” she exclaimed, “and I will show you the man you are seeking.” Jael led him into the house and showed him the dead body of the cruel general, the hated oppressor of the Jews.
After the victory of the Israelites, the Canaanites lost their power, and the Jews were able to live peacefully. Deborah returned to her abode in the mountain of Ephraim, and composed a most beautiful poem about the battle. It is a song which, even today, is considered second only to the song of Moses. It is a song of G‑d’s might since the days of old, as He led His chosen people from Egypt through the desert and gave them the Torah at Mount Sinai. It describes Israel’s terrible plight under the oppression at the hands of the Canaanites, when all travel on the highways was abandoned, and the people had no weapons with which to defend themselves.
Deborah, in her poem, goes on to rebuke those who were slow to join in the battle against the enemy. She describes the terrible battle, and the wonderful miracles that helped Israel to victory.
They fought from heaven,
The stars in their courses
Fought against Sisera.
Deborah praises the brave woman Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, who with her own hands killed the cruel Sisera:
Blessed above women shall Jael be,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Above women in the tent shall she be blessed . . .
At her feet he sank, he lay;
Where he sank, he fell dead . . .
So perish all your enemies, O G‑d,
But they that love Him
Shall be as the sun going forth in its might.
For twenty years the Jews lived in peace under the wise guardianship of Deborah and Barak. It proves what a great woman Deborah must have been to command so much respect and admiration.
Throughout the centuries of history, there have been women who have been praised for excellence in one thing or another. One of the greatest has been the Jewish prophetess Deborah, who was steadfast and loyal to G‑d’s word, and who inspired her people to victory in battle and guided them to live in faith and peace.