For a period of about four hundred years after they entered the Land of Israel, the Jews had no king or united state. Scripture describes this era in quite a fixed formula: when the Jews followed in the ways of the Torah, peace and prosperity prevailed; when they failed to do so, trouble quickly arose. When the trouble did come and the Jews prayed for salvation, G‑d would appoint an individual who would lead the Jewish people against their enemies. These became known as the Shoftim (“judges”), of whom Deborah was one.

The verses prior to this haftarah describe just a time: “The children of Israel continued to do that which was evil in the eyes of G‑d… G‑d gave them over into the hand of Jabin, the king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the chieftain of his army was Sisera… The children of Israel cried to G‑d, for [Jabin] had nine hundred iron chariots, and he oppressed the children of Israel mightily for twenty years.”

Enter Deborah. We are introduced to her as a prophetess and a judge of the people. She called for Barak ben Abinoam, and told him in the name of G‑d that he was to rally an army from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun to fight the armies of Sisera. These tribes were chosen because of their meritorious deeds in the past: Naphtali had served Jacob and brought him pleasure, and Zebulun had facilitated his brother Issachar’s Torah learning.1

Barak agreed to go only if Deborah would go with him. He firmly believed that victory would come only in her merit. Deborah agreed, but made him understand that in the end he would not be the hero of the victory after all; in actuality, it would be a woman into whose hand G‑d would deliver Sisera. Deborah was prophetically hinting at Yael, as the haftarah describes later on.

Upon hearing that the Jews were readying for war, Sisera mobilized his entire army in preparation for battle. At Deborah’s command, the Jewish army of ten thousand men descended from Mount Tabor in attack. G‑d caused Sisera’s army to be totally confused, so that they began fighting with each other and then set out in flight. Sisera himself got off his chariot and fled on foot to the tent of Chever (Heber) and Yael (Jael) the Kenites. Chever was from the family of Jethro (here called Chovav, one of the seven names by which is called in the Torah), the father-in-law of Moses. Chever was friendly with his king, Jabin, and Sisera hoped that Chever would now spare him until he could escape without notice. Yael, Chever’s wife, greeted him and ushered him into her tent. He was thirsty and asked for water, but instead she gave him milk, whose heaviness put him into a deep sleep. Yael then took a peg from the tent in one hand and a hammer in the other, and knocked the peg through Sisera’s skull, killing him instantly. As this was happening, Barak was on the chase for Sisera, and passed by Yael’s tent. Yael came out and showed him how the man he was looking for lay dead. The military campaigns after this strengthened the Jewish hand even more, until they completely destroyed the rest of Jabin’s army and his entire kingdom.

The second part of the haftarah is the “song of Deborah.” This is one of the hallowed “ten songs” of Jewish history, along with other songs such as the song at the splitting of the sea (in this week’s Parshah), the song at the well of Miriam, and the song of Haazinu by Moses. The tenth song will be sung when Moshiach comes. The verses here are of lofty and poetic language.

The song begins with praise of G‑d. Although at the time of the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah there was a great tremor of the nations before Israel and its G‑d, this had not been the case in recent times. In the years before the battle, people were afraid to travel the roads, and moved out of the villages to fortified cities, fearing the enemy's harassment. This did not come in a vacuum, but was because of the fallen spiritual state the Jews were in.

Now this had all changed. Now the civil servants, the merchants, and even the aristocrats (“riders of white donkeys”) could go about their business without fear. A tactic of the enemy was to bombard the areas around the sources of water with arrows, so as to torture the people with thirst. Instead of the sound of arrows, it would be from these very places that the praise of G‑d would ring out.

Deborah’s heart goes out to the teachers of Torah who volunteered to go out to war. She sings the praise of the individuals and tribes who joined the army, and derides those who stood by the side, escaped, or—worse—waited to see who would be victorious and then side with them. She later also vehemently curses Meroz, a town (some say a particularly powerful individual) who failed to come out and fight, even while being situated right at the battlefront.

Sisera had allies who came to help him, and for free; but G‑d too had His “battalions” poised to defeat Sisera. The verse alludes to the account of the war found in the Talmud:2 At the time of the battle, G‑d caused a great heat to affect Sisera’s army. The soldiers who were wearing metal armor were so hot that they went to cool off in the Kishon stream. G‑d caused the Kishon to overflow, drowning the soldiers.

Deborah ends by praising the brave actions of Yael. She describes the weeping of Sisera’s mother, and the empty comfort that her friends offered her, describing the rich booty and Jewish slave maids that Sisera was busy bringing back, suggesting this as the reason he tarried. “So shall all Your enemies be destroyed, O G‑d,” finishes Deborah.

A woman of fire

In identifying Deborah, the verse calls her eshet Lapidot, which translates literally as “the wife of Lapidot.” According to one Midrashic source, Lapidot was indeed her husband. He was also known by another name, Barak ben Abinoam, a hero of this story. The name Lapidot derives from the root lapid, a fiery flame.

“Our sages said: The husband of Deborah was not a learned man. His wife told him: ‘Come, make wicks for the Sanctuary in Shiloh; this way, your lot will be among righteous men, and you will arrive in the world to come.”3 Barak followed Deborah’s advice and adopted this mitzvah. He made thick and beautiful wicks to be used in the Sanctuary. It was this that earned him the name “Lapidot.”

Most commentaries follow a different understanding. Eshet Lapidot is not to be translated as “the wife of Lapidot,” but rather as “a woman of lapidot”— the latter being a description of Deborah herself. The Talmud4 says that it was actually she who used make the wicks for the Sanctuary in Shiloh. Metzudat David and Abarbanel consider this a description of the kind of woman she was: “a woman of strength and deftness, likened by people to a fiery flame.”

Deborah’s palm tree

The beginning of the haftarah tells us that Deborah would sit and judge the people under “Deborah’s palm tree.” What was the significance of this, and why does Scripture point this out?

Abarbanel explains that this was the name given to the place where Deborah’s namesake had been buried. In the book of Genesis5 we read that Deborah was the wet-nurse of our matriarch Rebecca. She had been sent by Rebecca to fetch Jacob from the house of his father-in-law, Laban, and had passed away accompanying Jacob on his way home. Jacob buried her “below Beth-el”. The place that Deborah the prophetess made her headquarters was indeed “between Ramah and Beth-el”—the very area where the original Deborah was buried.

Rashi (among other commentaries) chooses to adopt the explanation of the Targum.6 To the Targum, Deborah’s “sitting” under a tree refers to her abundant sources of livelihood that allowed her to devote her life to her people: “Her sustenance came from her own assets: she had palm trees in Jericho, vineyards in Ramah, olive groves in the luscious valley of Beth-el, and fields of white earth (for earthenware)7 on the mountain of Ephraim.”

The Talmud,8 however, understands the verse more literally: Deborah sat under a palm tree that came to bear her name. The reason why Scripture made note of this is to point out how Deborah avoided the problem of yichud, the prohibited seclusion of a man and woman outside of marriage. As a judge, the quarrels she dealt with were usually between males. Sitting in her home, or under a tree with a lot of foliage, would prevent her from being there with another man. She therefore chose to make her place under a palm tree, which is entirely open along its trunk, so that this situation could be avoided.

(The commentary Chomat Anach9 poses a difficulty with the above explanation. The halachah is that the prohibition of yichud is not so clear-cut when two men and one woman are in seclusion,10 because the other man may serve as a “guard” preventing any improper conduct between the woman and the other man. Since Deborah conducted court cases that always involved two people, how could the Talmud state that there was a positive question of yichud at hand?

He answers this based on a mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “When the litigants stand before you, regard them both as wicked.”11 The meaning of this is that a judge may not view either of the litigants favorably, lest he find it difficult to render a guilty verdict against him.12 The law is that if the men secluded with the woman are of an unscrupulous nature, then two—or even ten—men do not suffice, and seclusion with them is forbidden. This then explains the need for Deborah to be wary of a situation of yichud in any event.)