Bishalach – The Modesty of a Prophetess

This Dvar Torah is dedicated in memory of Rebbetzin Miriam Guttman, Miriam Devorah bas Shaul Chaim a"h. May her neshama have an aliyah.

The haftorah of this week’s Torah portion of Bishalach depicts a leader of the Jewish people equated with Moshe Rabbeinu, who even sang her own song just like Moshe did after the defeat of the enemy and the salvation of the Jewish people. Her name was Devora.

The beginning of the haftorah relates: “Now Devora was a woman prophetess, the wife of Lapidot; she judged Israel at that time. And she sat under the palm tree of Devora, between Ramah and Bet-El, in the mountain of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgement. And she sent for and called Barak the son of Avinoam out of Kedesh-Naftali. And she said to him, ‘Indeed Hashem, G-D of Israel, commanded, Go and draw towards Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of the children of Naftali and of the children of Zevulun. And I shall draw to you, to the brook of Kishon, Sisera, the chieftain of Yavin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will give him into your hand’” (Shoftim 4:4-7).

The Medrish asks: Why was Devora the Judge and prophet at the time if the great zealot, Pinchas ben Elazar, Aharon’s grandson, was alive and the Kohen Gadol? The medrish answers: “May heaven and earth testify about me (referring to Hashem) that whether it is a non-Jew or Jew, man or woman, servant or maidservant, anyone according to a person’s deeds shall the Holy Spirit rest upon them.” The Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu says that Devora’s husband was an am ha’aretz, an ignoramus, who probably had learning disabilities, which made it hard for him to be knowledgeable. In fact, his given name was Barak, but he was also called by two other names: Lapidot and Michael. The Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu relates that he merited marrying Devora because since he served Yehoshua and the Elders when they were alive, he therefore merited continuing to serve the leaders of the generation by marrying her. However, before Devora became a prophet, she was worried about her husband’s share in the World to Come since he was a simpleton. She therefore told her husband that she would make wicks for the mishkan in Shiloh and he would go up and donate them there; in this way he would have a share amongst the worthy people which would bring him to eternal life in The Next World. The medrish continued to relate that Devora focused all of her attention on how to make the wicks, and figured that by making thick wicks the light would be brighter. Hashem, who looks into the depths of one’s heart, saw the purest intention of Devora to “Enlarge His light” and therefore Hashem said He would spread her light in Yehuda, Yerushalayim, and amongst all the twelve tribes. All this because she helped her husband gain his share in the World to Come through honoring Hashem’s dwelling place, (see Yalkut Shimone on Shoftim perek 4).

The medrish goes on to relate that Devorah used to judge court cases for the Jewish people and teach them Torah under a palm tree because “it is not the way of a woman to be alone with another man in a house so she sat under the shade of a palm tree to teach Torah to the public.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

Devora was a very righteous woman who dedicated her life to the sanctification of Hashem’s Holy Name. The Ralbag even relates that she was a woman of valor and her level of prophesy reached a point where one could see torches of light coming from the area where she prophesied, just like the Torah relates about Moshe Rabbeinu. The Ralbag also relates that Devorah had separated from her husband when she started to prophesize, just as Moshe Rabbeinu did with his spouse, which is why the posuk says: “And she sent for and called Barak.” Rashi also points out that according to the Targum Yonasan, Devora was a wealthy woman and from these places listed in the pasuk above, she earned a livelihood and dwelt in the city of Atarot. Hence, she had palm trees in Yericho, vineyards in Ramah, olives in the plain of Bet-El where oil was abundant, and white earth in the mountain of Ephraim in Tur Malka, which Rashi thinks must have been sold to potter.

We see from all this that Devora was a rich and powerful woman who seemed to have everything she needed, and well beyond that. She was a woman of valor and of utmost holiness, being a prophetess and leader for the entire Jewish people, which Hashem gave to her as a gift for being totally dedicated to spreading His light. She had a very serious job of judging the Jewish people and spreading the light of Hashem’s Torah. Yet she did this all under a palm tree, a tree which is very tall and in fact does not give off too much shade because its branches are so high up. It was probably hot for most of the year, and it certainly does not protect from the rain too well, but still in all, for the sake of the laws of yichud (seclusion in a private area of a man and a woman who are not married to each other or a close relative), she “set up tent” under a palm tree to lead and teach the people instead of in a formal building. Why does she have to do this if clearly the reasons for the mitzvah of yichud most probably do not apply to her circumstances?

The unequivocal answer must be that no matter what spiritual level a woman (or man) is on and no matter how removed she (or he) is from worldly matters halacha is halacha and applies in all circumstances. Devora’s tenacity towards observance of Jewish Law no matter what the circumstance, showed a very high regard of modesty on her part.