09 Feb 2017

Haftara for Beshalah 5777: A Woman’s Place

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Haftara for Beshalah 5777: A Woman’s Place

I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king…I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.

— Queen Elizabeth I

Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, August, 1588

“The accession of Elizabeth II could help remove the last shreds of prejudice against women Aspiring to the highest places.”

— Margaret Thatcher[1]

Sunday Graphic, February, 1952[2]

 [1] “Thatcher’s arrival at Buckingham Palace the next day to kiss hands as the first female prime minister was a historic moment for the ambitious young politician…When thoroughbred trainer Ian Balding called the Queen shortly afterward, she said, “What do you think about Margaret Thatcher getting in?” “Ma’am,” he replied, “I’m not sure I can get my head around a woman running the country.” The Queen fell silent. “You know what I mean?” he said. This time she laughed, and said nothing in reply.”

Excerpt From: Sally Bedell Smith. Elizabeth the Queen.

[2] http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/100936

Judges 5:1-31 (Sephardim)



The Sephardi haftara begins with the song of victory that is sung by the prophet Deborah and the Israelite general Barak ben Abino’am after defeating the Canaanite general Sisera and his army. It was a war of liberation which completes the conquest of the land that was begun by Yehoshua. The poem highlights Deborah’s place as mother/leader in Israel and the guidance and leadership that she has brought to the nation. She sings of God leading them into battle when ‘all the world shook before His presence and power’. She praises the participating tribes, illustrates the battle itself in epic terms, and highlights the heroic killing of Sisera at the hands of Ya’el. The poem ends focusing on the mother of Sisera who waits in vain for her son’s triumphant return.

The poem comes after the story is told in prose in the previous chapter (4:4-5:1 – included in the Ashkenazi reading of the haftara), in which Deborah is introduced as the prophetess and judge leading the nation. All go up to her to seek her advice and judgement. Barak the general of the army is told by Deborah that he must muster troops and fight Sisera. He shies away from doing so without Deborah’s aid and accompaniment. She agrees, informing him that her involvement will bring about victory at the hands of a woman (namely Ya’el).


From 1951 to 1957 a celebrated television programme aired for the first time in the United States. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz starred as Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in “I Love Lucy”, a sitcom about an American housewife married to a Cuban night club owner, who was somehow always getting herself into some wild trouble. For decades reruns of the show delighted audiences. I grew up on it and can remember many a conversation in which my family reminisced about the hilarious episodes.

Lucy was an American icon. However, it is almost certain, that 65 years later, modern viewers would be shocked at how Lucy’s domestic circumstances are depicted and any humour be eclipsed by the shock of how her character is treated as a woman. Ricky treats Lucy more like his adolescent daughter than his wife[1]. She receives a fixed allowance each week from Ricky and has to gain Ricky’s permission to do anything beyond her basic duties as a housewife (which he scarcely grants), and when she gets into trouble or steps out of line, Ricky spanks her[2].

It may sound odd and even outrageous in modern Western society, but the patriarchal system within which those scenes were acceptable is one of the oldest and most widespread social systems in human history.

In his book, Sapiens,[3] Dr. Yuval Harari points out that patriarchal societies have dominated human culture across the globe for most of human history. For some reason, almost all cultures valued manhood over womanhood. Its universal manifestation suggests that there is something to it that has biological roots rather than just cultural.

He posits three theories, subsequently dismissing all three leaving the question unanswered. What I believe to be the most plausible of his theories, focuses on the different reproductive strategies that developed between men and women. Men competed against each other for the opportunity to impregnate a fertile woman, while a woman had little trouble finding a willing man to impregnate her. However, a woman needed to carry a child in her womb for nine months, and then nurture it throughout years of prolonged childhood and adolescence. This was a job that limited her ability to obtain food and one that required a great deal of help.

The helper was an important part of the equation. In most cases the best aide was a strong, healthy male. A woman thus, was more successful at raising offspring when a relationship with the helper was maintained, often giving the woman little choice but to agree to the conditions set by the male. The masculine genes that carried over through generations were thus of the more ambitious, aggressive and competitive males, while the feminine genes that carried through were predominantly those of submissive caretakers.

Dr. Harari refutes this third theory on the grounds that we find animal species such as the elephant which, despite similar conditions, developed matriarchal societies rather than patriarchal ones, with the females forming support coalitions amongst themselves rather than relying on the males.

However, he leaves out a crucial factor: human psychology. The glaring difference between elephant herds and human tribes is the presence of consciousness and self-awareness together with the human psychological need for inclusion. Inclusion in the tribe does not, for any other species, move beyond the issue of being safe or unsafe. For an elephant, being part of the herd is a safety essential rather than an issue of self-worth.

For a woman, the rejection of partnership with the male does not only register as being unsafe, but more significantly, as being unloved and unworthy of joining the tribe. This creates in her what psychologists call ‘core shame’ which is an instinctual judgement about the basic worthiness of the self. Individuals with core shame often have difficulty in taking risks, choose abusive or non-supportive partners, and cannot tolerate being alone[4].

The patriarchal system is a powerful mind game that has, through its leveraging of the vulnerability and needs of those members of the species with a womb, used love, the most powerful of human feelings, to bring 50% of the population into submission. Patriarchy is thus a form of psychological and ultimately, physical slavery. And here we come to the element that is highlighted in our parasha and haftara.

The aspect of the parasha that the haftara showcases is the song of freedom and salvation[5]. In the parasha it is sung after the splitting of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptian oppressors. In the haftara it is sung after the defeat of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army of Yabin. Both are expressive celebrations of victory, national sovereignty and independence.

There is one factor, however, that further binds the two accounts; it is the women who sing. In the parasha Miriam[6] leads all the women in their own song separate from the men. In the haftara the entire national poem is sung by one woman. This woman, Deborah, is none other than the leader and chief judge of the nation, and the one who rouses and inspires the troops to battle.

‘Deborah was a prophetess…she led Israel at that time…the Israelites would come to her for her decisions’. (4:4-5)

 This is one of many moments in history when we are given a glimpse of what future freedoms might be like. In this case, Miriam and Deborah’s songs of salvation acknowledge the possibilities of women’s freedom and that a woman be afforded the full opportunity to meet her potential.

There is, however, one other woman mentioned in Deborah’s song, and that is the mother of Sisera. She is depicted as standing by the window waiting and expecting to see her victorious son and the spoils he will bring back from the war. She is no friend of the free, achieving woman. She is guilty, like many before and since, of perpetuating the objectification and degradation of women as nothing more than a man’s possession and pleasure.

‘Through the window peered Sisera’s mother…she too replies to herself: ‘They must be dividing the spoils they have found: ‘a womb or two for each man’s head’. (5:29-30)

The ‘womb’ and ‘man’s head’ that she speaks of are nothing short of vulgar euphemisms for reproductive organs. The mother of Sisera sees the woman as nothing more than a sex object while the whole glory of a man is to ‘win one or two for him and his mates’. It is this cold reductionism that grinds womanhood into nothing more than objectified flesh. Such thought and speech never ceases to be destructive and it is as current as recently publicised comments[7] by the new President of the United States (he is, of course, hardly alone, he merely had his vulgarity publicised) and of the same sadly familiar ilk of Sisera’s mother. It unfortunately may not be surprising when it is heard from men, but when it is heard from women it cuts deeper.

Freedom is a precious and elusive element of human society. We strive for and dream about it, but rarely are we prepared to fully embrace it. Freedom means regularly vetting and releasing our misconceptions about reality, and it means taking full responsibility for our choices and actions. It also means always reassessing our beliefs and our manner of speech. One is not free if one is not afforded the opportunity to meet one’s full potential, whilst those who do not strive for wisdom and virtue cannot bear the weight of the responsibility that freedom brings.

If a woman is pigeonholed into a predefined role of submission even if it is under the false pretence of love and protection, and even if, when she enters a room all the gentlemen stand out of ‘respect’ for her but still do not consider her — simply because of her sex — to be astute, strong or savvy enough to hold a seat at the table, her freedom is truncated along with her identity.

There have been many patriarchal interpretations concerning the role of women in the corpus of Jewish Law and thought and the question remains, as it should be, at the forefront today. As a result of society’s industrial, economic,political, social and ultimately, psychological revolutions and developments, the barricades that kept a woman ‘behind every great man’ have begun to fall.

This is not only a question of religion, but one of human freedom. As with all revolutionary issues the answers are not clear-cut and they tug at complex interrelationships. Real, viable solutions are not readily evident, but that does not exempt us from the responsibility of toiling to find them.

There is at least three-millenia of precedent that must be addressed and carefully thought through. Not all change is unlawful, and not all revision is sacrilegious. The elements that are open to adjustment must be considered by the men and women of our communities, with open minds and an open dialogue and those who wish to address the system should become educated about it, so that their contributions can be put forth with strong foundations. The world’s developments require of us genuine thought and action – the risk is nothing less than failure and collapse.

Our haftara is a monument — a textual statue of liberty. It holds a torch high for us teaching that a truly free society does not truncate individual achievement and greatness on account of nothing more than one’s sex. From the bravery and voice of Miriam and Deborah we remember that history’s precursors are but the seeds for the norms of the future.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Ironically, Lucille Ball was the first woman in television to become head of a production company, “Desilu”.

[2] Have a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Qup9lOPQfg

[3] Yuval Harari, Sapiens. London: Random House, 2014.

[4] For further treatment see Louis Cozolino, Why Therapy Works: Using Our Minds to Change Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

[5] The Ashkenazim read both the prose of the previous chapter and the poetry.

[6] She is intriguingly called Aharon’s sister in the introduction to the song.

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/oct/07/donald-trump-leaked-recording-women


Parasha Perspectives

IV  Beshalach 


22b              Journey out of Egypt begins the long way

around (13:17-22)

23                People trapped as planned by God (14:1-14)

24                Miracle of sea splitting (14:15-25)

25                Showdown: Destruction of Egyptians (14:26-31)

26                Shira: Song of the sea (15:1-19)

27a              Miriam leads Women’s Shira (15:20-21)

27b              Moshe sweetens waters due to the peoples’ complaints of thirst (15:22-26)

27c               No food, the people complain again (15:27-16:3)

27d              Bread from heaven (16:4-10)

28a              What is manna? Not on Shabbat (16:11-27)

28b              Shabbat. Remembrance of manna (16:28-36)

29                More water problems: People complain, Moshe complies (17:1-7)

30                Amalekites attack, Yehoshua and chosen men successfully defend (17:8-13)

31                Remembrance of Amalek (17:14-16)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS