By Bryan Hanan Oren
Who are the leaders who are out among the people?
Who is boldly pushing for positive social change?
Who acts out of a sense of the public good even at the expense of personal glory or power?
Who is spreading light?
This week’s Haftarah is the story of the only female judge and prophetess in the Tanakh: D’vora (Judges 4). If you haven’t given it a read, I recommend it highly—and don’t worry, it’s short.
D’vora’s story begins like many others do in the Book of Judges: the Israelites have sinned, and as punishment God has taken the Land of Israel away from them and placed them under the harsh and oppressive rule of King Jabin, commander Sisera, and the Canaanites.
D’vora has a prophecy that Barak, the commander of the Israelite army at the time, should “march up to Mount Tabor, and take with [him] ten thousand men.” She says to Barak that if he does so, God will “deliver [Sisera] into [his] hands” (Judges 4:7).
Barak then asks D’vora to accompany him, and D’vora replies that she is willing to go with him but if she does, “there will be no glory for [Barak] in the course [he] is taking, for then God will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman” (Judges 4:9). Barak decides to step aside, and D’vora leads the Israelites to reclaim the Land of Israel. The chapter ends epically but intensely, when Yael invites a fleeing commander Sisera into her tent and lulls him to sleep only to drive a tent stake through his head.
D’vora’s story is rich with meaning: for one, D’vora was an inclusive community leader. The Book of Judges recounts that she would sit under a palm tree and that Israelites would “come to her for decisions” (Judges 4:5). What a clear commitment to access: D’vora’s leadership was out among the people, not locked in an ivory tower (or the Biblical-era equivalent).
There’s also an instructive and gendered interaction between D’vora and Barak wherein Barak asks D’vora to accompany him and D’vora warns that if she goes with him then she, a woman, will get credit for leading the Israelites. In D’vora, we see a woman boldly stepping into a leadership role, resisting patriarchal gender norms about who is capable of leadership and who deserves to receive credit for their leadership. And in Barak, we see a leader himself willing to forgo his own glory in the interest of the public good.
Jewish tradition understands D’vora’s full name, D’vora Eshet Lappidot, to mean “woman of torches” or “fiery woman” (Metzudat David on Judges 4:4:1). D’vora’s name is a testament to the light and spirit with which she led the Israelite people.
As we look to Israel now, let us use D’vora’s story as a model for the questions we’re asking of its leaders:
- Who are the leaders who are out among the people?
- Who is boldly pushing for positive social change?
- Who acts out of a sense of the public good even at the expense of personal glory or power?
- Who is spreading light?
May we amplify the voices and the leadership of those fighting to make Israel a more light-filled place for all who live here.
Bryan Hanan Oren is the new Director of Youth Organizing – Israel at the Union for Reform Judaism and a PhD candidate in Education at the University of Haifa. A seasoned educator, Bryan has worked with M², Makom, and Facing History and Ourselves and he spent the first six years of his career teaching music in low income communities of color.