Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon HaKohane, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Gittel Malka bat Moshe, Alexander Leib ben Benyamin Yosef, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The protagonist of this week’s haftorah is the prophetess and judge Devorah: “Now Devorah was a woman prophetess, the wife of Lappidot; she judged Israel at that time.” (Sefer Shoftim 4:4, this and all Tanach and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach) Chazal teach us in Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a, that Devorah was one of the seven prophetesses: “Who were the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chulda, and Esther.” It appears, as well, that she had the additional distinction of being one of the Judges (Shoftim) of the Jewish people—if we take the phrase, “she judged Israel at that time” (“hi shoftah et Yisrael ba’eit hahi”) at face value.
It seems that the phrase, “she judged Israel at that time,” should be understood in its literal sense, as the next pasuk states: “And she sat under the palm tree of Devorah, between Ramah and Beth-El, in the mountain of Ephraim; and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.” (Sefer Shoftim 4:5) There is a fundamental halachic problem with this interpretation, however, since the fourth century Talmud Yerushalmi, Yoma 6:1 (32a) states: “… a woman may not judge” (“ain haisha danah”). Although the Rambam (1135-1204) does not explicitly include this ruling in his Mishneh Torah, it is found nearly verbatim in the Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher (1270-1340), and in Rabbi Yosef Karo’s (1488-1575) Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchot Dayanim 7:4: “A woman is disqualified from judging” (“ishah pasulah l’don”). Given this clear-cut ruling, we must ask the simple and straightforward question: “Was Devorah really a judge?” The answer, as in many areas of halacha and hashkafah, is a resounding, “It depends on who you ask.”
Tosafot discuss Devorah’s status in a number of different tractates of the Talmud. One such source is Talmud Bavli Gittin 88b s.v. v’lo lifnei hedyotot. Initially, Tosafot opines that the phrase from Sefer Shoftim “she judged Israel at that time,” should not be taken literally, since it may very well mean “… perhaps she never rendered judgment at all, and [instead] she instructed [the judges] as to what the legal decisions ought to be.” (This, and the following Tosafot translation of this source, my own) According to this view, although Devorah was a legal scholar who discussed cases with members of various batai din (Jewish courts), she was not an actual judge. It should be noted that this approach is followed by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher in the above-cited section of the Arba’ah Turim. In contrast, Tosafot’s second approach suggests that Devorah was a practicing judge, and her mandate to adjudicate cases came directly from the Almighty: “Alternately, perhaps they [the Jewish people] had accepted her judicial authority upon themselves because of [a Divine pronouncement] from the Schechinah (Hashem’s immanent presence).”
Devorah as a judge in practice—based upon Divine mandate—finds further support in Talmud Bavli, Megillah 14a, in one of the explanations of the phrase, “And she sat under the palm tree of Devorah:” “Just as this palm tree has but one heart [Rashi: “a central growing point”], so, too, did the Jewish people of that generation have but one heart (lev echad) directed to their Father in Heaven.” This explanation is particularly fascinating in that Devorah’s universal acceptance as a judge for klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) took place precisely because the heart of the Jewish people was unanimously directed to avinu she’b’shamayim (our Father in Heaven).
Chazal’s use of the term, lev echad, is reminiscent of Rashi’s gloss in Parashat Yitro on a celebrated phrase that precedes Kabbalat HaTorah (the Receiving of the Torah). Therein the Torah states: “and the Jewish people encamped (va’yichan Yisrael) there opposite the mountain.” (19:2) Rashi focuses on the word, “va’yichan,” and notes that it is in the singular, rather than the plural, even though it refers to the entire Jewish nation. Consequently, he suggests this term connotes: “K’ish echad b’lev echad—like one man with one heart—but [that is, even though,] every other encampment was marred by complaints and arguments.”
In sum, our ancestors were united, and stood shoulder to shoulder in anticipation of receiving the Torah in order to serve avinu she’b’shamayim, just as they would in the time of Devorah HaNaviah. The message is clear: When we have achdut (unity) and a desire to draw closer to the Holy One blessed be He, then there is nothing that we cannot accomplish as a people.
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