February 7, 2004
The Song of Deborah is an epic poem which encapsulates praise of God along with an account of the trials and triumphs of the battle for the safety of the tribes of Israel against their bitter enemy, Jabin the Canaanite and his general, Sisera. The battle, as recounted in the prose part of the story of Deborah (chapter 4), has all of the trappings of a miraculous victory, both swift and without setbacks. Ironically, the song of triumph about the victory subtly reveals that this battle for the well-being of the nation was not without its difficulties, both internal and external. The friction among the leaders of the people, Deborah and Barak, was ultimately resolved (see chapter 4:6-9), but the text of the poem alludes to a much more serious fissure in the tribal society: “’Curse Meroz!’ said the angel of the Lord. Bitterly curse its inhabitants, because they came not to the aid of the Lord, to the aid of the Lord against the warriors.” (verse 5:23)
This verse represents a bitter criticism of the people of a certain town, apparently situated in close proximity to the battles between the enemy and Barak’s army, refused to assist the nation in its time of need. The phraseology of this verse is of particular interest. Though the critique against the people of Meroz is obviously for their shirking their communal responsibility, they are accused in this verse of not aiding God. The rabbinic tradition took this linguistic anomaly to teach a lesson: “ ‘And in Your mighty exaltation You overthrow them that rise up against You. With might You exalt against those who rise up against You! And who are those who rise up against You? The ones who rise up against your children… Similarly whenever anyone comes to the assistance of Israel, it is as though he is coming to the assistance of Him Who Spoke and the World Came to Be, as it says: ‘Curse you Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse you bitterly the inhabitants thereof, because they came not to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the warriors.’ (Ibid.) (adapted from the Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael Shirta 6)
The use of this verse as a proof text in this midrash implies that someone who does not help Israel does not help God. This idea may be implied in the description of the sin of the “wicked child” in the Passover Hagadah. What is the child’s sin? “Since s/he excludes him/herself from the community, s/he denies the main principle of faith (belief in God?!)”. The Jewish tradition places great emphasis on communal responsibility. Just how much? Deborah’s message makes that readily apparent.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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