Parshat Beshalah – Shabbat Shirah
12 Shevat 5768
January 19, 2008
The theology of the book of Judges is simple. Israel sins through disloyalty to God. It is punished through subservience to its neighbors. It cries out to God and God sends a heroic figure to rescue it from its fate. This message is reflected in the prophetess Devorah\’s epic song: \”When they chose new gods (yevhar elohim hadashim), was there a fighter in the gates? No shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel!\” (5:8)
Targum Yonatan, the seventh century Aramaic translation of the Prophets, places this verse firmly in the theological model that characterizes the book: \”When the children of Israel chose to worship new gods, worship that their forefathers did not busy themselves with, the nations came upon them and cast them from their midst. But when they returned to the Torah their enemies were not able to overcome them. For when their enemies came upon them, even though the forty thousand armed soldiers had shields and spears, still they were not able to fight a battle against Israel.\” (adapted translation)
Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (13th century France) offers a different take on this verse, translating the opening words of this verse in a radically different way. He changes the subject of this verse from \”they\”, namely, the Children of Israel, to God: \”When God be Blessed chose new ways to complete the miracle [of overcoming Israel\’s enemies], He co-opted Sisera and his soldiers to fight with Barak at the gates of Israel, in a place where he was likely to fall. In this way, God manipulates events in the depth of His thoughts. For in truth, Israel did not win this battle on the strength of its own forces, for they had no weapons and few soldiers.\” (adapted translation) Forever the philosopher, Gersonides turns this verse into a lesson in divine providence, illustrating God\’s ability to manipulate events as He sees fit.
A third reading (by no means exhausting the possibilities) is found in a late ethical midrash called the Tanna de Bei Eliahu or Eliahu Rabbah: Happy is the person who offers an innovative Torah interpretation. It is like one who teaches it from heaven, as it is written: \”God chooses \’Torah innovations (hadashim)\’\” From here they say: Forty thousand from Israel gathered and went out to war. If there is among them a single set of Torah scholars, God will hand Israel\’s enemy into its hands, for it as if they have both shield and spear. (See Eliahu Rabba, Ish Shalom ed. p. 54; Tanna de Bei Eliahu, Meorei Eish ed. ch. 10 end)
This reading turns this verse into a paean of praise for innovative Torah scholarship. Nothing \”inspires\” God more than this and nothing has inspired the Jewish innovative spirit more than midrashim like this one. It is thinking like this that allows the Torah\’s message to be a source of light for all generations.