January 18, 2003
One of the primary tasks of a Biblical interpreter is to clarify the unclear. Often in Biblical stories, we come across characters who are not entirely identified or whose identity is only partially known. When this is the case we expect the interpreter of the text to identify them for us. The heroine of this week’s haftarah is the prophetess Deborah, the wife of Lapidot – eishet Lapidot. (see Judges 4:4) She was a figure of great stature who was responsible for saving the Israelite nation when it was threatened by the army of the Canaanite king, Jabin. But, the identity of her husband is known only from this verse. No further details are offered by the Biblical text. Rabbinic interpreters, however, rarely leave biblical characters so anonymous. They either identify them or give their name some allegorical interpretation.
One rabbinic tradition identifies ‘Lapidot’ with the other hero of Deborah’s military saga – Barak, her general. This association was inspired by the fact that both Barak’s name and the name ‘Lapidot’ refer to sources of light: ‘Barak’ meaning ‘lightning’ and ‘Lapidot’ meaning ‘torch’. (see Eliahu Rabbah ch. 10) The advantage of this interpretation is that it allows Lapidot to be identified with the more well known figure – Barak.
Others resolve this question differently. They view the description “eishet lapidot” not as referring to Deborah’s marital status but rather as a description of her personal qualities. Rabbi Gershon ben Levi, the 13th century French philosopher and interpreter, asserts that “eishet lapidot – torch woman” is a figurative description of her virtues as a prophetess. Her power of prophecy was so intense that those who saw her prophesy saw her as if she was surrounded by torches.
Eliahu Rabba, an 8th-9th century midrashic moralistic work, uses its interpretation of the appellation “eishet lapidot” to teach a moral lesson: “And what was the character of Deborah that she deserved to be a judge over Israel and a prophetess over them? Wasn’t Pinchas ben Elazar available to lead the people? I call on the heavens and on the earth to bear witness that whether the person be a non-Jew or a Jew, a man or a woman, a manservant or a woman servant, that God resides with each person according to the merit of his or her deeds… God said to Deborah: ‘Since you diligently make thick wicks for the torches (lapidot) used in the Temple so that there will be much light there, I [God] will make you a leader among the people of Judea and Israel. This is what caused Deborah’s rise to power.” (adapted from chapter 10)
The moral of this little story is clear. Deborah, according to this midrash, was a role model for those qualities that make a true religious leader. Her leadership was founded upon integrity and good deeds. If these trappings had been absent in her, all of the charisma in the world would not make her a servant of God.