Haftarah Parshat Beshallach (Judges 4:4-5:31)
January 23, 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776
The book of Judges is renowned for what is known as circular theology, namely, the view that the events of Israel’s history during the period of the Judges occurred in a certain pattern: Israel sinned, was punished with conquest by its enemies, repented, cried out to God and was rescued by a heroic agent of God only to sin again, repeating the cycle. This world view became an integral part of the Jewish ethos throughout the generations, and was used to explain events even where the storyline did not make it explicit.
Deborah and Barak’s victory over Sisera was marked by an epic paean to God. Its opening verse contains a difficult phrase which has been a source of debate over time: “When locks go untrimmed (b’proah praot) in Israel when people dedicate themselves, praise the Lord” (5:2) The verb used here is composed from the letters “peh resh ayin”. I will not review all of the possibilities for what these words might mean. Rashi, however, associated these words with the root “peh resh tzadik” meaning “outburst” and explained it this way: “When outbursts came upon Israel; when their enemies burst forth against them for leaving God, and when they voluntarily returned in repentance, they then praised God for saving them.” Rashi has clearly framed his interpretation with circular theology in mind.
Rashi’s interpretation is based upon that of the Targum Yonathan (the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets): “When the House of Israel rebelled against the Torah, nations came upon them and expelled them from their cities. And when they returned to observe the Torah, they overcame their enemies and expelled them from the land of Israel and in their vengeance, they defeated Sisera and his servants. And through miracles and salvation that were done for Israel since their wise men returned and openly sat in the synagogues and the people studied the words of Torah and consequently blessed and praised before God.”
The Targum’s interpretation is interesting on two counts. It anachronistically projects its own reality onto the period of the Judges and in doing so, it also projects the theology of the Judges onto its own times. Its message is that falling away from the Torah will bring about disaster, while a return to Torah study and the life of Torah (i.e. the life of study in the synagogue – House of Meeting) will bring about salvation. This message, albeit simplistic on a factual level, nevertheless informs Jewish reality in every generation.