By Rabbi Elie Mischel
The Book of Judges has a standard playbook: the people of Israel drift away from God, God sends enemies to persecute them, the people cry out to God, and then God sends a heroic warrior to save them. As you would expect, the heroic warriors are invariably men – with one exception:
“Deborah, wife of Lappidoth, was a prophetess; she led Israel at that time.” (Judges, 4:4)
Remarkably, thousands of years before modern feminism and the #MeToo movement, at a time when women were treated as chattel in other societies, the people of Israel were judged and led by a woman.
As a leader, Deborah was no pushover, summoning the Jewish general of the time and ordering him to attack the enemies of Israel:
“She summoned Barak son of Abinoam… and said to him, “Hashem, the God of Israel, has commanded: Go, march up to Mount Tabor, and take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun. And I will draw Sisera, Jabin’s army commander, with his chariots and his troops, toward you up to the Wadi Kishon; and I will deliver him into your hands.” (Judges 4:6-7)
The sages explain that Deborah’s husband was not actually named “Lappidoth,” but that the word is hinting that Deborah would spend her time preparing wicks – known in Hebrew as “Lappidoth” – for the Tabernacle in Shiloh. Who, then, was Deborah’s husband? The medieval scholar Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) explains that Deborah’s husband was none other than Barak, the general of the army! This means that Deborah’s husband is not identified by name. The Bible, it seems, purposely downplays his role, emphasizing that Deborah was the leader of her family, possessing the courage, strength and faith that her husband lacked. As Barak admits in fear to his fearless wife: “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go” (Judges 4:8).
How did Deborah buck the trend of ancient times to become the only female leader of Israel in the entire book of Judges?
The sages ask precisely this question, and offer an astonishing explanation:
“What was it about Deborah’s character that allowed her to be a prophetess over Israel and to judge them? After all, wasn’t Phineas the son of Elazar still alive at the time? Calling heaven and earth as witness, I hereby testify that whether gentile or Jew, man or woman, slave or maidservant, the spirit of God rests upon a person only in accordance with their deeds!” (Tanna Dvei Eliyahu Rabba 9)
Deborah the prophetess teaches us a critically important life lesson. Every human being, regardless of our gender, skin color or nationality, is judged by God according to his or her individual merits. Every one of us can choose to dedicate our lives to serving God, and every one of us can become a leader!
Men and women are different, of course, and so are Jews and gentiles. God has given each of us a unique role to play. But as Deborah proves, every human being can draw close to God; it’s up to us to make it happen!