There is no stronger symbol of Israel’s remarkable sense of communal responsibility than the kibbutz movement. Nevertheless, one of the most important kibbutzim that played a pivotal role in the formation of the state wasn’t even a real kibbutz, but rather a fake one! Under the guise of a kibbutz laundromat that needed to operate 24 hours a day, an underground factory code-named the ‘Ayalon Institute’ secretly manufactured millions of bullets directly under the nose of the British in Rechovot. The young “kibbutzniks” that risked their lives every day in the underground bullet factory from 1945-1948 were some of Israel’s bravest heroes and would certainly have been valuable military assets to Deborah and Barak had they lived during their time.
Parallel to the Torah portion’s Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), this selection from the Prophets (Judges 4:4–5:31) contains the triumphant Song of Deborah following Israel’s defeat of the Canaanite army led by Sisera. The song opens with poetic words of praise and thanksgiving, “Hear, O kings! Give ear, O rulers! I will sing, will sing to the Lord, will hymn to the Lord, the God of Israel.” However, just a few verses later, Deborah turns to harsh rebuke of certain tribes who did not join in the fight against Sisera. In verses 15 and 16, Deborah condemns Reuben for turning his back on his people, “Among the clans of Reuben, were great decisions of heart. Why then did you stay among the sheepfolds and listen as they pipe for the flocks?”
The concern about Reuben and the other tribes who settled on the eastern side of the Jordan helping in the conquest of Israel dates back to the time of Moses in the desert. Although they agreed to assist the Jewish people in conquering the land—and only then return to their ancestral lands—Deborah criticizes them for abandoning that covenant and caring only for their own well-being, rather than the safety of the nation as a whole. In this song of thanksgiving and praise for God over their miraculous victory, why does Deborah mix messages and include this harsh rebuke in her otherwise uplifting song?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the opening verses of our Torah portion. The Torah (Exodus 13:18) states that the Jewish people were “chamushim” when they left Egypt, and the commentators differ in explaining the meaning of that word. One explanation, cited by the medieval commentator known as Rashi, understands that it comes from the number “chamesh,” five, and refers to a tradition that only one out of five Jews were redeemed, and the rest—those who joined the Egyptians in displaying cruelty and enslaved other Jews—did not merit being saved, and perished during the plague of darkness.
A second explanation found in the Mechilta, explains that “chamushim” means they left armed with weapons to fight potential enemies, and quotes a fascinating proof-text from the Book of Joshua: “The Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh went across armed (“chamushim”) before the Israelites, as Moses had charged them” (Joshua 4:12). The Midrash connects the weapons the Children of Israel took when leaving Egypt with the arms carried by the tribe of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh when they crossed the Jordan to demonstrate their communal responsibility towards their brethren.
Finally, the Targum says that “chamushim” means the Jewish families fleeing Egypt each adopted five children from other Jews who had died. Those who survived the purge demonstrated their commitment to their fellow Jews by taking on the orphans of those who did not.
If we put these ideas together, we see that an essential part of the Jewish people’s redemption was their willingness to sacrifice on behalf of one another. It was these Jews who were committed to achdut, Jewish unity, who merited to experience the greatest of all miracles— the splitting of the sea—and merited to sing at the Sea of Reeds. This dedication to each other was an integral part of the redemption story.
Perhaps this message compelled Deborah to call out the selfish behavior of the tribe of Reuben in the midst of her triumphant song. The wars of conquest were meant to be a communal effort with each tribe supporting one another; instead, Reuben protected his own self-interests which was corrosive to the unity and cohesiveness of the Jewish people.
Even from before its inception, a hallmark of the State of Israel’s success has been its sense of communal responsibility. The “kibbutzniks” of Machon Ayalon, mostly teenagers, many of them Holocaust survivors, understood that wars cannot be won without being willing to risk one’s own life to support the larger national efforts. Deep underground, these heroes learned Deborah’s lesson and did their part to help the Jewish people find victory in the war against their enemies.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of “The Israel Bible,” and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist and a new Oleh to Israel, as well as a rebbe in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah. Please send comments to Haftarah@TheIsraelBible.com