By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Throughout the book of Judges, the people of Israel’s greatest enemy was looking at them in the mirror. Though they were plagued by many dangerous external enemies, Israel suffered most from internal division and infighting. The tribes, by and large, did not feel obligated to come to each other’s aid in time of war, and even periodically descended into civil war. It’s no wonder the fractured nation was so susceptible to foreign attackers!
Throughout the 400-year era of the book of Judges, few leaders succeeded in uniting the people like the prophetess Deborah. When the evil general Sisera led a terrifying army of 900 chariots – the equivalent of tanks in the ancient era – Deborah succeeded in unifying several of the Israelite tribes, who miraculously defeated their oppressors. As Deborah sings in her song of thanks to God:
“From Ephraim came they… your kin Benjamin; From Machir [Manasseh] came down leaders, From Zebulun such as hold the marshal’s staff… And Issachar‘s chiefs were with Deborah…” (Judges 5:14-15)
How did Deborah succeed in overcoming the tribes’ mutual distrust and uniting the nation of Israel?
The Bible hints to Deborah’s unique ability to unify the nation in its description of her governing style:
“She used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.” (Judges 4:5)
What is the significance of the palm tree? Why did Deborah choose to judge the tribes of Israel while sitting under this particular tree?
The palm tree is large and gives off significant shade, allowing many people to take refuge under its branches from the sun. Its fruit is sweet; in the Bible, “honey” refers to date honey. For this reason, the palm tree symbolizes unity in Jewish tradition:
“Just as this date tree only has one heart, so too do the people of Israel only have one heart for their Father in heaven” (Talmud, Megillah 14a).
These qualities of the palm tree are shared by Deborah and her entire tribe. Deborah was a descendant of the tribe of Naphtali, a tribe that succeeded in forming warm relationships with all of the other tribes of Israel. Like her warm and friendly forefather Naphtali, and like the palm tree she chose as her defining symbol, Deborah was deeply loved and respected by all who met her. She was welcoming and humble, making room for all kinds of people to feel comfortable in the shade of her palm tree. Through love and kindness, she inspired devotion. And with her encouragement, the people of Israel were able to overlook their differences and fight together against the evil Sisera.
In modern Israel, the many “tribes” of the nation – religious, secular, Russian, Ethiopian, American, etc. – are deeply divided, just as they were during Deborah’s generation. Fortunately, we are blessed in our own generation with an extraordinary woman who follows in the path of Deborah the prophetess: Miriam Peretz.
Miriam Peretz has made the most painful sacrifice of all. Two of her sons – Uriel and Eliraz – were killed by Arab terrorists while serving in the Israel Defense Forces. She also lost her husband at a young age. Somehow, she has not been broken by her terrible losses, but has become one of the most beloved figures in modern Israel. In her current role, she works to inspire Israeli teenagers who are preparing to serve in Israel’s army. Like the Deborah of old, she unifies the nation and gives strength to the brave soldiers who must stand up in defense of Israel.
In her memoir, Miriam describes her work with the many “tribes” of Israel: “As part of my new job, I meet with youth, recount my personal story to them, and talk with them about coping during crises. I talk about spiritual strength, love for the Land of Israel, giving, and other values. I meet wonderful youngsters who connect to the pain, and through it understand the price of our existence in our country. My work in the department also enables me to focus on raising motivation for performing meaningful military service.”
“The feedback I receive from schools regarding my meetings with youth encourages me tremendously. I often ask myself, as Eliraz did, why I came into this world. What is my mission? What am I supposed to do? I have no answer. But when a student comes up to me at the end of the meeting and says, “Miriam, you inspired me, you gave me strength and direction,” I feel that I gained from this student as much as he gained from me. Each of us in turn both gave and received.”
Through love and respect for others who are different from us, we can do our part to unify our society. Like Deborah the prophetess and Miriam Peretz, we can, and must, invite others to join us under the palm tree – together!