Leading the Jews in Battle? Not So Fast…


Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg




Devorah Haneviah is the central figure of the haftorah of Parshas Beshalah, and leads Bnai Yisrael in their break from the reign of Yavin and his general, Sisera. In formulating her plan for this upcoming battle, she calls on Barak to be the one to lead the Jewish people into war. What a tremendous honor, right? Who would refuse such an opportunity? As we shall see, Barak astonishingly seems unwilling to commit to this mission, and Devorah’s response helps elucidate an important characteristic of leadership. 

The initial conversation between Devorah and Barak is quite remarkable (Shoftim 4:6-9):

“And she sent and called Barak the son of Abinoam out of Kedesh-naphtali, and said unto him: 'Hath not the LORD, the God of Israel, commanded, saying: Go and draw toward mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of the children of Naphtali and of the children of Zebulun?  And I will draw unto thee to the brook Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin's army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thy hand.  And Barak said unto her: 'If thou wilt go with me, then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, I will not go.'  And she said: 'I will surely go with thee; notwithstanding the journey that thou takest shall not be for thy honour; for the LORD will give Sisera over into the hand of a woman.' And Deborah arose, and went with Barak to Kedesh.”

It is pretty clear that Devorah is instructing Barak, based on her prophecy, to gather troops and defeat Sisera. One must assume she was asking someone quite to lead Bnai Yisrael in battle. Inexplicably, he responds that he will go and lead only if she joins him. How are we to understand this demonstration of recalcitrance? Was this somehow a positive trait, or was it a flaw? 

Devorah responds with what seems to be an admonition. She implies that his hesitation in going would mean a reduction in the potential “honor” he might have received in leading Bnai Yisrael to victory. The Radak adds to this, explaining that the woman – “…for the LORD will give Sisera over into the hand of a woman” - being referred to in the verse is Devorah (others maintain it is Yael, and she was relating a prophecy). In other words, the potential benefit Barak might have achieved will now be transferred solely to Devorah. At this point, it is clear that Devorah is not pleased, to say the least, with Barak’s reply to her request. However, what is even more noteworthy is that she agrees to go. If his request was so out of line, why did she concur with it?

There is an interesting Midrash found in Bereishis Rabba (40:4) that adds another layer to this mysterious back and forth in an attempt to clarify Barak’s reply to Devorah. According to Rav Yehudah, Barak would travel to the battlefield only if Devorah accompanied him to Kadesh, the rallying point for the Jewish army. According to Rav Nechemia, Barak would fight the war only if Devorah joined and engaged in shira, giving praise to God. What is the underlying idea of each of these opinions?

Barak understood the immeasurable effect Devorah had on the nation. As we see from the beginning of the chapter, Bnai Yisrael travelled from all over to consult her (ibid 5) – “and the children of Israel came up to her for judgment.t” Barak also knew that he faced a formidable foe in Sisera, and while he understood he was fighting to be mekadesh shem shamayim, he was concerned as to the ideological strength of his army. This is where his reluctance stemmed from. He saw Devorah playing a pivotal role in securing a victory for the Jewish people. He wanted her to join him so the nation would place their security in her, and this would, in a sense, serve as a springboard to their faith in God. Moshe follows a similar approach at the end of Parshas Beshalach. As the small army selected by Yehoshua confronts Amalek, Moshe ascends a mountain and engages in tefilah (as expressed through his outstretched arms). The nation saw Moshe, their leader, and felt a renewed sense of security. And when they saw he was being involved in tefilah, they too turned to God to assist them in their time of danger. Similarly, Barak envisioned such a role for Devorah. 

The Midrash offers a further explanation of Barak’s rationale. According to the first opinion, Barak wanted Devorah to accompany him to where the army would be gathered. If she joined him, he would continue to the battle. Barak recognized that the people looked to Devorah as their true leader. Whereas Barak may be able to rally the nation from a military standpoint, Devorah’s position as the ideological leader would have a more powerful effect in bringing everyone together. In Barak’s mind, this would help unite the nation and form an unstoppable force. There was another feature that Devorah possessed, one that would also have a profound effect on the nation, and this is the focus of the second opinion. While Barak was indeed the military expert, Devorah had insights into God’s relationship to the nation that would prove invaluable in the upcoming war. It was not just that she would recite shira; she had the ability, through her high level of knowledge and perfection, to compose the appropriate shira to God. And this could only result by understanding on a deeper level the role God played in this event. 

Each of the above features seems to be justifiable reasons for Devorah to accompany Barak. If so, why did she react negatively to Barak’s suggestion? It could be that she sensed something in the way he made his “request” that revealed a minor flaw. Devorah was offering Barak a unique opportunity to step into the role as a leader of the people. Such a person must be able to place his security in God alone. This is a crucial differentiation between the masses and the leader. The nation needs the leader to serve as a stepping stone to the right view of God. But the leader cannot be searching for security in someone else. He must be free of conflict in this area. It could be that in phrasing his suggesting in the realm of the personal, Barak was revealing an unconscious conflict as to this attitude of security in God – he, too, needed to place his security in Devorah first. When two people of great chachma function as leaders, it is appropriate that one recognize the other as being greater if the situation demands it. There is no doubt Aharon recognized Moshe as the greatest human being, yet they both were able to function as leaders. But to lead Bnai Yisrael, one cannot turn to another for security. Such an approach belies an ability to affect the nation properly, and means there will be some distortion in the leadership. Devorah sensed this in Barak’s request. She agreed with his overall point that her role as the present leader of the nation would serve to benefit them at this crucial time. But Devorah explained to Barak that his own personal inability to overcome his dependence on her meant he would not achieve the heights he may have indeed reached had he been able to look beyond her.

We see in this exchange between Barak and Devorah important insights into the relationship between the leader of the Jewish nation and those being led. In general, the leader can serve to facilitate the nation’s placing their security in God. However, there is a precondition of being able to achieve such a state independently. In the above instance, Barak demonstrated to Devorah that he was incapable of overcoming this obstacle. As such, Devorah noted that his role as leader would be necessarily diminished, and therefore pointed out to him how he would be subordinate to her in leading the Jewish people to battle.