The haftorah for last week’s parsha ends with the song of Deborah, celebrating her victory over Sisera. A few verses at the end (Judges 5:28–31) caught my attention. Here they are in the new JPS translation:
Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined [gazed?]:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
“They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.”
So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!…
- In the original Hebrew, the spoil for each man is racham rachamatayim. The word racham, “female captive,” has the same root as rechem, “womb.” As we say in Feminism 101, these women are being reduced to a body part: the Metzudat David says “they are being called with insulting language by the name of the womb”. Somehow, I don’t think Sisera’s mother imagining these soldiers valuing these women for their ability to bear children. And yet NJPS translates “racham” as “damsel.” Does this word really have the same connotations to us as the original Hebrew word had to Deborah’s contemporaries? Or did the translators not have the, umm, cojones to use a more pungent Anglo-Saxon word instead?
- Sisera’s mother talks about Sisera getting dyed cloth as his spoil of war, after mentioning the men getting their, ahem, damsels. Does she think Sisera is getting both? Or does she think that even though Israelite women entirely worthy of being ravished by the invading army, her son is not one of the ravishers?
- A common trope, in poetry about war, is the women on the losing side crying over the death of their sons and husbands. But Deborah doesn’t envision Sisera’s mother bewailing her defeat. She envisions the mother imagining a victory over the Jews. Contrast this with the modern antisemite, who imagines defeat by the Jews, concocting theories of a Jewish conspiracy pulling the strings behind all the world’s ills. If, in the messianic age, the antisemites imagine themselves victorious over the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and therefore leave us the hell alone, it would be enough for us. “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord.”