This week’s parsha, Parshat Beshalach, is full of women heroes. We’ve got Miriam singing in the Torah portion. Then in the haftorah, Devorah leads the people, Yael tricks and kills Sisera, and Sisera’s mother cries:
“Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why don’t I hear the clatter of his chariots?”
She is just darn convinced her son is going to show up again. But he doesn’t. He’s dead.
Turns out, that we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana 100 times because according to tradition, she cried 100 times. How interesting, that this woman about whom we know so little, other than she was the mother of the story’s “bad guy”, can have such an influence. Maybe it speaks to the power of a woman’s emotional world? And how if it’s a mother, even our rabbis can relate to her pain? Somehow, the crying at the loss of a son (or the not knowing where a son is?) is related to our crying unto God?
Yael Unterman wrote an essay on the topic of “The Voice in the Shofar: A Defense of Deborah” published in Torah of Our Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts. Yael Unterman proposes that the only reason why we even know about em Sisera, the mother of Sisera, is because of Deborah’s song. Furthermore, Deborah knew that Sisera was dead, long before Sisera’s mother knew. Deborah is called “em beYisrael”, in parallel to em Sisera. Literally, em beYisrael means mother in Israel, but Radak suggests here it means mother to Israel. Deborah, too, is a mother…mother to all of Israel.
So why, according to Yael Unterman, is em Sisera chosen to take central role in associations surrounding the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana, equal or maybe even superseding Sarah?
Sarah is crying for what has already happened… if she did believe her son Isaac is dead, she crying in grief; if she is aware he is alive, she is crying in shock. About em Sisera, Yael Unterman writes:
As we watch her, we know her son is already dead; and on one level, em Sisera knows this too and her signs and groans are, like Sarah’s, that of a mother who has actually lost her son. Yet on another level, she is still at a point in time where she may reassure herself, imaginging her son is still alive and is victoriously bringing home the booty.
…em Sisera’s condition of dialectical emotions and time-frames is a model for us as we hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah: it evokes grief and loss, but also hope. The groan of the shofar arouses deep feelings of alienation and lack of sense of self: on the Day of Judgement we are stripped of our standing and of the delusions we hold dear the rest of the year…
There is much more to Yael Unterman’s essay, but perhaps I got you interested enough to read it yourself. I took a peek at Yael’s website and discovered she is working on a biography of Nehama Leibowitz.
To finish up this post, I would like to remind (or inform, as the case may be) you of the ritual of dipping one’s finger in the wine cup on Pesach to take out a bit of wine. Even the though the Egyptians drowned in the sea, they are still human beings, and we cannot be completely happy at the death of our enemies.