The Haftorah for Beshalach tells the story of Deborah and her general Barak, how they defeated a Canaanite army under the command of Sisera and how the fleeing Canaanite general was killed by the Kenite woman Yael. Women figure prominently in this episode, and we meet one more at the end of the Haftorah. For example:
"Through the window peered Sisera's mother. Behind the lattice she whined, '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.' "
Some commentators see these verses as an accusation — as a way of showing contempt for an enemy. They assume that Sisera's mother accepts what her ladies tell her, and is comforted by the thought of her son raping captive women. But there's another way to read these passages.
I find them heartbreaking. The ladies try to comfort their mistress by offering a logical reason why her son is so late, but even as she nods and says, "Of course, he must be with his men dividing up the people and property they have captured." Sisera's mother must suspect that something is terribly wrong. After all, he had won many battles, but had never taken so long to gather his booty and return home.
If you have ever waited up for a child who was very late coming home, you surely know what Sisera's mother was experiencing. She is torn between hope that her son is simply delayed, and fear that threatens to overwhelm her even as she tries to push it out of her mind.
I believe that the Haftorah gives us this glimpse of the anguish of Sisera's mother to remind us that our enemies are also human beings. The Talmud in Megillah makes a similar point about our Torah reading: "As the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but He rebuked them, saying, 'The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!' "
'You May Not Sing'
Certainly, it was necessary for the Egyptians to die, for if they had not, they would have slaughtered the Israelites, but God told the angels, "You may not sing."
They — the Israelites — can sing. They were the ones who were enslaved, they were the ones who were beaten, they saw their infants murdered, and they suffered at the hands of those very Egyptians. But you may not sing — the death of any of My creatures is not a time for rejoicing.
So, too, in our Haftorah. King Yavin, whom Sisera served, had oppressed the Israelites for some 20 years. The Canaanites had to be defeated so that the Israelites could live in accordance with God's commandments. Sisera threatened the survival of Israel, and so his execution by Yael is praised. But the celebration of Israel's victory is tempered by the grief of Sisera's mother.
There are times when there is no choice but to fight and kill our enemies. As the Talmud puts it: If someone is coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first." Yet it should never be done gleefully.
Later, in Devarim, the Torah commands, "When you approach a town to attack it, you shall offer it terms of peace." War is a last resort.
All human beings are God's creatures, even if they choose not to behave as if they are. Every human being was once loved by his or her mother. War and killing may be necessary, but they are not sources of happiness, even for the victors. As it says in Proverbs, "If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice, lest the Lord see it and be displeased."
Rabbi Joyce Newmark is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.