24 November 2008 (a day late)
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted here—a transatlantic trip threw my posting schedule into disarray—and since I’ve been offline, both the United States and the city of Jerusalem have elected new leadership. It thus seems only right to comment today on these rather-pessimistic midrashim on leadership in the book of Judges. A few meandering thoughts:
Today’s first midrash (1:6:13) gives a pithy exhortation to leaders and followers alike to elect moral and purposeful leaders. “Woe unto the generation that judges its judges, and woe unto the generation whose judges are in need of being judged.” Living in a democratic society, we may underrate the importance of this caveat: when has a political campaign not revolved around judging the candidates? But I do see the wisdom of picking leaders who seem to stand on high moral ground, whose judgments will not be compromised by public concern about their personal failings.
One thing that makes the book of Judges so hard to read is this very element of the tragic flaw in each judge’s story. Yiftach and Shimshon stand as the quintessential examples of this paradigm: rashness and recklessness tainted their power and leadership. It’s harder for me to see Devorah’s flaw, with my modern feminist eyes, but the first midrash on Devorah punches me with what the rabbis, at least, would have seen as her flaw: “woe unto the generation that has to be led by a woman” (1:6:19). It’s even hard to type the lines in an egalitarian forum such as this one. Nevertheless, the textual analyst in me understands the ways in which Devorah’s gender prevented her from taking the initiative in the ways her fellow judges did. While R. Berekhiah condemns Devorah’s generation for needing to be led by a woman, I see his words as an outgrowth of the first midrash: when a society needs to criticize its leaders for their personal distinctions, they will be unable to learn fully from the proffered model of leadership.
Something that somewhat redeems for me the rabbinic view of Devorah is the next midrash (1:6:20), which tells the story of Devorah’s uneducated husband Lappidot. Devorah took the skills at her disposal and created a job for her husband, teaching him a trade appropriate to him that also benefited the society. In many ways, the story of Devorah is one of seeing the different paths that each person takes to harness his or her individual potential: Devorah encourages the nervous Barak to lead his army, while the secret agent Yael uses her skills to snag and eliminate Sisera.
Devorah herself knows that her main skill lies in her voice: she sits in judgment, she sings, and she gives support. May these new leaders we’ve elected know the best ways to use their divine skills to give counsel, to get counsel, and to help others in our society rise to their highest potentials.