Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Av HaRachamim
Not long ago, we read the Shiras Devorah – which is one of those haftoros that always gives me pause.
Generally, we read haftoros that are related in some way to the weekly parshah, and since the Shiras Hayam (Oz Yashir) is read that week, it makes sense that another famous shira be associated with it. Additionally, sifrei Kabbala state that Devora was a reincarnation of Tzippora, Moshe's wife, who was distressed at missing Krias Yam Suf and the singing at the sea. As a result, she was granted the opportunity to sing her own shira: Shiras Devorah – infamously labeled by Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz as "one of the most bloodthirsty in all the Bible".
"Through the window, the mother of Sisera looked forth and peered through the lattice, "Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?" Her wisest ladies answer her; in fact she answers herself: 'Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: A maiden, two maidens for every man; a spoil of dyed garments to Sisera, a spoil of dyed garments of embroidery for the neck of the spoiler.' So may all your enemies perish, O Lord; but they that love Him should be as the sun when he goes forth in his might. And the land rested forty years."
This image of Sisera's mother at the window used to bother me greatly. The image of a mother worried about her son is a sympathetic one – one that inspires compassion; it troubled me that we even mention her at all. Sure, war is full of tragedy – and no more than sometimes a necessary evil – but what is this line here for? It seems so cold. Yet, indeed, this line is a great lesson: the foolishness of misplaced compassion. Sisra's mother is specifically mentioned here, and the verse highlights the irony: A mother, the very image of compassion, conjures up instant sympathy, but the verse continues to tell us what she is about, and displays how misplaced the sympathy truly is: She, the 'sympathetic' figure, finds great pleasure in the spoilage of her son's vanquished foe – in this case the Jewish people, and more specifically the defilement of Jewish women. It points out, quite strikingly, the error of thoughtless compassion. And over time I began to view this in the broader context of Jewish suffering and persecution throughout the eras. We pray to G-d for justice. We pray that the Divine order, basic right and wrong be revealed. And considering our history full of martyrs and persecution, this is done on surprisingly few occasions. In the Haggada, for instance, we find one such place with the prayer that "G-d should pour out his wrath upon those…that have devoured Jacob" – and this thought is mentioned only once in the entire Hagada. We daven for this on Shabbos too, with the tefiloh Av HaRachamim. And what is it that we are praying for? We pray for Divine justice and a future world of order – something that all people, even as infants, truly seek.
Some of you may remember that I once discussed how my favorite tefiloh was Nishmas. Since that time though, I find that the tefiloh "Av HaRachamim" has been running a close second:
"May the all-merciful Father who dwells in the supernal heights, in his profound compassion, remember with mercy the pious, the upright and the perfect ones, the holy communities who gave their lives for the sanctification of G-d's name. They were beloved and pleasant in their lives, and even in their death were not parted from Him; they were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions to carry out the will of their Maker and desire of their Creator.
May our G-d remember them with favor together with the other righteous of the world, and avenge the spilled blood of his servants, as it is written in the Torah of Moshe, the man of G-d: O nations, sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge blood of his servants. Bring retribution upon His foes, and placate His land – His people.
And by your servants the Prophets it is written: I will cleanse the nations of their wrongdoings, but for the shedding of blood I will not cleanse them; the Lord dwells in Zion. And in the Holy Writings it is said: Why should the nations say "Where is their G-d?" Let there be known among the nations, before our eyes, the retribution of the spilled blood for your servants.
And it is said: For the Avenger of bloodshed is mindful of them; He does not forget the cry of the downtrodden. Further it is said: He will render judgment upon the nations, and they will be filled with corpses; He will crush heads over a vast area. He will drink from the stream on the way; therefore Israel will hold its head high."
When I was younger I found this to be as depressing and troubling as the haftara of Sisera's mother; overly focused on tragedy and the negative. On top of that, I was bothered by the idea that we could be wishing for the downfall of others. However, as I matured and got to know enough firsthand stories of real pain and suffering it began to resonate. I no longer feel like the victim when I read it; I feel the desire to see G-d's plan, and G-d's order of creation. It's easy for a people who haven't had our history to say, "Cut the self-pity – move on," but it's not self-pity. Far from it. It's a deep longing for an end to the questions; it's a prayer for Redemption.