The fourth chapter of Sefer Shoftim, which is read as the haftara for Parashat Beshalach, tells of the war Benei Yisrael waged against the Canaanites during the time of the prophetess Devora. The story begins by telling that Sisera, the Canaanite general, commanded a powerful army that included nine hundred iron chariots, “and he oppressed the Israelites forcefully for twenty years” (4:3). Under the leadership of their general, Barak, and with God’s assistance, Benei Yisrael defeated the Canaanites in battle, and Sisera was forced to flee, ultimately being killed by Yael, in whose home he sought refuge.
The description of Sisera oppressing Benei Yisrael “be-chozka” (“forcefully”) appears to refer to Sisera’s brutality in attacking and plundering Benei Yisrael’s territory. The Midrash (Tanchuma, Behar 25:3), however, suggests a different interpretation, understanding the word “be-chozka” to mean that Sisera ridiculed and mocked Benei Yisrael. The basis for this reading, as the Midrash cites, is a verse in Sefer Malakhi (3:13), in which God, through the prophet, charges, “Chazeku alai divreikhem” – “Your words have been harsh towards Me.” The root ch.z.k. in that context denotes the people’s disrespect towards God, as the prophecy continues, “You said: It is worthless to serve God, and what gain is there when we observe His will?” Just as the word “chazeku” in Malakhi’s prophecy refers to the people’s blasphemous speech about God, similarly, the word “be-chozka” used to describe Sisera’s oppression of Benei Yisrael refers to his harsh rhetoric, the degrading insults he spoke in an attempt to crush their spirits.
The Midrash draws a comparison between two different kinds of insults – insulting God by questioning the value of serving Him, and insulting other people, specifically, insulting those who are weaker and less successful, as in Sisera’s insults of Benei Yisrael who were under his rule. Similar to Malakhi’s charge that the people disparaged God by questioning the value of observing His commands, we sometimes might disparage other people by questioning the value of showing them sensitivity, concern and kindness. Especially, as in Sisera’s case, we might look disdainfully upon those who seem to us unimpressive and unaccomplished – just as Benei Yisrael’s seemed to Sisera – assigning to them in our minds a stature of lowliness, and thus concluding that we stand nothing to gain by befriending them or helping them.
Developing this comparison further, just as the precious value of mitzvot is not always apparent, similarly, we sometimes might not immediately see the precious value of our fellow human being. There are many mitzvot whose reasoning eludes our limited human comprehension, and whose value we must accept on faith, without ever thinking, “It is worthless to serve God.” Likewise, there are people whom we might not, at first, admire or respect, because their qualities and achievements are not readily apparent. The Midrash, by comparing the blasphemy described by Malakhi and Sisera’s disdain for Benei Yisrael, perhaps teaches us that we must believe in the value and worth of each and every human being even when it might be at first difficult to see. If we encounter somebody whom we instinctively dislike, or whom we initially find unimpressive, then rather than rashly dismiss this person as unimportant or unworthy of respect, we must trust that this individual, like all humans, has within him a sacred, divine spark, and is, in some way, deserving of admiration. Just as we are to trust in the great value of each and every mitzva even when its value is not immediately discernible, so must we trust in the great value of each and every individual, even if we our initial impression leads us not to.