SALT - Tuesday, 9 Shevat 5780 - February 4, 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
            We read in the haftara for Parashat Beshalach (Shoftim 4:6) of how the prophetess Devora summoned Barak, the nation’s general, and conveyed to him God’s command to mobilize an army on Mount Tavor in Northern Israel.  Devora assured Barak that Sisera, the general of the Canaanites who oppressed Benei Yisrael at the time, would attempt to launch a strike from the Kishon Valley below the mountain, and God would then help Barak and his forces vanquish the enemy.
            The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (14b) criticizes Devora for summoning Barak, instead of extending him the honor of going to him to convey her prophecy.  Devora is accused of “yehiruta” – preoccupation with honor and stature, which led her to insist on summoning Barak to her, rather than humbly going to him.  The Gemara comments that another prophetess – Chulda, who lived much later, during the time of King Yoshiyahu – was guilty of a similar mistake.  In the prophetic message she sent to Yoshiyahu, she addressed him as the “ish” (“man” – Melakhim II 22:15), instead of “king,” a display of disrespect which the Gemara attributes to a tinge of arrogance.  The Gemara notes that because these two women were guilty of a slight degree of arrogance, they were both given unflattering names – a “devora” is a bee, and a “chulda” is a rat. 
            We find Devora criticized for this flaw also elsewhere in the Gemara – in Masekhet Pesachim (66b), where the Gemara cites Devora’s proclamation in the famous song of praise which she sung after Benei Yisrael’s triumph over the Canaanites: “Unwalled cities ceased in Israel; they ceased – until I, Devora, arose, until I arose as a mother for Israel” (Shoftim 5:7).  The Gemara found it inappropriate for Devora to publicly pride herself over her successful achievements as a leader over Benei Yisrael, and teaches that her prophetic abilities were taken from her as a result.  For this reason, several verses later in this song (5:12), Devora cries, “Uri uri Devora, uri uri daberi shir” – “Awaken, awaken, Devora; awaken, awaken, and sing a song!”  Devora needed to plead to be “awakened” and capable of continuing her prophetic song, after having lost her prophetic capabilities due to her inappropriate expression of pride.
            Returning to the Gemara’s comments in Masekhet Megilla, it is worth noting that the Gemara associates the names of these two prophetesses with the names of common pests, attributing these unflattering names to the tinge of arrogance which they exhibited.  Bees and rodents are creatures which quite commonly arrive unwanted, and which people try to chase away.  By linking Devora and Chulda’s inappropriately self-aggrandizing conduct with these creatures, the Gemara perhaps points to the fact that those who display arrogance and are overly concerned with their honor are, generally, not well-liked.  People who promote themselves and seek recognition and respect often come across as “pests,” intruding where they do not belong and where they are not wanted.  Arrogance is, of course, inherently wrong, but it also has the effect of making oneself unliked. 
Devora and Chulda were outstanding, successful and influential leaders, both of whom played important roles in inspiring a nationwide process of repentance after a period of widespread abandonment of God.  By noting the meaning of their names, and associating them with the tinge of arrogance which they displayed, the Gemara perhaps indicates that had they exhibited slightly more humility, they could have had an even greater impact.  The small mistakes that they made, showing slightly too much concern for their honor, may have undermined, if only somewhat, their influence upon the people.  The more humility we display, and the less attention we pay to our honor and prestige, the better impression we will make, and thus the greater our chances will be to have a positive influence upon the people around us.