Yael: A Righteous - Modest - Radical
Part 2 of 2
"Blessed by women is Yael...by women in the tent will she be blessed." (The
Song of Deborah from the Book of Judges)
We concluded our last Women in Judaism class with a question:
Why might Yael be blessed "more" than the righteous "women in the tent," who
were said to bless her in the Song of Deborah? This question is based on a
midrashic interpretation of the above verse (see previous class for
details). The women in the tent - Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah - are
renowned for modesty, symbolized by their close association in the Torah
with the image of a tent - particularly its interior. Yael is known to have
strayed from her tent in order to attract general Sisera. She then lures
him back into her tent and kills him in a scenario that one would be hard
pressed to call "modest."
Yael's connection to her tent seems undignified compared to that of the
Matriarchs, who praise her for the very modesty they exemplify and which she
seems to lack. The following essay attempts to resolve this apparent
contradiction, by exploring two questions:
1) Why does Yael deserve to be praised by the Matriarchs as quintessentially
modest, even though her actions appear to be the opposite?
2) Why might she be blessed even more than these exemplary "women in the
These questions and their answers are especially relevant for today's Jewish
woman, given that her lifestyle can be considered - like Yael's - to be
"outside of the tent." Today's Jewish woman is often away from home and
involved in the public realm. Accordingly, like Yael, we must find a way to
function effectively in the outside world, while preserving the modesty that
has always been one of the Jewish woman's most prized possessions.
To begin, the midrash tells us that "women in the tent" - the Matriarchs -
gave the world a reason to exist in God's eyes, by virtue of their giving
birth to the Jewish nation. In Yael's time, Sisera and his army threatened
Jewish survival. Yael murders Sisera, redeems the Jews and thus takes up the
torch of her foremothers by securing the world's continued existence. Our
sages tell us she was instrumental to the continuity of the Jewish people
and the world, which itself depends on the persistence of the Jews. This is
one reason why Yael might aptly be blessed "more" than "women in the tent."
To continue this line of thought, without question, the Matriarchs made
great sacrifices for the sake of the Jews. At the same time, their
struggles were not without pleasure. Marriage to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
with offspring at the helm of the fledgling Nation, must have provided an
ongoing source of positive reinforcement in dark times. Yael did not have
this type of support. In order to murder Sisera she had to put her very
essence on the line, assuming an immodest role, while preserving the
internal apparatus of her Jewish femininity. The Matriarchs never faced
this challenge to their being. Yael, on the other hand, jeopardized her
deepest self and emerged from her ordeal intact.
The Book of Judges (4:21) details how Yael murders Sisera:
"Yael...took a tent peg, placed a hammer in her hand, came to him
stealthily, and drove the peg into his temple..." Given the inherent
difficulty of her task, why does Yael choose such seemingly roundabout
means, rather than using a sword or some other conventional weapon? While
her method may seem convoluted, Yael's approach is key to her greatness.
The Torah (Ki Seitze 22:5) sets forth a prohibition against a woman assuming
a man's guise. This tenet is said to include weapons. Simply stated, our
sages explain that the prohibition ensures a clear separation between the
roles of men and women. These roles - far from "job descriptions" - are
external expressions of the God-given differences between the male and
female soul. Rather than taking up arms, Yael construes an unconventional
murder, in an effort to preserve her connection to the Divine source of her
femininity, at the heart of this Torah commandment.
In a moment of crisis, with the Jewish future at stake, Yael could easily
and justifiably have resorted to the most expeditious, masculine means of
achieving her goal. Instead, understanding the profound spiritual
repercussions of this route, Yael takes a more difficult tack. She risks
her personal safety, preserves her spiritual integrity and redefines what it
means to be a "woman of the tent," using the tent stake and even the tent
itself to carry out her startlingly "modest" murder Sisera.
Yael maintains her own internal integrity, while the situation mandates she
act ruthlessly. In this way, she accomplishes both her immediate mission -
to kill Sisera and to redeem the Jewish people - and her eternal mission,
which is to serve God with modesty and compassion. Yael's ability to uphold
her essential self at all costs earns her the praise of "women in the tent."
These circumstances can be said to make her "more" blessed than this
distinguished group - at least in this regard.
Given Yael's place in ancient history, and her even more ancient tent-based
colleagues, what makes Yael a Jewish woman for today? In much the same (but
certainly deeper) way that post-impressionists and post-modernists updated
and breathed new life into the movements they reinterpreted, Yael can be
considered a "post - woman in the tent." She used her God-given, internal
gifts under circumstances that seemed to make them impossible to apply.
While involved in a male pursuit - a war - she remains distinctly female,
never compromising her essence. While Yael's situation is extreme, today's
woman also finds herself in traditionally public, male-oriented domains.
Contemporary history indicates that, in spite of their professional success,
women have suffered internally from adopting male modes of behavior in order
to achieve their goals. Yael teaches us that we need not compromise our
deepest feminine gifts. Modesty distinguishes Yael's heroism and it can be
the hallmark of the successful Jewish woman, at home, in the community and
Women in Judaism, Copyright (c) 2001 by Mrs. Leah Kohn and Project Genesis, Inc.