The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

Is there a more peculiar intruder into our Rosh Hashana service than the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general who fought against Devorah and Barak, and who is the reference point for so many of our shofar practices? The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) was in doubt as to the precise nature of the teruah sound, because the Torah does not define it. But the Targum interprets that as a yevava, and the Gemara elaborates that it is written in the reference to the mother of Sisera that she “wailed,” Vateyabeiv. One opinion held that she groaned (like the shevarim) and the other held she wailed (like our teruah). So we do both. And all because Sisera’s mother wailed we know how to blow the shofar?

There is more. Tosafot there quote the Aruch, Rav Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi, that we blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. Again, Sisera’s mother. Who exactly are we talking about?

Sisera was the general of Canaan, who tormented the Jews and conquered others, who dedicated his life to killing and marauding, who, when he attacked Israel in this instance with overwhelming force – nine hundred iron chariots – was met by a smaller army led by Devorah and Barak, and was routed. He fled the battlefield into the arms of  Yael, who in short order fed him, bed him – and then killed him.

And Devorah sang about his mother (Shoftim 5:28-30) – even a killer has a mother: “The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices, sobbing, ‘why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?’” And the princesses tried to comfort her:  “They must be dividing the spoils, seizing the maidens for themselves.” But Sisera’s mother knew better, and so “she wailed.”

It’s a poignant story until we stop and realizing that she is crying over his lack of success – this time – in murdering Jews and in conquering the land of Israel. Her son was exceedingly wicked, and we should curse the day on which she gave birth to him. So why is she the source of our shofar practices? What is it that happened to her that we want to recall?

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked me: is the world falling apart? Is this the worst it’s ever been – wars, plagues, terror, insecurity, uncertainty? The answer is – not by a long shot. But there is one thing to ponder, especially as on Rosh Hashana, when all nations are judged: “who will be afflicted by the sword, who will live in peace, who will suffer from famine, and who will have plenty.”

The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 32) states: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korach and his cohorts.” Every generation contains these people. They are not unique.

If you think that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – you are wrong. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it! “Contemplate the years of every generation.” Look around: every generation has vestiges of the generation of the flood, morally depraved and outspoken about it, not at all reticent and sometimes even boastful; every generation contains remnants of the generation of the dispersion, who deny G-d and set themselves over mankind as rulers and dictators; every generation has echoes of Sodom, its greed, selfishness and violence; every generation has its Korach, who denies the Mesorah and think they know better than G-d what the Torah should say. They challenge the Torah leadership with their populism and sophistry.

If so, what is new? To what is there to look forward? Is the whole script laid out for us? No. The Midrash continues: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korach, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Breisheet Raba 24:2). Every person has the ability to write his own page in that book, the Sefer Toldot Adam, the book that was originally published on Rosh Hashana, “this day was the beginning of Your work.”

Too often we think that we are set, we are who we are, and it is what it is. And nothing can change. Just another day, another month, another year, another Rosh Hashana. Sometimes it’s because we have given up, and other times because we are secure in who we are, certain about our course in life and our future. Everything is laid out for us, all going according to plan. We become very comfortable with our course in life, sometimes even with our sins – not even knowing or admitting they are sins.

We sit by the window, looking out at the world, and everything is familiar and recurring – until it is not. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Sisera’s mother had a routine. She knew he would win, even knew when to expect him back from the battlefield. She knew that he would return triumphant, with the spoils of war, with the laurels of his admirers, with the dread of the vanquished. She was certain – that was her life.

“The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices…” As she sat there, she started to sob, then to wail, then to mourn. Her certainty – about herself, about her son, about his and her destiny – was an illusion. It wasn’t real. As she uttered the words – “Why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why is he late today?” – she already knew the bitter truth: her world had suddenly changed. There is nothing in life set in stone. Not my life, not my choices, not my fate.

If our generation contains Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Korach in some form, if it has its share of hedonists, sadists and terrorists of all kinds, that is an unfortunate reality. But realize that our generation also has its true seekers of G-d, Torah scholars, righteous people and purveyors of kindness. So be in the latter group – nothing is fixed – even in the most troubled era, “each person is judged according to his deeds.”

The shofar draws its inspiration not from the anguish of Sisera’s mother, and not because we feel sorry for her, but because we want the shofar to awaken us, to shake us, like it did Sisera’s mother, to grab hold of us and say “life is precious, life is short, there is much to do.” Take nothing for granted, not the least of which one’s religious level in life and one’s aspirations. Everyone can grow and everyone can improve.

The wails of Sisera’s mother are the quality of the sounds of the shofar that penetrate our souls, and her one hundred sobs are the quantity that we require to soften our hearts. We can’t change the world, only our small place in it, beginning with ourselves. Thus we pray that the sounds of the shofar will break through and signal our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty so we may merit G-d’s mercies on us and our families, on our people, our land and our holy city of Yerushalayim, for a year of life of good health, prosperity and peace.

 

 

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7 responses to “The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

  1. Parents whose children are at risk can hear Sisera’s mother’s sobs in the shofar blowing, remember that they earned her a Rabbi Aqiva as an eventual descendent. To me, that Tosafos says: crying for our children works.

    • Rabbi Aqiva was the son of Romans who converted to Judaism.
      How could Rabbi Aqiva be a descendant of Sisera’s mother?

      • It’s not necessarily a contradiction.
        – RSP

      • Sisera’s descendents were as mixed into the rest of the empire as were the 10 lost tribes. Lots of things happen to a bloodline in over 1500 years. The question isn’t how could he be a descendent as much as how anyone would know.

        In any case, that’s the tradition (perhaps historical through ruach haqodesh, perhaps ahistorical), and exists in the same midrashic space that counted how many times she sobbed. The lesson is being taught either way.

  2. Dear Rabbi,

    I am familiar with the Midrash Rabah and the Midrash Tanchuma and the Halachic Midrashim, but before I read your most recent article, I never heard of the “Midrash Tannaim.”

    Does the “Midrash Tannaim” have another name?

    Where can I get a copy of the “Midrash Tannaim”?

    Sincerely,
    Mr. Cohen

    • You can find the Midrash Tanaim at Hebrewbooks.org. It was the compilation of Rav David Zvi Hoffman.
      – RSP

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