What’s at Stake?

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

Rebbe Eliezer ben Yaakov said, “From where do we know that a woman should not go out to war with weapons?” The Torah says, “A man’s utensils should not be on a woman” (Devarim 22:5). The simple understanding of the verse is that a woman may not wear a man’s clothing. However, Rebbe Eliezer understands the verse to be referring to weapons (Nazir 59a). This has relevance to the story in Tanach of the heroine Yael. Yael welcomed the fleeing enemy general Sisera into her tent with feigned hospitality. After drinking a refreshing beverage, Sisera lay down and soon sank into the sleep of the weary. While he lay asleep, Yael crept stealthily up to him, holding a tent peg and a mallet. She drove it through his temples with such force that it entered into the ground below. The Mefaresh on Nazir explains why Yael killed Sisera with a tent peg rather than a sword. She didn’t want to wield a weapon that is generally used by men and thereby violate the aforementioned prohibition. Torah.org has an unattributed article that discussed this topic and makes the following observations. In a moment of crisis, with the Jewish future at stake, Yael justifiably could have resorted to the most expeditious, though 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 of Sisera. Yael maintains her own internal integrity even in a situation mandating that 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 G-d with modesty and compassion. The Torah.org article assumes that Yael willingly chose a peg as her weapon of choice as opposed to a sword, thereby putting herself in personal peril. Indeed, the Tiferes Tzion seems to concur with this understanding. He notes that it would have been safer for Yael to kill Sisera with a sword. Though Sisera was sleeping, he might have woken up at any moment. She should have chosen the quickest weapon available, but she didn’t because of the admonition against women wielding the weapons of a man. Still, it seems hard to fathom that with her life and the lives of many innocent people at stake, she would choose to risk it all for the sake of one prohibition. There is a rule that when one’s life is in danger, Torah prohibitions are waived. Certainly here there was an additional concern that Sisera would regroup or form a new army. If he did so, many lives would then be in danger. Violating a Torah prohibition in this scenario would certainly be justified. The Avnei Tzedek says that, based on this consideration, Yael would have used a sword if she had one available. Since it was a man’s implement, she didn’t have one handy. Hence, she was forced to use a tent peg. The Maharsham notes that there is a machlokes ha’poskim about whether a woman may wear a man’s raincoat just to protect herself from the rain.

The Maharsham asks, according to those poskim who permit it, why Yael couldn’t use a man’s sword to protect herself from Sisera. The raincoat accomplishes a utilitarian task just as a sword would. He answers that since Yael had another option available, namely a tent peg, she couldn’t use the sword. We can surmise that the Maharsham likewise did not assume that Yael put herself in any additional danger by using a tent peg in the place of a sword. Even though she may have been filled with fear and trepidation about what she was about to do, she still calmly and resolutely weighed her options. She determined that under the circumstances she should use a tent peg. In tense moments, it can be very difficult to think clearly, and the tendency is to act rashly, making decisions we may come to regret. We should learn from Yael that even under the extreme pressure of the situation, we should still attempt to calmly consider our actions and make proper choices. The Yalkut Yehudah notes the juxtaposition of the admonition against women using weapons to the mitzvah of shiluach ha’kan in Parshas Ki Seitzei. Mothers may feel slighted that while the men go and fulfill the mitzvah of conquering Eretz Yisrael, they are stuck home with the kids! The Torah therefore teaches us that caring for offspring is so dear to Hashem that He doesn’t even allow us to take a bird that is caring for her young. The mitzvah of caring for children is more precious to Hashem than conquering Eretz Yisrael. Hence, even for the sake of taking possession of our Holy Land, we should not draft someone involved in the cherished mitzvah of child-rearing.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com

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