Behind Enemy Lines: The Song of Sisera's Mother

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Long ago the rabbis took from the story of an enemy of ancient Israel a teaching of compassion even for enemies. And in our own generation, Rabbi Shefa Gold has done the same thing in a different way with the same story. Both ways deserve to be honored in our Rosh Hashanah gatherings.

The story of Sisera's Mother appears in Judges 5: 24-31, as part of the Song of Deborah. This is how the Bible tells the tale, picking up after the brutal general Sisera has been defeated, flees the battlefield, and takes refuge in the tent of Ya'el:

Blessed above women shall Ya'el be,
The wife of Hever the Kenite,
Above women in the tent shall she be blessed,
Water he [Sisera] asked, milk she gave him;
In a lordly bowl she brought him curd.
Her hand she put to the tent-pin,
And her right hand to the workmen's hammer;
And with the hammer she smashed
Sisera, she smashed through his head,
She pierced and struck through his temples.
At her feet he sank, he fell, he lay;
At her feet he sank, he fell;
Where he sank, there he fell shattered.

Through the window she looked forth, and wailed,
The mother of Sisera, through the lattice:
"Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why are the hoofbeats of his chariots so delayed?"

The wise women among her attendant princesses answer her;
Indeed, she responds by speaking to herself:

"Are they not finding , are they not dividing booty?
One slut, even two sluts, to each warrior cock.
To Sisera the booty of dyed embroidered clothing,
Two dyed embroidered garments for the neck of every booty-taker."

So perish all Your enemies, O Breath of Life!
May those who love You be like the sun in power, striding forth.

And the land lay quiet forty years.

--Rabbi Shefa Gold


Rabbi Shefa Gold drew on this story in the same compassionate mode as the ancient rabbis who said Sisera's Mother's sobs are what we hear in the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. [See Rabbi Ed Feld on this teaching]

When she sang the song she explained:

"It is a universal fate to know what it feels like to wait for someone who not coming home.

"Sisera mother is waiting for her son to come home and she turns to her women and they're having a conversation with each other where they're not really saying anything because they're just really caught up in the waiting and you can tell that they know that he's not going to come home, but they're pretending that maybe he will, and are making up stories about it.

"The person who asked me to do this said that she felt that this was a window into women's culture. You could sort of see women hanging out together waiting for the men to come home. I wrote this song and tried to really be inside her, to see what it was like."

These are the words of the song. The Hebrew lines mean, "The wise women among her attendant princesses answer her; Indeed, she responds by speaking to herself."

"Behind Enemy Lines: The Song of Sisera's Mother"

Chachmot saroteha ta'anena,
Af hi tashiv amereha lah.

When will my precious child return to me?
When will my precious child return to me?

How the silence bears down on me;
Women waiting for eternity.
When will his footsteps sound in my ears?
Please say something to take away my fears.

Chachmot saroteha ta'anena,
Af hi tashiv amereha lah.

When will my precious child return to me?
When will my precious child return to me?

Wise women, will you comfort me?
Tell me a story that will set me free
From all my worries, terror, and grief
Please say something to give me some relief.

Chachmot saroteha ta'anena,
Af hi tashiv amereha lah.

When will my precious child return to me?
When will my precious child return to me?

How the silence bears down on me,
Women waiting for eternity.
When will his footsteps sound in my ears?
Please say something to take away my fears.

Chachmot saroteha ta'anena,
Af hi tashiv amereha lah.

When will my precious child return to me?
When will my precious child return to me?
When will my precious child return to me?


Rabbi Shefa Gold, who is one of the most creative of Jewish spiritual leaders of our generation — creator of the "chanting service" as a new mode for davvening, with few words and deep meditative focus — is also an accomplished writer of spiritual song.

The recording of the Song of Sisera's Mother that we have here seems to be from a unique recording. It is copyrighted (c) 2000 by Rabbi Gold, and posted here with her permission.

In her accompanying comment (also recorded when she sang), Reb Shefa mentions that Sisera's Mother and her attendant wise women bespeak a deep women's culture of those who wait and wait and wait for warriors who never return. The story of Sisera and his mother are embedded in the Song of Deborah — a charismatic leader — woman — who judged on behalf of the poor and led the Godwrestling folk when it was attacked by the Great Powers of Canaan. And Deborah celebrates another woman, Ya'el, who strikes Sisera down.

As for Sisera's Mother, she may be waiting in agonies of fear but the way she expresses her anxiety is with the vision of her son having won a brutal, bloody victory, delayed returning home because he is dragging behind him booty that includes "racham rachamatayim," — translated usually as "a damsel, even two damsels." But "rechem" means "womb," and the tone of contempt she uses might lead to a much rougher translation in colloquial English.

"Racham" also echoes "rachamim," "womb-like compassion," and as we hear this the ironies of Sisera's Mother's weeping may grow even stronger.

In this tale of women's culture, as in the reality of women's lives, there are many different kinds and tones of women.

That out of this tale of Israel's enemies the ancient rabbis drew the weeping of the Shofar is astounding, as Rabbi Ed Feld points out.

His thought, like Rabbi Gold's, leads us toward a much more compassionate attitude toward even the roughest of our enemies, especially perhaps when against all expectations we have come to greater power.

In hearing the sobs of Sisera's Mother in the Shofar, we may experience our own selves in all our contradictions: Waves of fear, contempt, grief, anger all sweep through us, and we invoke the Compassion of the Universe for our misdeeds. If we can release ourselves from fear and hatred of our enemy, then it is more likely that God, the Universe, the "enemy," will release Itself from enmity toward us.

Shalom,

Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center
www.theshalomcenter.org

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