This Shabbat is known as “Shabbat Shira,” the Shabbat of Song, because in the parsha, Beshalach, we read of the splitting of the Yam Suf and the “Song of the Sea,” Az Yashir, sung by Moshe and Bnei Yisrael. We read this parsha on two occasions – when it comes up in the order of the parshiyot as it does this week, and also on the seventh day of Pesach, the anniversary of the events described. On each of these occasions, for our haftara we read one of the “songs” found in the books of the Prophets.
Our haftara this week is taken from the book of Shoftim and includes the Song of Devora the Prophet. (The Sefardim only read the song and not the preceding narrative.) However, there is another important parallel between the parsha and the haftara – the miraculous victory over an apparently superior enemy with the aid of Hashem. Indeed, the language in the Navi seems to emphasize this connection. Both victories occur in or beside a body of water; both involve chariots of war. In the haftara we learn that Hashem “confounded” (“Vayaham”) Sisera and his cavalry (Shoftim 4:15), and in the parsha Hashem “confounds” (“Vayaham”) the host of Mitzrayim (Shemot 14:24).
The literal meaning of the following passage in the haftara is that Sisera fled before the sword of Barak (and his soldiers), but the classical commentators make much of the Hebrew word for “before” Barak, indicating that Sisera wasn’t fleeing from Barak, rather he was given cause to flee by supernatural means before the arrival of Barak and his troops. That is to say, he fled not before the sword of Barak but before the arrival of Barak. In this vein, the Gemara in Berachot (48a) lists ten miraculous victories signified by David HaMelech’s praise of Hashem from Divrei HaYamim (29:11), beginning “Lecha Hashem hagedula,” To You, Hashem, the glory. The first of these is the creation of the universe and the last is His preservation of every living thing by His careful ministrations. In between are eight military victories, including the Exodus from Mitzrayim and this victory over Sisera from our haftara.
In Devora’s song she adds detail to the aforementioned incident of the miraculous victory over Sisera. She says, “From the heavens they did battle, the stars (descended from) their orbits to make war on Sisera” (Shoftim 5:20). This part of the story was missing from the narrative account that preceded the song. Radak explains (following the Gemara in Pesachim) that radiation from the stars afflicted the soldiers of Sisera causing their armor to become unbearably hot, as a result of which they dove into the river to cool off and drowned instead. Sisera descended from his chariot, ripped off his armor, and fled.
Rabbeinu Bachye includes Sisera in a list of the fatally arrogant who deemed themselves to be invincible in their might. He refers again to our parsha, to the beginning of the Song of the Sea: “I will sing to Hashem for He has been prouder than the proud,” (Shemot 15:1), meaning that those who became too proud are laid low again by the might of Hashem. Of Sisera, in particular, the Maharal says (in the introduction to Gevurot Hashem) that he had usurped the natural order by conquering and subjugating the world to his military might. He had, according to legend, made himself out to be the master of all of mankind and even the beasts of the field, and he came to believe that he was infallible and beyond the laws of nature. For this reason, nature itself was mobilized to correct this disruption of the Divine Plan of Creation. The stars, on behalf of the physical universe, attacked Sisera in his might to humble him and restore the balance.
It’s interesting to note, and latent in the text, that although Israel benefited from this miracle and Devora ostensibly coordinated it, the affront was ultimately to the laws of nature rather than the particular dignity of the people of Israel. In light of the morally impoverished state of Israel in that generation, it’s easy to infer that the miraculous victory over Sisera might not have been effected or might not have been so complete. Nevertheless, the extent of his wickedness and his boldness in opposing Hashem and assailing His nation prepared Sisera for humiliation and destruction in order to preserve Hashem’s plan for His Creation.