NOTE FROM MM: Because this Midrashic Monologue features characters who do not appear in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), we decided to begin with an introduction that includes much more context than we normally provide.
The Book of Judith belongs in the apocrypha, a collection of biblical-era texts which were excluded from the biblical canon. (Another important story that was preserved only within the apocrypha is that of the Maccabees.) Later generations connected Judith’s story of courage in the face of military oppression with the holiday of Hanukkah. Some medieval midrashim even add a character from the Book of Maccabees (Hannah, the sister of Judah the Maccabee) to Judith’s story in order to further connect Judith with Hanukkah.
The Book of Judith was most likely written in the centuries before the new millennium (2nd-1st century BCE) and tells the story of the persecution of the Jewish people.
As Assyrians soldiers surround Judith’s city, the Jewish elders declare that if God does not deliver them in five days, they will surrender the city to the invading army. After learning of their decision, Judith berates them for their lack of faith in God’s power. Then, deciding that it is up to her to save her people, she creates her own plan of action.
Judith returns to her home, puts on her finest clothes and jewelry, leaves the relative safety of her city, and then, accompanied only by her attendant, enters the Assyrian camp. When she is taken to the tent of Holofernes, the commanding general, she convinces him that she has deserted her people because they have no chance of winning this conflict. She even promises to lead him into the city and guarantee his victory.
Holofernes goes out of his way to make Judith comfortable in his camp, even allowing her to go out to pray to her God every evening.
After several days, Holofernes becomes preoccupied with his lust for Judith and attempts to seduce her by inviting her to a great banquet in his tent. Judith agrees to attend, and when Holofernes becomes so drunk that he collapses, she fulfills her true mission, the destruction of the Assyrian forces. Using his own sword, Judith decapitates Holofernes, wraps his head in the canopy from his bed, retrieves her attendant, and returns to her city where she is welcomed with great praise and excitement. The Book of Judith concludes with the Jewish people’s victory over the Assyrians who are soundly defeated after Judith’s brave actions.
In this Midrashic Monologue, we join Judith and her attendant, who we have named Reut, on their final trip to the spring outside of Holofernes’ camp. We listen as Reut shares her fears and as Judith explains her deep faith. And finally, as they prepare to return to the camp, we hear them ask God for the strength that they will need to do what must be done.
“...Holofernes commanded his guards not to hinder her. She remained in the camp three days. She went out each night to the valley of Bethulia, and bathed at the spring in the camp. After bathing, she prayed the Most High God of Israel to direct her way for the triumph of his people. Then she returned purified and stayed in the tent until she ate her food toward evening.”
As I stepped out of the cool waters, I felt as if the spring had washed away all of my doubts. I was ready, and when the sun rose in a few hours, I would begin the last phase of my plans. Wrapping myself in the linen that my attendant, Reut, had brought for me, I prayed fervently that God would give me the strength and the stealth that I needed to save my people.
I walked carefully to one of the flat rocks that surrounded the spring and sat down so that Reut could help me prepare my hair. Reut worked gently, separating my curls and adding fragrant oils to the strands. It was a time-consuming task, and I occupied myself by looking out at the desolate beauty of the valley. This was my land, my home. Anyone who wished to take it from me would need to be smarter than the great oaf that I had been deceiving for days.
I noticed that Reut’s work had slowed, and when I turned to look at her, I saw that she was crying. I moved quickly, taking her hands in mine.
“Sister,” I said, “Why are you upset?”
She seemed to struggle to find the right words before finally saying in a rush, “I’m not brave like you. I am full of fear and terrified about tomorrow. Every time I think about what you’re going to do, my legs shake and my hands tremble. Do you really think that you can kill a man as strong as Holofernes? What if he hurts you? What if he hurts me? What if we fail?”
I took a deep breath and urged Reut to do the same. I knew that she was no fragile flower in need of gentle reassurances, and so I let my voice resonate with strength and truth as I responded.
“Reut, you have been with me since I was a bride with blushing cheeks. You helped me prepare for my wedding to Menassah, and you worked with me to build my widow’s tent on the roof of our home after my husband’s sudden passing. You were with me when we heard the elders of our town issue an ultimatum to God, and you stood at my back as I confronted and condemned them. Your hands packed the food and the goods that we needed for our time in Holofernes’ camp. And, you have helped me stay true to our customs while we have lived amongst our enemies.”
Seeing that my words and the memories of all that we had done together were calming my companion, I continued, “Reut, when the sun rises and this fated day begins, God will be with us, protecting us as we protect our people. Tomorrow, we will be God’s partners, God’s hands on this earth. We will save our people from the devastation that the Assyrians will bring if they succeed in taking our city.”
At that, Reut shuddered and said quietly, “But Judith, we are alone. We have no guards... no weapons… no allies. Take all of those things away, and what do we have left?”
I looked steadily into her eyes, trying to let her see the faith that was at the center of my being, “What’s left? Us. We are left, and we are enough.”
Reut nodded and seemed to be considering my words as she guided me back to my stone seat and resumed her task. Soon enough, I was dressed and prepared to do God’s work. As we gathered our belongings and began making our way back to the camp, Reut grabbed my hand and said, “Judith, I believe that we are enough to do God’s work, but I would feel better if we began this day with a prayer. Your words have such power; will you speak to God for both of us?”
Reut and I set down our baskets and turned to face one another, clasping hands and joining intentions. I closed my eyes and allowed my faith, my bone-deep trust in God, to flow through me.
“God of the lowly, Helper of the oppressed, Upholder of the weak,
Protector of the forsaken, Hero of those without hope,
Please, please, God of our ancestors, God of our people,
Strength of heaven and earth, Parent of all creation,
Today, we will use the power that You have given us to stand up against those
who seek to oppress us.
We have chosen to put ourselves in harm’s way because we are desperate to do
Your work and to save our people.
We are ready to be strong.
Before tomorrow’s dawn breaks over the mountains, we, who are often called powerless, will slay the one who holds the most power among his own people.
His might will not protect him.
You have chosen the two of us, among all Your people, to do Your work.
We will not fail you.
God of those who hide in the mountains, God of those who stand in this valley,
accompany us today, as we do our part in this great battle, as we fulfill our destinies.
I opened my eyes, and found Reut staring intensely at me. In her eyes, I saw the reflection of my own determination. I squeezed her hands and asked, “Are you ready?”
When Reut replied, I heard nothing but strength in her voice, “I’m ready. Let us walk with God and begin this holy work.”
Together, we gathered up our baskets and returned into Holofernes’ camp. This was the day when we would stand against the forces of evil. We were ready. We were strong. Nothing would stop us.