It’s easy to blame society’s problems on the government. If only we had better leaders, we fantasize, things would be better. This seems to be the fantasy which animates the end of the book of Shoftim. ‘In those days, there was no king. Each man would do what was right in his own eyes.’ This refrain, repeated at key points in the course of the two stories selected to close the book, seems to suggest that had there only been a king, none of this would have happened.
Is that really true, though? Both the story of the idol of Micha, and the story of the concubine in Givah, begin with very personal, individual stories. Only at later stages do they reach national proportions. Would Micha not have stolen had there been a king? Would the idol not have been created? Would the concubine not have cheated? Would the people of Givah have been more hospitable?
Perhaps, we shouldn’t read the absence of a king as the reason for the chaos in society, but just the opposite, as a result and a reflection of a society which can’t, shouldn’t, must not have one. What kind of society is that? One in which the abuse of power is so ingrained that it can be considered ‘righteous’, such that it’s difficult to find a character not guilty of it. Micha, a man serious about religious worship, is a thief. The members of the tribe of Dan, so weak that they have been unable to conquer or settle the land intended for them, manage to find someone weaker to slaughter. But they don’t do that before aggressively asserting their power over Micha’s house and, fittingly, stealing his priest. The residents of Givah assemble to take advantage of the weakness of strangers, so the “generous” old man who hosted them takes advantage of the weakness of his daughter and the concubine, who is discarded and forgotten about until morning. To avenge for this evil, the other tribes gather to fight against Benjamin, with 20 times as many troops. But after slaughtering man, woman and child, they decide they’ gone too far. Their solution, of course, is to find other weak populations and to take advantage of their weakness.
This is the very antithesis of the Jewish attitude to power, which is all about supporting the most vulnerable and weakest elements of society, rather than exploiting them. The most mundane expression of this attitude is the mitzvah of hosting guests, hachnasat orchim, in which a person creates the bridge between the treacherous outside and the secure inside. And the paragon of hachnasat orchim is, fittingly, the father of the Jewish people, Avraham. Veiled references to his hospitality, and to its foil, embodied by Sodom, are woven throughout these chapters.
The bottom line of the book of Shoftim doesn’t come to complain about the ills of society that result from an absence of strong leadership. It comes to teach us that when our society is closer to Sodom than to Avraham, when power is used against the weak rather than in their defense, we have violated our moral charge, and have lost our claim to sovereignty.
Shoftim ends and the book of Shmuel begins. Here, I try to offer short, meaningful reflections on the daily chapter of Tanach studied by participants in the 929 project. Learn more about it at 929.org.il