212/929. Every Man For Himself. Shoftim 1

Who needs a leader? There is something noticeably absent in the beginning of the book of Shoftim. Or rather- someone. Well before his death, Moshe had tackled the critical question of continuity and leadership, grooming and appointing a successor during his lifetime. The results were readily apparent- many times throughout the book of Yehoshua, we felt Moshe’s presence, we had the sense that Yehoshua and the people were continuing the path he had set them on, and Yehoshua enjoyed a continuity of the support Moshe had received. But in one way, he didn’t emulate his master. He didn’t appoint anyone to lead the Jewish people after him.

Is this a problem? From the beginning of the book of Shoftim, it seems not. The Jewish people seem to do very well without a leader, communicating directly with God. The results are positive, at least initially. Yehuda and Yosef are largely successful in their missions; God gives the land into their hands.

But as the chapter progresses, we begin to see the problem of decentralization which will be the central theme of the book of Shoftim. True, Yehuda and Yosef do well. But the other tribes have progressively more difficulty succeeding in their portions. The Canaanites continue to live amongst Menashe and Ephraim. For the tribe of Asher, the order is reversed- it is they who live, apparently as a minority, amongst the Canaanite. The tribe of Dan is  prevented from settling the valley, managing only to defend their settlement in the hills.

Where is the assistance God promised? Perhaps that assistance was meant to come in the form of other tribes helping their brothers. In other words, perhaps that assistance in sitting on the couch, comfortable in their own inheritance, or perhaps it is busy worrying about its own wars. In the absence of a leader, the book of Shoftim paints a picture in which there is no Jewish people. It’s every tribe for themselves.


It’s not easy keeping to what Israelis call ‘the shigra’ in the current madness. We do our best. This blog offers short reflections on the 929 project’s daily Tanach study. We just started Shoftim this week.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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