222/929. Words Hurt. Pride Kills. Shoftim 11.

20 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, and we’re still trying, and failing, to internalize the lesson of the dangerous power of words.

Hateful speech can still be heard emanating from the same circles it did in those violent days, eating away at our sense of the humanity of the ‘Other’. No less sadly, those who know how to be exquisitively sensitive to the destructiveness of incitement coming from radical Jews, somehow are willing to whitewash and justify the same hate speech when it comes from the other side.

Into this enduring deafness steps Yiftach, whose story offers a critical factor to consider when thinking about the danger of words . Yiftach is a person who takes words very seriously. He takes the elders of Gilad to task for going back on their word and asking for his help, and then makes them promise they will appoint him as leader. Although he is a mighty soldier, his military strategy begins with words, with tropes that bear an uncanny similarity to cotemporary discourse. But words fail to effect a positive outcome and battling narratives that talk past each other end in bloodshed.

Even in victory, Yiftach’s words bring bloodshed in the form of the unfortunate oath which dooms his daughter. The midrash, though, adds a back story which suggests that perhaps it is not words, per say (misspelling intentional), which are the problem. The death of Yiftach’s daughter could have been prevented, the damaging power of Yiftach’s words could have been overcome, were it not for the pride of the parties involved. Had Yiftach been willing to go to Pinchas, the priest, or had Pinchas been willing to go Yiftach, the oath would have been annulled. But each one was too proud, was too confident and comfortable in the justice of their side to do so.

Pride is similarly what lies behind the lethal power of words in Yiftach’s exchange with the king of Amon. Each was so convinced of the truth of their own grievances that they were utterly unable to hear the truth of the other’s claim. And so it is to this day. It is the pride, the confidence, the assuredness behind words that kills, more than the words themselves.

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This is a blog of short reflections on the daily study of Tanach with the 929 project. Learn more about it at 929.org.il

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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