Dov Lerea

History, memory & law must touch the heart

Parashat Chukat

2021/5781 Haftorah: Shofetim 11:1-33

Since March, 2020, I have been writing divre Torah on the weekly parasha. I have written on every portion.  Through all of those writings, I have tried to describe ways of reading the Torah through the lens of different commentaries that speak directly to the challenges humanity faces today. The Torah will become completely neglected if educators–teachers and rabbis–do not believe that the Torah speaks in radical, revolutionary voices in response to the crises of authoritarianism, the sexual and political abuse of power, political corruption, the oppression of immigrants, and homophobic and xenophobic reactions to the diversities that characterize humanity. My divre Torah on the Book of Bereshit emphasize the implications of the fact that the sacred history of humankind rests on God’s vision of a world filled with diversities of all kinds. The Book of Shemot identifies the themes of oppression and the sacred mandate to protect the vulnerable against abuse. Writing about the Book of Vayikra, I tried to translate the concepts of metaphysical purity and impurity, tahara and tumah, in terms of seeking holistic balances in life. The Book of Bemidbar treats issues and challenges to leadership and the driving, seductive forces of mendacity and avarice leading to corruption and insurrection. Finally, the Book of Devarim, Moshe’s “last lecture” to the Jewish people, returns to and expands core societal values including protecting vulnerable people, plants and animals, civic responsibility, establishing a righteous judiciary, and guarding against the executive abuse of power. Methodologically, I have made the leap, sometimes explicitly, that when the Torah speaks of the Children of Israel, Benei Yisrael, I interpret that as a paradigm for humanity. The Torah tells the sacred history of one people, but in my contemporary reading, is modeling a way to recognize that every people in their own culture has a sacred history. While the concrete forms of expression therefore nourish the world’s diversity, the Torah transmits, through its grand narrative, God’s universal vision for humankind and the world. That would be a world devoid of idolatry, a world in which human beings do not worship themselves or the creation of their own hands, but rather nourish their souls by building a world filled with compassion, kindness, truth, and righteousness. The Torah is admonishing humanity against arrogance; nothing good comes from it. Instead, God’s hope for the world is a humanity of humility. Humility, righteousness, compassion, kindness, truthfulness and trust, are all inner sensibilities and values. They are matters of interiority.

Therefore much of my writing has accessed not only classical rabbinic teachings and medieval commentaries, but most profoundly sources in the mystical and hasidic traditions. Those traditions are the ones that most radically read the Torah as the sacred history of the human neshama, the soul, and when those sources think exclusively in terms of the Jewish people, I expanded the sentiment to apply universally. The world can no longer exist in terms of “old binaries.” Such thinking provides a sharp analytic lens, but reduces global crises to problems solved by technical solutions. The world’s problems in this generation are matters of the psyche and the soul. Once people regain a willingness to listen rather than speak, and open their hearts with a restorative purpose so that nations can hold the pain of their enemies, human ingenuity will find the appropriate technical solutions to specific problems. Until that time, however, it seems as if cycles of violence, oppression, corruption, cruelty, and fear will continue to return. It is a response to these problems that I have tried to articulate in my weekly writings on the Torah.

I did not anticipate writing such a long introduction, and indeed, I have more to say. However, my purpose in reflecting on my writings over the past year and a half is to identify a shift in my interests. Instead of continuing to write on the weekly parasha, I have decided to write on the haftorah instead. I have never read through the haftorot systematically. I feel a gap in my own learning, and am curious to see if the selections will expand some of the ways I have thought about the Torah itself, or take me in different directions. I hope that my reading, learning, and thinking about the haftorot grow in nuance and sophistication over time. The selections span a range of genres, and, like this week’s haftorah about Yiftach the shofet, places us immediately in a specific historical moment of Israel’s experience. Rabbi Yissachar Jacobson’s monumental work, Hazon haMiqra, on the haftorot, has already proven itself to be an invaluable tool in this endeavour. Therefore, without further ado, I turn my attention to the haftorah of parashat chukat.

The entire Book of Shofetim describes a confederacy of Israelite tribes living in the land of Israel without a central government. There are two statements that repeat in the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Every person did what seemed right in his eyes” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1;21:25), and, “…Israel did what was evil in God’s eyes, and they worshipped Ba’al.” (2:11; 3:7) A cycle of idolatrous disloyalty, warfare, suffering and repentance emerges, organizing the book’s literary structure. In each episode, a military leader, a shofet, is selected to redeem a specific tribe from their military altercations with indigenous populations. The 11th chapter of Shofetim relates the story of the shofet Yiftach from Gilad, most likely from the half-tribe of Menashe. Every Shofet was a peripheralized individual, a pariah or outcast of society in some regard: Yiftach was the child of a prostitute, exiled by his half-siblings. Shimshon was a Nazir. Devorah was a woman. Ehud, a lefty, Gideon, from the poorest family in Menashe. The implicit message perhaps, develops a theme that runs through the Book of Genesis: the younger sibling, the weaker one, the pariah, the outcast, may have the leadership potential that nobody else was willing to recognize.

The story of Yiftach describes the geopolitical conflict between Israel and Amon.

Amon attacked Israel, claiming that Israel, when they were traveling through the wilderness from Egypt hundreds of years earlier, had usurped Amon’s territory and was therefore illegally occupying their land. The altercations that led to this current situation are first described, indeed, in parashat Chukat, and then repeated, almost word for word, in the 11th chapter of Shofetim. The Torah reads:

From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. Therefore the Book of the Wars of the LORD speaks of “…Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis: the Arnon with its tributary wadis, stretched along the settled country of Ar, hugging the territory of Moab…” (Bemidbar 21:13-15)

As Israel traveled through the wilderness, they looked for entry-points into Canaan. They asked Edom, and were refused. The king of Arad refused. They then circumvented Moav and headed north to the border of the Amorites, by the Arnon river. They then sent emissaries to King Sichon of the Bashan. When Sichon refused, Israel fought and captured the lands ruled by Sichon. This is the context, 300 years later, of Amon’s claim against Israel, specifically in the area of the tribe of Menashe on both sides of the Jordan river. The outcome of the war between Israel and Sichon is the point of contention between Amon and Israel. Amon had been occupied by Sichon, and then defeated by Israel. Since Amon claimed that Sichon had illegally stolen their land, and then Sichon was defeated by Israel, Amon claimed that Israel was now illegally occupying their territory, and they wanted to regain their sovereignty. The verses above from parashat chukat are repeated almost verbatim in Shofetim:

“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon. Israel said to him, ‘Allow us to cross through your country to our homeland.’ But Sihon would not trust Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon mustered all his troops, and they encamped at Jahaz; he engaged Israel in battle. But the LORD, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his troops into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them; and Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that land. Thus they possessed all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Yabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. (Shofetim 11:19-22)

In the face of aggression from Amon, the people of Gilad turn to Yiftach. They request that he become their military leader and save them. In return, they promise him the leadership of the tribe. Yiftaach then makes a vow to God: “If You, Hashem, deliver me from the hand of the Ammonites, I will offer to You the first thing that comes out of the door of my house.” (11:30-31) Tragically, his daughter comes out as he approaches. More on this episode vow below. Yiftach enters into a series of geopolitical negotiations with Amon in an attempt to resolve the tension diplomatically. In chapter 11:13-26, Yiftash makes four points in his arguments with Amon. The Abrabanel, in his commentary there on Shofetim, praises Yiftach as an exemplar of contemporary geopolitical diplomacy. Yiftach had four arguments: (1) Moshe’s war was with Sichon, and did not involve Moav or Amon.

At that time, Sichon had already conquered those lands, and therefore was sovereign over them. (2) Moshe himself, despite the fact that neither Moav nor Amon allowed Israel to pass through their territory, entered into peace treaties with both nations. (3) Israel’s military victories during the time of Moshe were divinely sanctioned, not wars of aggression for land expansion. In addition, this indicated that the God of Israel was more powerful than Chemosh, the god of Amon. (In biblical theology, military defeat indicated the defeat of the loser’s god.) (4) Amon had three hundred years to reclaim their territory. Why make a claim now against Israel?

These are strong arguments. But the narrative suggests an underlying motif of aggression and arrogance. Yiftach was a Giladite. Surrounding Yiftach’s considerable political and diplomatic acumen are two deeply disturbing episodes of cruelty. His arrogant vow resulted in the sacrifice of his daughter, and the tensions with his Ephramite cousins resulted in a civil war matched only by the near extermination of the tribe of Benjamin in the episode of the concubine of Givah. The fact that Yiftach’s (failed) attempts at diplomacy revealed considerable skill is offset by these two episodes of cruelty and violence. Yiftach, for all of his negotiating skills, could not find a way to assemble the necessary judges, Kohanim or Leviim, to release him from his vow. If ever a person’s negotiating skills should be put to good use, it would be to save one’s daughter from such an abominable demise: On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, “Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become my troubler! For I have uttered a vow to the LORD and I cannot retract. (11:35) The text is so disturbing that commentators debate whether or not Yiftach actually sacrificed his daughter. Both Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra, 11th-12th century Spain, and Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, 15th century Portugal and Spain, contends that she was cloistered for the rest of her life, celebate and modest. Ibn Ezra identified her as a Nazir. The Ramban, 12th-13th century Spain, strongly disagreed. Do not be seduced into believing that nonsense according to Rabbi Avraham that she became a nazir, remaining cloistered from the world to serve God through prayer….Rather, the plain sense of the text stands: [she was offered as a sacrifice on the altar.]

Immediately following the episode with his daughter, Yiftach is confronted by the tribe of Ephraim. Yiftach himself had been exiled by his own clan. One can only image his inner state of rage and resentment. Then, when Yiftach emerged victorious against Amon, the tribe of Ephraim challenged his leadership. They had wanted to join forces against Amon, and proceed to threaten to “burn down his house,” meaning, according to the Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, 19th century Ukraine, his position of authority. (12:1) This confrontation hints at deeper internecine resentments, but resulted not in diplomatic talks again, but with Yiftach slaughtering 42,000 Ephramites. Since they were close tribally, Yiftach devised a clever plan to identify Ephramites according to their dialect and pronunciation of Hebrew:

And Yiftach gathered all the men of Gilead and fought the Ephraimites. The men of Gilead defeated the Ephraimites; for they had said, “You Gileadites are nothing but fugitives from Ephraim—being in Manasseh is like being in Ephraim.” The Gileadites held the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any fugitive from Ephraim said, “Let me cross,” the men of Gilead would ask him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”; if he said “No,” they would say to him, “Then say shibboleth”; but he would say “sibboleth,” not being able to pronounce it correctly.

Thereupon they would seize him and slay him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites fell at that time. (12:4-6)

This haftorah, then, provides an inter-textual commentary on the wars of Israel with neighboring people. Israel, Moab and Amon are all related; Moab and Amon were the sons of Lot, Avraham’s nephew. The territorial competition between Ephraim, Menashe, and the settlers of Gilad must have been deep and filled with resentment. The narrative of Yiftach juxtaposes the street-smart skills of talented negotiations against the eruption of rage and anger into unfathomable cruelty turned against his own daughter as well as against his tribal clansmen. Yiftach was clever. He could argue all the fine points of international law against Amon. He could persuade himself and others to believe in the right of Israel to occupy the lands of Amon. But cleverness does not resolve deep injury. Weaponizing the law for one’s own gain, for one’s own political power and ascendency, and even for the good of one’s one nation, will only deepen the pain and injury and the sense of injustice experienced by neighbors and even distant relatives. Perpetuating a story based on laws that do not reflect the lived experiences of everyone involved, only deepens enmity, mistrust, and hatred that can only erupt into future violence.

The ancient rabbis articulated this criticism of Yiftach in the midrash Tanchuma found at the end of parashat Bechukotai:

If a person does not study Torah, then all of his other endeavors will come to naught. A prime example of this is Yiftach the Giladi. As a result of not studying Torah, he lost his daughter. And do you know when this occurred? When he went to war against Amon and vowed his vow….God became enraged at him. God said to Yiftach: “What if a dog or a pig or a camel would have come out of your house!

Would you have offered those to Me? It was with the same [insensitivity] that he sanctified his own daughter!

That midrash then continued by imagining the conversation with his daughter:

Weeping, his daughter said to him: “I came to greet you in joy, and you are prepared to slaughter me?!” “But I took a vow!” She replied, “So did Yaakov. So what! Did God give him 12 sons in case he would slaughter 10% as he had promised?!” She saw, however, that he was not listening…..So it is with reference to Yiftach that Scripture has said (Prov. 28:3), “A poor man who exploits the indigent is a torrential rain which leaves no bread.” “A poor man who exploits the indigent.” This is referring to Yiftach; since he was poor in Torah like a [mere] sycamore shoot. The metaphor designates one who is poor. “Who exploits the indigent,” since he exploited the indigent, when he said to the men of Ephraim, “Say, ‘Shibboleth’; and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ not being able to pronounce it correctly.” Then he slaughtered him. (Midrash Tanchuma Bechukotai 5:1)

The message is clear. Injustices of the past cannot be erased by clever reasoning or intellectual arguments. Amon had a lived experience of the loss of their territory, and they would continue fighting until they could return home with dignity, independence and sovereignty. The indignation suffered by someone cast aside, like Yiftach, whose own dignity and self worth were denigrated by his fellow clansmen, also remains deep inside the neshama and memory, destined to emerge in rage and cruelty. And finally, arrogance always ends in disaster for everyone involved. May we learn these lessons and take them to heart. While being clever can masquerade as righteousness, the deeper lived experiences of injustice, and denigration fester beneath the surface, resulting often in irreparable disasters.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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