Nobody Is a Nothing (Judges 13:2-23)

This week’s haftarah is ostensibly about the birth of Samson, but Samson is not its hero. That role goes to a nameless character, Samson’s mother. She is described as “the wife of Manoah (eishet Manoah)” or as simply the woman (ha’isha). But despite her anonymity or perhaps, on account of it, she is accorded an even more lauded role than the other heralded character, her husband, Manoah. It is she who was granted the gift of prophecy and it was she who manipulated the events in the plot while her husband seems more object than subject. Anonymity is normally thought to signify a sense of being inconsequential, but this story obviously wants to quash that assumption.

The rabbinic period brought about a change in literary attitude. One sees a trend in rabbinic midrash that was averse to anonymity and as a result we find in the following rabbinic retelling of the story of Samson’s birth where “eishet Manoah” has a name: “’And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman’ (Judges 13:3) –  From this you learn that Manoah’s wife was a righteous woman, since she was privileged to have an angel speaking to her, making peace between her and her husband… And because she saw an angel she was called Zalalponi, which means that she turned her face (ponah) to look at the angel. ‘Zalal’ must refer to the angel, as we learn [from the verse regarding the angels who visited Lot]: ‘Since they have come under the shelter (b’zael) of my roof’ (Genesis 19:8) There,  the angel was under the shadow of his roof but here the angel came on account of her righteousness.” (Bemidbar Rabbah 10:5)

In some sense, the sages who composed this midrash were aiming at the same thing as the author of the story about the birth of Samson. The biblical story wants us to know that someone who might seem unimportant can play a remarkable role. The theme of the barren woman who is visited by God is not uncommon. Samson’s mother, however, is the first to have a prophetic conversation. The sages accomplish this same thing by giving her a name based on this role.

The message of this episode should not be lost on any of us. No one is insignificant and worthy of being ignored. Each of us has the potential to play a heroic role. If God makes a point of being attentive to an otherwise unknown woman, shouldn’t we be just as careful in our relationships with each other?

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years.
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