Walking towards each other: Lessons from a biblical judge (Haftarah Hukkat)

The Haftarah for the Torah portion of Hukkat (read in Jewish communities around the world this year on July 1) revolves around the story of one particular judge, named Yiftach (often rendered in English as “Jephthah,” but “Yiftach” is a better rendering of the Hebrew and much easier to pronounce).

Yiftach was an unlikely leader who grew up on the margins of society, but became a leader of the Israelites. When his home community was attacked by the nation of Ammon, he led his people into battle. Before departing to battle, he utters his famous – or infamous – vow to God: “Dear God, if you deliver the nation of Ammon into my hands, then whatever first comes out to greet me when I come home will be offered up as a burnt-offering to God.” (Judges 11:30-31)

The battle is successful, and Ammon is defeated. Yiftach returns home, and that is the end of the Haftarah as it is read in the synagogue. However, the story continues. Presumably, when he had made his vow, Yiftach had assumed that it would be a chicken, or cow, or sheep, that would emerge first from his home, so he would offer such an animal to God in gratitude. However, the unthinkable happens: the first being to emerge from his home to greet him after his victory is Yiftach’s daughter. (You may hear the echoes in this story of the Greek myth of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphiginea.)

Yiftach cries with pain and rage. He actually seems angry at his daughter for having come out of the door first. He makes it clear that he is going to fulfill this vow, because a vow made to God can never be retracted. His daughter says, “Do what you have promised to do…. just give me two more months to cry with my friends.” (36-37)

After this, the text is inconclusive. It doesn’t say specifically that Yiftach offered up his daughter as a burnt offering. But it does say that he “did to her what he had vowed to do.” (39) Perhaps the text is elliptic because the author is just as horrified at this part of the story as we are. How could someone possibly lead to the death of an innocent person just because of an ill-advised vow!

There is one Midrash – a rabbinic commentary on this story from nearly two thousand years ago – that notes that Yiftach of course made a number of terribly tragic errors in this story. Clearly, he should never have made such a stupid promise. But secondly, he was simply incorrect when he said that a vow made to God can never be retracted. The midrash (found in Kohelet Rabbah 1:15 and other midrashic collections) notes that, at Yiftach’s time, getting a vow annulled was not such a difficult task. All he needed to do was go before the High Priest and request that the vow be annulled.

The midrash continues: Yiftach was well aware of this possibility. And he truly wanted the vow to be annulled. But he said, “I am the military leader of this entire people! Why should I go to the high priest? Let the high priest come to me!”

As you may be able to imagine, the high priest said, “I am the high priest, son of a high priest! Why should I go to this commoner, Yiftach!? Let him come to me!” Both Yiftach and the High Priest stood on ceremony, refusing to compromise.

There are aspects of this story that seem almost too horrific to be true. But the notion of two adversaries letting pride get in the way of their ability to save someone’s life sounds somewhat contemporary. Yiftach is a tragic figure because he can’t admit he made a mistake, and even when he was willing to concede that he was wrong, he was too proud to take steps to reverse the damage he had done. But the High Priest has to share some of the blame. Even though this problem was not of the High Priest’s making, the High Priest did have the power to reverse the damage and to allow Yiftach to take back his vow, But he allowed his own pride to hold him back from taking that step.

We have no idea what would have happened if Yiftach and Pinchas the High Priest had each said to each other: Let us meet in the middle.

We often don’t want to “meet in the middle” — and often for good reason. There are enemies in the world with whom we should not be negotiating or compromising. Meeting an adversary in the middle can feel like we are dignifying an adversary who should simply be crushed and obliterated, not negotiated with.

But in this case, Yiftach and the High Priest are not each other’s enemies. Rather, they are rivals. They need each other. And for that reason, they should have taken steps towards each other — at least to understand each other, even if not to agree.

Increasingly I feel that there is no skill we need, in our increasingly divided world, more than the skill of walking towards those with whom we disagree vehemently and yet still understand to be our partners. As we address the multitude of challenges in the United States, in Israel, and throughout the world, may we avoid the tragic impulsiveness of Yiftach — and may we also avoid the tragic indifference and inaction of the High Priest.

About the Author
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg is the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, a teacher and musician, and an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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