Haftarah Parashat Hukkat
June 23, 2018 | 10 Tammuz 5778
Jephthah was not pedigreed. He was a self-made man who lived on the periphery of society after having been forced out by his half-brothers. Along with others like him, he became a formidable leader. And so, when Gilad was threatened by the Ammonites, its leaders turned to him to save them. Jephthah, besides being a talented warrior, was a skilled negotiator as well. Though they thought to appoint him only to be their “katzin” or military leader, Jephthah parried this offer into something bigger, pressing them to appoint him to be “rosh” or head of the people.
This same savvy proved crucial in his dealings with the Ammonites. As a skilled negotiator and an astute general, he navigated the situation thrust upon him and his people. The Ammonites argued that the children of Israel had stolen their land on their way to returning to Eretz Yisrael. Jephthah skillfully countered with four key points: 1. When the children of Israel conquered the land claimed by the Ammonites, it was in possession of the Amorites; 2. They only conquered from the Amorites because they would not let the children of Israel pass through their land, and decided to make war on them instead; 3. The children of Israel had conquered it only because God had favored them and granted them victory; 4. The land was in Israel’s position for over 300 years, and in that time the Ammonites had never once asserted their case.
Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (19th century Lithuania) explains that what Jephtah was saying is that unless one has a legitimate land claim, the only reason for war is if: “one sins against his fellow’s honor.” Otherwise, “it is wrong to transgress the laws of kings and the customs of nations…”
Jephthah hoped to avert war while still upholding the integrity of Israel’s position that they had not wronged Ammon. Unfortunately, the king of Ammon rejected Jephthah’s overture. Was it that Jephtah’s argument had no merit? Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (15th-16th century Portugal, Spain, Italy), the statesman and exegete, asserted that the King of Ammon rejected Jephthah’s arguments only because he did not accept Jephthah’s status as ruler. Ammon otherwise would have obeyed the laws of kings and the customs of nations.
Both of these opinions remind us that even when one’s position is legitimate, war is sometimes a necessary last resort when attempts at a negotiated settlement fail. But it also reminds us that success or failure in geopolitics is often dependent on the choice of the right leader at the right time. Jephthah, with all of his failings, fit the bill. We also must take similar care in choosing our leadership. The fate of the nation or world might depend upon it.