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Haftarah Parshat Hukkat

Haftarah Parshat Hukkat (Judges 11:1-33)
June 27, 2015 / 10 Tammuz 5775

This week’s haftarah really ends in the middle of the story. Jephthah is the victor in his battle with the Ammonites. He is the uncrowned “king” of Israel despite his “humble” origins.  Before his victory he makes a vow to God: “And Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord and said: ‘If You indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’” (11:30-31) In the lines that follow the haftarah, we find out that his daughter, his only child is the one who comes out to greet him. (verses 34-35)

I present here in full the Tanhuma’s take on this episode (parts of which I have presented before from other sources) because it is so appropriate as a critique of things that are going on in our day and age:  ‘The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; a wise man can acquire people’ (Proverbs 11:30) The tree of life refers to Torah. For if a person is knowledgeable in Torah, he (or she) will know how to acquire (or save) people. This is what happened to Jephthah. Since he was not learned in Torah, he lost his daughter. When? When he was fighting the Ammonites, he made a vow: ‘And Jephthah made a vow to God: If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.’  At that moment, God became angry with Jephthah. He said: If a dog or a pig or a camel came out from your house would you offer it before Me? So God arranged that his daughter should exit the house, as it said: Behold, his daughter came out toward him, and behold when he saw her (11:34-5)

Wasn’t Pinchas (a big sage) there, so how could he say that he could not retract (See 11:35)? Rather Pinchas said: I am the high priest, the son of the high priest and I should lower myself to go visit that boor (unlearned oaf)? Jephthah said: I am the head of the tribes of Israel, the head officer and I should lower myself to go visit that commoner? Between [the arrogance] of the two of them, the poor girl was lost and the two of them were liable for her life. Pinchas lost the spirit of prophecy and, [as for] Jephthah, his bones were spread all over, as it said: And he was buried in the cities of Israel (12:7)

Jephthah’s daughter said to him: Is it written in the Torah that they should sacrifice the lives of their children? Isn’t it written: When a person makes for himself an offering to God from the herd of the flock, etc. (Leviticus 1:2) – from the beasts and not from the children. Jephthah responded: But my daughter, I made a vow, that whatever came out of the door! She retorted: Jacob, our forefather, vowed to give a tenth of all that God gave him (See Genesis 28:22) And God gave him twelve tribes and did he sacrifice a single one of them? All these things she said to him, but he would not listen to her. Let me be, and let me go to a bit din (a court), in the hope that one of them can find a way to release your vow, as it said: Let me be for two months that I may depart and go down to the mountains. (11:37) – [the mountains refer to] the Sanhedrin.

So she went to the beit din, but they did not find a way to rescind his vow and so he went up and slaughtered her before God and God cried out: ‘Have I requested from you to sacrifice human beings before Me? I neither spoke of nor did it even occur to Me to request it. (See Jeremiah 19:5) Rather I said: ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy’ (Genesis 22:12)… I did not command Jephthah to offer to Me his daughter… Who caused Jephthah to cause the loss of his daughter? It is that he did not read the Torah, for if he had studied it he would not have offered his daughter… for ‘Fruit of righteous is a tree of life and he will know how to acquire a person’s life. (adapted from Tanhuma Buber Behukotai 7, p. 112-4)

We see so much arrogance and negligence of Torah in this passage on the part of those who should know and do better. The only hero or heroine in this story is Jephthah’s daughter. She is also the only sage in the story as well as its unfortunate victim. This not so well known story should serve as a valuable lesson to both the knowledgeable and the powerful of the consequences of callousness and arrogance in the supposed “service to God”.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
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