June 23, 2007
The book of Judges presents us with an assortment of different kinds of leaders, many of them political and military leaders rather than religious leaders. Some of these leaders are amply described. Others are presented in but a few words. Some measure up to our expectations of great leadership, both political and religious. Others leave us disappointed. Jephtah is presented as a leader of dubious background, living on the periphery of society, thrust into leadership because of his military prowess. He proves a talented political and military strategist, but other actions, like the tragic story of his daughter found at the end of his story, leave us wondering at his inconsistency in decision making.
This is why it is so surprising that the prophet Samuel, in his farewell address, should include judges like Jephtach in the list of leaders who, like himself, acted as agents of God, providing leadership and salvation to the people of Israel: \”Samuel said to the people, \’The Lord [is witness]. He who appointed Moses and Aaron and who brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt… And the Lord sent Jerubaal and Bedan and Jephtah and Samuel, and delivered you from the enemies around you; and you dwelt in security.\’\” (1 Samuel 12:6; 11)
The Rabbis also were apparently astonished by this comparison but discerned from this juxtaposition of leaders of varying qualities a profound assessment of how societies must contend with the dilemma of measuring the leaders of one generation with those of another. The Talmud, in a response to the question why the Torah does not mention the names of the seventy elders who prophesied together with Moses, Aaron, Nadav and Avihu (See Exodus 24:9), brings the following teaching: \”Our Rabbis taught: Why were not the names of these elders mentioned? So that a man should not say, Is So-and-so like Moses and Aaron? Is So-and-so like Nadab and Abihu? Is So-and-so like Eldad and Medad? Scripture also says, \’And Samuel said to the people, It is the Lord that made Moses and Aaron\’, and it says [in the same passage], And the Lord sent Jerubaal and Bedan and Jepthah and Samuel.\’ Jerubaal is Gideon. Why is he called Jerubaal? Because he contended with Baal. Bedan is Samson. Why is he called Bedan? Because he came from Dan. Jephthah is Jephthah. It says also: Moses and Aaron among his priests and Samuel among them that call on his name. [We see therefore that] the Scripture places three of the most questionable characters on the same level as three of the most estimable characters, to show that Jerubaal in his generation is like Moses in his generation, Bedan in his generation is like Aaron in his generation, Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation, [and] to teach you that the most worthless, once he has been appointed a leader of the community, is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty. Scripture says also: And you shall come unto the priests the Levites and to the judge that shall be in those days. (Deut. 17:9) Can we then imagine that a man should go to a judge who is not in his days? This shows that you must be content to go to the judge who is in your days. It also says; Say not, How was it that the former days were better than these? (See Ecclesiastes 7:10) [The intent of this last verse is to say, one should not ask how it is that other generations have better judges than this one.] (Adapted from Rosh Hashanah 25a-b)
Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer ben Yehudah HaLevi Edels (16-17th century Poland) asserts that the most estimable character refers to Samuel while the least estimable character means Jephthah. This passage, then, uses what the rabbis saw as a strange comparison between Samuel and Jephthah in Samuel\’s closing address as a means to express unequivocally the legal ability of religious decisors in every generation to participate in the process of shaping the tradition. This idea, for the sages, is inherent in the tradition and necessary for its continued vibrancy. May the sages of each generation exercise this responsibility with dignity, responsibility and honor. (See J. Roth, The Halakhic Process, p.. 117-9)