July 5, 2008
2 Tammuz 5768
The painful realities and complexities of life often shine through in the characters and events of Biblical stories. Jephthah is just such a figure. He was born into a complicated family situation which did nothing to create a supportive home environment for him to grow up in: \”Jephthah the Giladite was an able warrior, who was the son of a prostitute. Jephthah\’s father was Gilead; but Gilead also had sons by his wife, and when the sons grew up, they drove Jephtah out. They said to him: \’You shall have no share in our father\’s property, for you are the son of an outsider.\’\” (1-2) This harsh reality left Jephthah with little choice, so he went out and became a brigand: \”So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the Tob country. Men of low character gathered about Jephthah and went out raiding with him.\” (3)
The consequential events in this chain are not difficult to notice. One wrong behavior led to the next. The repercussions of a single slight led to the gathering together of a band of thugs and brigands, many of whom were probably driven to this fate by events similar to those which confronted Jephthah. While Jephthah eventually went on to save his people from the onslaught of their enemies, his fate did not have to turn out that way. The more likely fate of such an individual was to continue on his downward spiral, bringing others along with him. Once such a trend starts, it builds upon itself, as is indicated by this rabbinic insight:
\”Raba said to Rabbah b. Mari: From where can we derive the popular saying, ‘A bad palm will usually make its way to a grove of barren trees’? Rabbah replied: This matter was written [about] in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, mentioned a third time in the Writings and also learned in a Mishnah and taught in a Baraitha: It is stated in the Pentateuch as written, \’So Esau went unto Ishmael\’ (Gen. 28:9); repeated in the prophets, as written, \’And there gathered themselves to Jephthah idle men and they went out with him\’ (Judges 11:3); mentioned a third time in the Writings, as it is written: \’Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal\’ (Ben Sira 8:15); it was learned in the Mishnah: \’Everything that which is attached to an article which is subject to the law of defilement, will similarly become defiled, but anything which is attached to something which always remains [levitically] clean will remain clean (Kelim 12:2); and it was also taught in a Baraitha: R. Eliezer said: ‘Not for nothing did the starling follow the raven, but because it is of its kind.’ (See Hullin 65a)\” (Baba Kamma 92b)
In Jephthah\’s case, such a vicious trend could have been avoided with more generous behavior on the part of his brothers. This is equally true of how our own behavior impacts on others.
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.
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