June 27, 2009
5 Tammuz 5769
The Rabbis combed biblical stories not just for an awareness of the history of their people; they also examined the stories meticulously both for lessons about human behavior and as illustrations of patterns of behavior which they, themselves, observed. The story of Jephthah is a case in point. Jephthah\’s youth was not an easy one. Sired by a father from a woman other than his wife, Jephthah was not accepted by his siblings. He spent his early years as a societal outcast, living on the edge of society. This part of his life is characterized in these words: \”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.\” (Verse 3) This vignette of Jephthah made him, in some circles, the symbol of an unsavory character who served as a magnet for others like him to gravitate around.
In the following passage the sages made note of this social phenomenon, using Jephthah as an example: Raba [again] said to Rabbah b. Mari: From where can the [following] popular saying be derived, \’A bad palm will usually make its way to a grove of barren trees\’? He replied: This matter was written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, mentioned a third time in the Writings. It was taught in a Mishnah and learned in a Baraitha: It is stated in the Torah, as written, \’So Esau went unto Ishmael\’ (Genesis 28:9); repeated in the prophets, as written, \”Men of low character gathered about Jephthah and went out raiding with him (Judges 11:3); mentioned a third time in the Writings, as written: \”Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal\” (Ben Sira 13:15); it was learnt in the Mishnah: \’All that which is attached to an article that is subject to the law of defilement\’, will similarly become defiled, but all that which is attached to anything which would always remain [levitically] clean would similarly remain clean (Kelim 13:2); 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.\’ (Baba Kama 92b)
In this passage, Jephthah is compared to the barren tree that attracted other trees like it. This Talmudic passage implies that those who choose for themselves to be attracted to scurrilous individuals doom themselves to adopt their ways. Rabbi Shmuel Edels (16-17th century Poland) developed this idea. He claims that those who gathered around Jephthah were from good families and had ample opportunity to live a righteous life. Their behavior, which Edels likens to fruit, was not righteous. They searched out a leader with similar behavior who simply reinforced this way of life, damning themselves to continue in their wrong ways.
This message counsels us to be self aware – a very hard thing to do, because it is very easy to fall prey to those things in our nature as human beings which will bring about our downfall. Once people fall to these things, according to Raba, they find others with similar faults who help perpetuate these faults, leading potentially to a very sad end.
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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