June 19, 2010
7 Tammuz 5770
Jephthah is a hero born of tragic circumstances. Born out of wedlock, he was not accepted by his stepbrothers as a legitimate member of the family. They disgraced him and chased him from the house, forcing him to flee and take up the life of a brigand. He established himself as a powerful figure with a substantial following of others like himself living on the periphery of society. When Israel was threatened by the Ammonites and needed a strongman, they were forced to beg for his services as a leader and general, to fight against this enemy.
The leaders came and implored him: \”They said to Jephthah, \’Come be our chief (katzin), so that we can fight the Ammonites.\’ Jephthah replied to the elders of Gilead, \’You are the very people who rejected me and drove me our of my father\’s house. How can you come to me now when you are in trouble?\’ The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah: \’Honestly, we have now turned back to you. If you come back with us and fight the Ammonites, and the Lord delivers them to me, I am to be your commander (rosh).\’\” (6-8)
Modern commentators take note that Jephthah was initially offered the role of \”katzin – chief\” and only after he turned it down was he offered to become \”rosh – the commander\”. \”Katzin\” is a lower position than \”rosh\”. The first is a military position while the second position seems to be a higher position. (Y. Amit, Shoftim, Mikra L\’Yisrael, pp. 195-6)
Rabbi Meir Malbim (19th century Poland) derived a lesson from Jephthah\’s negotiations: \”There is a difference between \”rosh\” and \”katzin\”. A \”katzin\” stands at the edge of the camp because of his importance even though he doesn\’t govern over the community. They did not mention a reward for his success. They simply noted that they acknowledged his heroism but did not treat him with distinction. However, for Jephthah, station was important because they had previously treated him so poorly. If they had treated him kindly or even if they had approached him kindly now or even apologized, his prestige would not have been so important to him and he would have graciously led them in battle. Now that they desired him simply for his prowess, his dignity meant everything to him.\” (Adapted and abridged)
Treating people with dignity should be a given. Still, it seems a hard lesson for many to learn. Rabbi Malbim wants us to learn from this episode that there is a severe price to be paid when this lesson is ignored.
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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