Haftarah Parshat Hukkat
June 30, 2012
10 Tammuz 5772
As is well known, the book of Judges presents us with a series of episodes where the children of Israel turn from God and as a result are oppressed. They then cry out to God, abandon their idolatries, whereupon God sends them a redeemer to save them from their oppressors. Still, the redeemers sent by God where not all of even qualities. It is a worthwhile exercise to compare Jephthah, the hero of this week’s haftarah, with the two “judges”, Gideon and Abimelech, who preceded him. The first of these figures, Gideon, was chosen by God to save Israel. He was reticent to take on the mantle of leadership and challenged God in prophetic fashion. After many successes, the people pleaded with him to become king. He refused, noting that only God could be considered king. His rule was marked by a long period of peace. (ch. 6-8)
Gideon passed away leaving many progeny. Among them was Abimelech, the son of a concubine. Abimelech was a very different character than his father. He conspired to become ruler over the people, killing all but one of his many brothers to ensure his position. In his despicable behavior, Abimelech was an almost perfect foil to his father’s righteousness. His rule was not a peaceful one and his intrigue was answered in kind, lasting only three years. (ch. 9)
In many ways, Jephtach’s background was similar to that of Abimelech. He was the son of a whore, making him a societal outcast. He, too, rose up on the periphery of society, gathering around him worthless and reckless fellows (compare 9:4 to 11:3), and became a powerful figure. Yet, he did not usurp power nor threaten society. When the threat of Israel’s enemies became overwhelming and there was no one who could assume leadership over them, the people turned to Jephtach to save them. Jephtach did not rush to lead the people. Like Gideon, he showed reticence, questioning the people’s choice. His leadership in trying circumstances was measured and wise. He was, however, not without flaws. We note this fact, in one particular episode when on the eve of an important battle he made a reckless vow, which ultimately cost him the life of his daughter. (See 11:30-40)
The storyteller has given us three characters: Gideon, of pure background, dedication and personality; Abimelech, of flawed upbringing, who follows his background to destructive ends and Jephtah, who struggles with his flawed origins, largely overcomes them, but not completely. (See Y. Amit, Judges, Mikra L’Yisrael, p. 193) These characterizations offer us a valuable lesson concerning life’s alternatives. Jephtah’s life shows us that we do not need to be slaves to our origins. It is possible to master life, even if not perfectly. That is our challenge.
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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