In Israel: June 7, 2003
In the Diaspora: June 14, 2003
Samson, the hero of this week’s haftarah, is an anomalous character. On the one hand, the angel informs his mother that he would be born with the special sanctity of a nazir, a person especially dedicated to God. He was to be God’s special agent in saving Israel from the hands of her enemies. His mother even had to observe a special regimen in order to invest him with this special status. On the other hand, he was a man of prodigious appetites, often unable to control himself much to his own detriment.
This dialectic is captured in a theological discussion in the Talmud about the nature of Samson’s behavior. The Mishnah records the following statement about Samson: “Samson followed [the desire of] his eyes and as a consequence the Philistines gouged out his eyes, as it says: ‘And the Philistines seized him and gouged out his eyes (Judges 16:21)’ (Sotah 9b) This statement, which is an example of the rabbinic theological idea known as ‘midah kneged midah – measure for measure’, gives rise to an interesting Talmudic debate: Our Rabbis [in a baraita] have taught: Samson rebelled [against God] through his eyes, as it said: ‘And Samson said unto his father, Get her for me, because she is pleasing in my eyes’ (Judges 14:3), and so it is said: ‘And the Philistines laid hold of him and put out his eyes.’ [The Talmud questions this statement and asks]: Is it really so [that Samson betrayed God], for isn’t it written: ‘But his father and mother did not know that it was of the Lord.’ (Judges 14:4) [The Talmud answers this question]: When he went to choose a wife, he nevertheless followed his own inclinations [and not the will of God]…” (adapted from Sotah 9b – see Rabbi David Kimche on Judges 13:4)
This passages raises questions about providence and free will. If Samson was God’s agent and all of his actions were the result of his mission, then how is it possible to punish him? The sages, in their analysis of this story see evidence that Samson was responsible for his own inappropriate behavior but the story also seems to indicate that all of Samson’s behavior was part of the Divine plan to punish Israel’s enemies. The Talmudic answer to this quandary is measured. The sages seem to assert that the general providential plan is God’s but the details of Samson’s behavior are his, leaving the responsibility for his faulty behavior in his hands. In essence, the religious dialectic found in this answer is basic to the Jewish tradition. We live with the sense that God is involved in our lives but also with the resolve that we are responsible for our actions. Definitive? Certainly not! But the Jewish tradition is profoundly aware of the human religious condition. Why? Because we are acutely aware that we live in Samson’s anomalous world.
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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