May 29, 2004
Biblical society was patriarchal. Women’s role was secondary legally, socially and economically. These factors are reflected in the opening lines of the haftarah: “And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and bore no children.” (Judges 13:2) We are never told the heroine’s name. She is simply referred to as “eishet Manoah – Manoah’s wife. Furthermore, her barrenness is not referred to as a personal tragedy but rather as that of her husband, Manoah. This makes the story all the more extraordinary, since in all other ways, “eishet Manoah” is the dominant character in the story, since she serves as both a “prophetess” and the chief protagonist.
In this story, Manoah’s wife is worthy of prophecy where her husband initially is not. She is the one who must bear and guarantee that Samson, the future savior of Israel, is properly raised as a nazirite with all of the prohibitions it imposed on her and on the child. Her husband, Manoah, only enters the picture through his wife’s intervention. He may manage the family’s property but it is his wife who is aware of the larger picture to which she must insure his cooperation in order to guarantee success. In other words, she was the one responsible not only for the fate of her son but also for the fate of her husband and that of all of Israel.
The story of the birth of Samson turns societal assumptions on their head for the sake of truth. Power, in this story, is not in the hands of those normally assumed to be powerful but rather in the hands of the insightful and Manoah’s wife was insightful. Her greatness was in her willingness to share her insight with her husband and her ability to shape destiny accordingly.
So we see that the dialectic element of the plot is intentional. It is not unlike what he have seen in the stories of Genesis where, on the one hand, primogeniture was a societal rule while in all of the stories of the patriarchs the younger son ironically takes on the primary position in society. The Bible seems concerned with the paradox that one must insure both the stability of society but also, at times, be willing to seek its reformation. This anomaly is one of the major challenges in each generation. Everything is a matter of proportion and timing.
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.
The United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers students of all backgrounds the skills for studying Jewish texts. We are a vibrant, open-minded egalitarian community of committed Jews who learn, practise and grow together. Our goal is to provide students the ability and desire to continue Jewish learning and practice throughout their lives.
Rashei Yeshiva: Rabbi Joel Levy & Dr. Joshua Kulp.
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