May 22, 2010
9 Sivan 5770
Samson was designated before his birth to be a holy character – a nazir. He was destined to redeem the children of Israel from Philistine oppression. To prepare for this mission, his mother was not to drink wine during her pregnancy nor was Samson ever to touch the grape. His hair was not to be shorn for his entire lifetime. His life was to be dedicated to God. Still, Samson\’s life was an anomaly. He may have been heroic but his disposition was hardly holy by normal standards. His God-given prowess was used largely to save himself from oft repeated compromising situations.
When Samson came of age, he set his sights on a Philistine woman (14:2), demanding of his parents that they take her for him as a wife (14:3). This situation, of course, caused his parents great anguish. The narrator of the story, however, fills us in on an important detail: \”But his father and mother did not know that it (this situation) was from God; for he (Samson, unbeknownst to himself) sought a prevarication against the Philistines.\” (14:4)
Did Samson control his own behavior or was it in God\’s hands? The Mishnah places responsibility for Samson\’s behavior squarely in his own hands: \”Samson went after [the desire of] his own eyes; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes.\” (M. Sotah 1:8) The Talmud takes exception to the opinion of the Mishnah, noting that the question of responsibility for Samson\’s behavior is not so simple: \”Our Rabbis have taught: Samson rebelled [against God] through his eyes, as it is said: \’ Samson said unto his father, Get her for me, because she is pleasing in my eyes\’; therefore the Philistines put out his eyes, as it is said: \’And the Philistines laid hold on him and put out his eyes\’. But it is not so; for behold it is written: \’But his father and his mother knew not that it was of the Lord\’! [The Talmud\’s answered this dilemma in the following manner.] — [God planted in him the inclination but] when he went [to choose a wife] he nevertheless followed his own inclinations. (Sotah 9b)
Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) explains the Talmud\’s intention: \”Initially the purpose for his action was to find a pretext against the Philistines [in order to save Israel from their oppression], afterwards his libido took over when he saw her [the woman] and she found favor in his eyes, and his God-given intent was overtaken by his animal – bodily desires. This is why he was punished.\” Rabbi Zadok Hakohen (19th-20th century Lublin) asserts that Samson\’s sin was that of arrogance in that he assumed that what he himself desired was indeed God\’s will.
Both explanations capture Samson\’s great character flaw. His rise and his ultimate tragic downfall all came about because of his overwrought sense of self. Whether it was his desire to satisfy his own appetite or his assumption that his will was God\’s will; both had tragic consequences for him and for the nation.
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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