Haftarah Parshat Naso
June 2, 2012
12 Sivan 5772
Samson was destined for greatness. God raised him up as the redeemer of Israel. Still, his story differs from the other episodes in the book of Judges where God caused the heroes to appear immediately upon hearing the nation’s cry for redemption from its enemies. Samson’s greatness and redemptive abilities did not kick in at the advent of the nation’s crisis. The tribes of Israel lived under Philistine abuse for forty years before Samson was able to begin to redeem them. His life story begins with his miraculous birth to a barren mother after an angelic revelation announcing his future birth. Samson was to be dedicated to God as a Nazirite who would refrain for a lifetime from grapes, alcoholic beverages and would never cut his hair. After his birth, the story announces enigmatically: “The spirit of the Lord first moved him (l’phaamo) in the encampment of Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” (13:25)
The words used for “moved him” are “ruah Elokim l’phaamo”. This phrase is taken to mean that God’s spirit first came upon him. Rashi asserts that the word “l’phaamo” derives from the root – peh ayin mem, meaning “one time” and consequently understands this phrase to mean that God’s spirit came upon Samson from time to time. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence), basing himself upon the Aramaic translation in the Targum Yonathan, claims that “l’phaamo” means “to strengthen him”. This interpretation is apparently based on the context since Kimche points out that in other places he has interpreted this word differently. Rabbi Joseph Kara, a younger contemporary of Rashi, interprets this word to mean that God’s spirit “shook or agitated him”. He bases himself on the Aramaic translation of a similar usage in the book of Genesis (41:8 regarding Pharaoh’s dreams). Rabbi Isaiah from Trani (13th century Italy) also seems to be guided by context when he claims this phrase means that God’s spirit “guided him”.
The unusual expression used to express God’s influence on Samson led to an interesting debate in the Talmud: “Rabbi Hama ben Hanina said: ‘Jacob’s prophecy became fulfilled, as it is written: ‘Dan shall be a serpent in the way.’ (Genesis 49:17) Said Rabbi Isaac from the house of Rabbi Ami: ‘It teaches that the Shechina (God’s presence) chimed before him like the clapper of a bell; for it is written here: ‘l’pha’amo’ and it is written elsewhere: ‘A golden bell (pa’amon) and a pomegranate’ (Exodus 28:34)” (Sotah 9b)
Rabbi Hama views Samson’s behavior as a fulfillment of Jacob’s prophetic message to his sons. Samson’s reprisals against the Philistines mark him as the snake mentioned in Jacob’s prophecy. Consequently, he himself contains no prophetic spirit. Rabbi Isaac, on the other hand, claims that Samson is an agent for occasional prophecy. This interpretation is based on the similarity between the root “pa’am” and the word “pa’amon – bell”.
Samson was a unique individual. The life that he led made it hard for the tradition to understand his place. Was his life prophetically inspired or was he simply an agent of God’s will? This debate extends beyond Samson’s life. In some ways, each of us lives this debate.
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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