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Jephtah swore an oath to G-d: 'If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the Ammonites shall be G-d's, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering. (Judges 11:30-31)
The books of Joshua and Judges deal with the early period of Israelite settlement in the Holy Land - between their entry under Joshua, and the establishment of a united monarchy under David and Solomon. The Book of Judges shows how that Israelite conquest and settlement of the Land was neither immediate nor well founded. Rather, it was a slow and painful process. The Israelites faced constant harassment from the technologically superior Canaanites and neighboring city-states, such as Ammon, on the higher land. Towards the end of the period, they were confronted by the far more powerful and militarily-expert Philistines on the southern coastal plain.
The recurring theme in the Book of Judges is the Deuteronomic Cycle. This is described in the opening chapters of the Book of Judges (2:11-19). The Israelites sin against G-d by following the paganism of the surrounding nations, they are delivered into the hands of the local population, they suffer Divine Justice at their hands, they realize how they left G-d, and they finally cry out to Him. He responds by sending them a judge - a savior to restore order, and lead them successfully into battle against their enemies. Once the danger passes, the Israelites become wayward once more, and the cycle begins all over again.
The great lesson of the Book of Judges is that Israel's survival depended on fidelity to G-d, whilst disloyalty always led to disaster. But there was more to it than that: even when the nation was unfaithful to G-d and disaster came, G-d was ready to save His people when they repented and turned to Him again.
The Haftara, set in the 11th century BCE, neatly fits one turn of the cycle. Once more, they followed the local cults: the idols of Aram, Sidon, Moab, Ammon, and the Philistines. Once more they found themselves in the hands the enemy - including the people of Ammon. And when they cried out to G-d, He retorted: "Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen, let them save you when you are in trouble." (10:14) The Israelites then removed their idols and sincerely repented, and the savior He sent to Israel this time was the unlikely personality of Jephtah.
Jephtah himself was an outcast: the son of an unmarried woman, from a family living in the relatively remote Transjordan. Because of his lowly birth, his legitimate half-brothers forced him out of the family and he became an outsider and an outlaw. As he was an 'able warrior' (11:1), 'empty men' (11:3) - people excluded from their clan, found themselves drawn to him. They very likely acted as mercenaries in search of revenge, and in Jephtah they found a leader of the caliber they wanted. Stories of his success no doubt reached the ears of his relatives back home, and he was the man they turned to when they could bear the oppression of Ammon no longer. Jephtah was magnanimous enough to put his people's earlier cruelty towards him in the background. He agreed to accept the leadership of the area, he himself making it clear that it would be a permanent position on the successful outcome of the campaign against their tyrant, Ammon (11:9).
Jephtah was not going into battle if he could avoid it. Following Moses' example in his peace overtures with Sihon king of the Amorites (Num. 21:21-22), and with the king of Moab (recorded Jud. 11:16), he sent messengers to negotiate a peace settlement: the Israelite case for its presence in the region. The Israelites, he claimed, were given that territory by G-d. Had the Amorites a legitimate claim to that land, their idol Chemosh would have seen to it that they got it. [We have extra-Biblical source material on the idol of Chemosh: it is mentioned on the stele of Mesha as the idol of the neighboring Moabites, carved out some two hundred years after the events of the Haftara, and on view to the public in the Louvre, Paris.] Naturally, Ammon rejected Jephtah's negotiations, and the Haftara ends on the cheering note that he soundly defeated them in battle, 'humbling the people of Ammon before the Israelites'. (11:33)
Before his campaign against the people of Ammon, he vowed that whatever came out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returned safely from the Ammonites 'shall be G-d's, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering.' (11:30-31). As he came home, that 'which came out of his house' was his own daughter 'with timbrel and dance'. (11:34). Jephtah was overcome with anguish and grief, but his daughter accepted her fate, asking for two months 'to go with her companions… and lament over her maidenhood.' (11:37) She then returned to her father who 'fulfilled his vow' (11:39), and it became a custom for the maidens of Israel to annually make a four-day pilgrimage and chant dirges for Jephtah's daughter. (11:40)
What actually happened to her is unclear in the text. Rashi implies that Jephtah did actually sacrifice his own daughter. The Radak, whose line Hirsch follows, says that he did no such thing, but that she retired from normal life. Abarbanel holds that the situation forced on her the cloistered, chaste existence, reminiscent of the way of life later taken up by some Christians. This fits in with the Ralbag, who sees Jephtah's vow as making her holy - as an offering. Thus Jephtah's daughter had to serve only G-d; she could not marry, as then she would also have to serve her husband. He adds that Jephtah made her a separate house where she lived all alone except for the four days each year when friends revisited her.
The Haftara relates the circumstances leading to Jephtah's predicament, with tragic consequences for his daughter. Jephtah's calamity arose to a great degree because he was on the top of the pyramid - as the judge himself. He had no higher human judge to turn to.
Moses addressed the issue of resolving difficult problems within his long speech to the Israelites before his death, which forms the bulk of the Book of Deuteronomy. The text states:
'If a matter of judgment is too difficult for you to resolve…You shall approach the Priests, the Levites, and the judge of the time… You shall inquire and they will tell you the words of the judgment…You shall be careful to do according to everything that they will teach you.' (Deut. 17:8-10)
The above states that the contemporary leading religious authorities are the final arbiters in Halachic disputes. The expression the judge of that time is understood by the Talmud to include judges of lesser caliber than those of previous generations. 'Jephtah in his generation is as Samuel in his generation' (Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 25b). This teachers that a person must not cut himself off from the direction of today's Torah scholars, claiming that they are not as great as those of the previous generation.
This leads to the very basic question of why those two judges in particular - Samuel and Jephtah, the central personality in this Haftara - are implied to be the best and worst respectively? True, the Psalms, (99:6, as explained by the Talmud, supra.) testify to the superlative greatness of Samuel; namely by regarding him as the equal of Moses and Aaron. However it would appear that Samson, rather than Jephtah would have been the least worthy of the Judges. This is implied in both the Biblical account of his career (Judges 14-16), and in the way in which his memory was referred to by Samuel: G-d sent Jerubaal and Bedan, and Jephtah and Samuel (Samuel I 12:11). Here, Samuel seems to have referred to Samson casually as 'Bedan' - 'in the tribe of Dan', whereas Jephtah, in contrast, was as at least given the respect of being called by name.
One answer is as follows. Jephtah was by no means the most inferior of judges. But the connection between Jephtah on one hand and Samuel on the other is that although both faced similar situations, they handled them very differently. For they both had to make Halachic decisions over nedarim - vows. And both of those vows involved matters of life and death. The way each judge handled his own situation brought out the respective contrasting qualities.
Jephtah made a vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering to G-d whatever first came out of his house, in the event of his campaign against Ammon being successful (Judges 11:30-1). Sadly for him, 'whatever first came out of his house' turned out to be his own daughter. The text states that she met a tragic end, whose precise details are a debate between the major commentaries. The important point is that Jephtah was not lenient - he did not find a way 'around' the vow. And his daughter suffered the most unpleasant consequences of her father's stringency.
Samuel, as a judge, had to deal with a similar vow made by Saul, his protege, concerning the war against the Philistines. Saul vowed the death penalty on whoever tasted food on the day of the battle. His son Jonathan, not knowing about his father's neder, found some honey and ate it (Samuel I 14:24,44). Unlike Jephtah, Saul, who had Samuel as his religious guide, found a way out. When the people protested that the whole victory was a result of what Jonathan did with G-d's help, that generation indeed managed to repeal the vow (see Rashi ad loc., 45). So Samuel was able to be lenient where Jephtah was not. He did succeed in finding a way round the vow.
The Talmud (Beitza 2b), in analyzing a debate between the Schools of Shamai and Hillel, asks why a certain lenient judgment was recorded by a Mishna in preference to a corresponding stricter judgment, which would have been perfectly adequate for its purposes. It answers that the Mishna wished to emphasize an important maxim: namely that being lenient shows much greater legislative strength than the giving of a strict ruling. Rashi (ad loc.) explains and implies that any sincere G-d fearing person can say 'no' when in doubt; but it takes courage, conviction, and great legislative ability to analyze a difficult situation and come out with a 'yes'. So Samuel was the greater judge in that he could be lenient where Jephtah, the lesser judge, could not.
This may contribute an explanation to the tenth Beracha in the weekday Amidah: Restore our judges as of old, and advise us as in earlier times, and remove from us sadness and sighing - meaning that our Halachic guides, in the footsteps of Samuel, should be able to be lenient where necessary.
One well-known example. Following the medical advice available, Rabbi Israel Salanter ruled that it was mandatory to eat on the Yom Kippur of 1853 when the cholera epidemic sweeping Lithuania was at its height. Fasting, Rabbi Salanter was informed, would increase the likelihood of contacting the disease. He emphasized his ruling by publicly made kiddush in the largest synagogue in Vilna after the Kol Nidrei service - no doubt to impress on all (including the type who prides himself on being more 'frum' than the others) that it was forbidden to fast on that Yom Kippur. Another Rav - not of the caliber of R. Israel Salanter, would very likely have been frightened to display such 'leniency'...
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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