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‘For the young man (Samson) shall be a Nazirite to G-d’ (Judges 13:5)
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 on the higher land, and, towards the end of the period, the even more advanced Philistines on the southern coastal plain.
The recurring theme in the Book of Judges is the Deuteronomic Cycle. This is exemplified in 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 starts all over again.
The great lesson of the Book of Judges is that Israel’s survival depended on loyalty to G-d, whilst disloyalty always led to disaster. But there was more to it than that: even when the nation was disloyal 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 early 11th century BCE, shows one turn of the cycle. The Israelites sin, and this time the conquering power are the Philistines. That last detail is important. On previous occasions when the Israelites strayed from the right path, their oppressors were local: Canaanites, or neighboring small city-states from Trans-Jordan, such as Moab and Ammon. The Philistines, a fierce international force, were a far more powerful, formidable, and more technologically advanced opponent that the indigenous civilizations. They themselves were foreigners to the region, originating from what today is Greece. In fact they formed part of the Peoples of the Sea, the most predatory race in this part of the Late Bronze Age. They wrecked what was left of the Minoan civilization in Crete, and came close to taking over Egypt. When Pharaoh Ramses III drove them out of the Nile area, in the battles magnificently portrayed at Karnak, the Pulesti turned northeast and established themselves on the south Levantine coast. They built five large cities recorded in the text – Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza on the coast, and Gath and Ekron further inland. Both the text and excavations carried out at those sites shows that they were warlike, and they were technologically advanced in that they could use iron to make weapons (Samuel I 13:20).
However, although the text states that, ‘G-d put them in the hands of the Philistines for forty years’, (13:1) there did not seem to be real war between them in Samson’s day: he does not actually lead an army. Thought the Philistines were by then well established on the coast, they were only just beginning to make themselves felt in the interior of the country. In fact, both the narrative of Samson and the Philistine artifacts found at Beth Shemesh (close to Zora and Eshtaol, in 13:25) show that there were many contacts, and even intermarriage, between the Israelites and the Philistines.
The text of the Haftara relates that an angel appeared before the wife of Manoah, from the tribe of Dan – a simple person from a hardly distinguished tribe of Dan. He tells her that she will give birth to a son, and instructs her to abstain from strong drink and ‘unclean’ food. The boy is to be reared as a life-long Nazirite, and he will ‘begin to save Israel from the Philistines’ – a process which was to continue for about another century until they were finally subdued by King David. G-d sends the angel in the guise of a man once more, and this time Manoah sees him as well. He repeats that their son was to be a Nazirite as long as he lived. He refused to partake in a meal or say who he was, and he ascended in the flames of the altar on which Manoah was making an offering. At that moment, Manoah knew that visitor was indeed an angel from G-d. He was overawed: ‘we will die, for we have seen G-d.’ (13:22) His wife – obviously with feet more firmly on the ground, and endowed with greater logic and insight – managed to calm him down. Indeed, she said, G-d was working with them: He had accepted their offerings and told them how to bring up their son – who was eventually born, and named Samson. He ‘grew up and G-d blessed him’. And the Spirit of G-d began to make itself felt in the region of Dan.
The call of G-d to Manoah and his barren wife ordered them to bring up their future son, Samson, as a Nazirite. His not being allowed to cut his hair was to make him ‘separate to G-d, from conception in the womb until the day of his death.’ (13:5). He would ‘begin to save the Israelites from the Philistines’ (ibid). Subsequent events related in the narrative of Samson raise the following issues:
1. Samson’s being ordered to be ‘a Nazirite to G-d’ meant that he would neither be allowed to cut his hair, nor partake of wine. Those Chumrot - stringencies would make him stand out in society. He would look different from his fellows, and be unable to participate fully in their social life. The text implies that G-d placed those additional prohibitions on Samson to make him worthy of being a savior to the Israelites – an act of spiritual elevation. In contrast, the Talmud, (Nazir 19a) regards the status of a Nazirite as a ‘sin against the soul’ (Num.6:11). What the Torah forbids is sufficient: it is not praiseworthy to voluntarily go without legitimate pleasure. How may that statement in the Talmud be reconciled with G-d’s deliberate designation of Samson as a Nazirite? How can G-d command something that elsewhere is not implied to be a good thing?
2. How may Samson be seen as the person who would ‘begin to save the Israelites from the Philistines’? Unlike other judges, Samuel’s career hardly ended successfully. Killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, and crushing himself, and many more of them to death as he brought down the Temple of Dagon gave the Israelites neither victory nor peace. Indeed, the Philistines eventually defeated the Israelites under Samson’s successor, Eli, near Afeq (Sam. I 4:10. They actually captured the Ark of G-d in the field of battle. The next few decades saw many further struggles: Samuel, and later, Saul, defeated them – sometimes spectacularly – in war, but never quite thoroughly enough to prevent them making further attempts, one of which was to cost King Saul his life.
In answer to the above, consider the background to Samson’s birth:
The Israelites continued to do what was evil in the eyes of G-d, and He put them into the hands of the Philistines (13:1).
In addition, the text implies that even basic Torah practice may have been neglected. For the angel told Manoah’s wife that, in becoming pregnant and giving birth to a son, she should be careful not to eat anything that is ‘tameh’ - impure. Commentators (e.g. the Metzudat David) stress that impure foods were those that were not ritually pure as befitting for a priest. However it may be suggested that the word tameh means the same as used in Leviticus 11:4 – forbidden for general consumption – food that is not kasher. Spiritual standards had dropped to the extent that observance of the Laws of Moses had dropped to an all-time low among the general Israelite population. The Israelites were at their spiritually most weak, and their enemies were at their physically most strong.
What was needed to rescue the Israelites from physical and spiritual disaster was a leader that would combine the strongest elements of physical and spiritual strength. The former was G-d given – Samson performed his spectacular feats of strength only when ‘the spirit of L-rd came down on him.’ (14:6) But it was on Samson himself to develop spiritual strength – by dint of self control – that would match his G-d given physical prowess.
That was the true purpose of G-d’s plan for Samson. It meant to show the Israelites of the time that G-d could give those who serve him unlimited strength to overcome their trials and tribulations.
Demanding that he should be Nazirite was an opportunity to for Samson to become a great person. As Maimonides points out, the best path that person should follow is the middle, stable one (Deut 1:4). That implies that he should maintain a balanced equilibrium. However, he states that if a person has a tendency for anger, he should go towards the extreme of placidness, to neutralize that extreme. This is what will make him ultimately stable.
Using that argument, G-d stipulated a special ‘off-balance’ element to go into his way of life – that he should be a Nazirite. This was to make Samson develop other spiritual traits to ‘maintain equilibrium’ – to turn his being a Nazirite into something that complemented and developed, rather than crudely stuck out, of his personality. And those other qualities – such as exemplary self-control and keen judgment were precisely those that the Israelites needed in a leader at that time. And when these would be combined with miraculous strength, the salvation would be complete. G-d would have physically and spiritually redeemed Israel from the Philistines through Samson. The Israelites, at their lowest spiritual point, would be sufficiently impressed to change their idolatrous habits when they would see how G-d miraculously supports those showing exemplary desire to do His will. That would have actually saved the Israelites from the Philistines.
However, Samson failed to do his spiritual task – develop, at the right opportunities, the spiritual qualities necessary to balance his being a Nazirite. Instead he followed his instincts – with his Philistine wife to be, with Delilah, and finally becoming the only Biblically-recorded suicide killer.
Nevertheless the Israelites witnessed extra-ordinary G-d-given strength. Despite Samson’s failure, they saw that His spirit was on him. And that gave them the knowledge that they could defeat the Philistines in the appropriate positive spiritual frame of mind, which under Samuel and later David, they eventually did. Hence in that sense, Samson did actually ‘begin to save’ the Israelites from the Philistines.
We learn from here the danger of taking on chumrot. For many people, being too holy in one area does not serve as a stimulus to perfect oneself in other directions, but to be lax in other more essential aspects in life. A person may insist on the most perfect hechsher, but still eat like a glutton. The longest payot, and look condescendingly at those not sharing his outlook. If a person does take on such practices they should be a means to promote meticulous behavior in other aspects of life. And we learn from Samson’s experience that it is no easy thing to do.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com 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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