By Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner
Rosh Kollel YU TMT Zichron Dov, Toronto
The haftorah of Parshat Chukat presents the tragic figure of Yiftach, from approximately 300 years after the Jews entered the Land of Israel. In Yiftach’s story both he and others act in ways that seem to defy logic, resulting in death and destruction.
Yiftach is introduced (Shoftim 11:1) as a child of a mother identified as a zonah. His half-brothers evict him, and he lives as an outcast. But why was he cast out?
Then, after Yiftach is hired to lead the Jews in battle against Amon, he vows that when G-d grants him victory, he will offer the first one to emerge from his home to greet him as a burnt offering to G-d. (ibid. 11:30-31) Did he expect a sheep or bull to be in his home, and to emerge to greet him? And was Yiftach unaware of biblical verses which oppose vows (cf. Devarim 23:23, Kohelet 5:4)?
Third: Yiftach returns home victorious, and his daughter emerges to greet him. Why did Yiftach insist on fulfilling his vow, sacrificing his daughter, rather than seek its repeal? And why did his daughter, too, insist that he fulfill the vow? (Shoftim 11:34-36)
Finally, after the end of our haftorah, the tribe of Ephraim challenges Yiftach for failing to rally them to battle Amon. They threaten to burn his house down – and in response, Yiftach goes to war against Ephraim, massacring 42,000 Jews. (ibid. 12) Why would Ephraim threaten Yiftach, and why would Yiftach respond this way?
Perhaps all of these questions point to a single lesson, which may also be drawn from Yiftach’s nemesis: the nation of Amon. One of the themes of Amon’s biblical history is that good intentions can go awry:
- The patriarch of Amon was Lot, who attempted to save his guests from S’dom by offering his daughters for molestation in their place (Bereishit 19);
- The matriarch of Amon, Lot’s younger daughter, followed her older sister’s plan to produce children – by mating with her father Lot (ibid.);
- When the Jews arrived in Amon’s region, en route to entering Israel, the people of Amon did not threaten war like Edom; did not hire Bilam, like Moav; and did not attempt to seduce the Jews as did Midian and Moav. They kept their distance – and then they were harshly criticized for failing to offer food for the travelers (cf. Ramban to Devarim 23:5).
The same theme of good intentions gone awry answers our questions about Yiftach’s story:
- Yiftach’s brothers attempt to take a stand against promiscuity, but in so doing they create an outcast;
- Yiftach attempts to demonstrate piety by dedicating an offering to G-d, but his vow is inappropriate (Taanit 4a);
- Yiftach and his daughter attempt to honour G-d by following through, but are condemned rabbinically (cf. Metzudat David to Shoftim 11:35-36, for example);
- Ephraim demonstrated a desire to fight on behalf of their brethren, and Yiftach responded by upholding the rule of law – and the result was a massacre.
The lesson is that Religion requires Divine Revelation. We naturally trust our G-d-given acumen, but as Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari explains at length, and Yiftach’s life demonstrates, human logic is flawed, and even the best of intentions can lead to inappropriate results. Worse, when logic is backed by unyielding fealty to G-d, poorly conceived notions can be driven forward by the engine of religious zeal. As seen in Yiftach’s career, the result can be a brother’s ostracism, a daughter’s victimization, and the massacre of a tribe.
While loyalty to Revelation is also hazardous – which prophets can we trust? – the opposite pole, Reason, is also uncertain. May we value human ideas, but recognize that the best of intentions should still be measured against the yardstick of Revelation.