We only get to hear the haftarah for Chukkat read in those years when parashiyot Chukkat and Balak and not read together, so I thought I would take this opportunity to reflect on this haftarah, the story of Yiftakh (Jephthah) taken from Judges chapter 11.
Now Jephthah was a man with no yichus. Yichus means one's lineage, their pedigree, their family background as it were. Although he was known as a great warrior, he was also the son of Gilead the Israelite and of some woman who was not legally living with his father. (The exact situation is unclear. The text describes him as the son of a prostitute. But the Hebrew uses a word, zonah, for which there are conflicting understandings. So whether she was an actual prostitute, or a woman who behaved like one, or for whatever reason was simply "shacking up" with Gilead without following the appropriate protocols, we'll never know. ) In any case, it made Jephthah persona non-grata, and his "brothers," all sons of Gilead's "legal" wife made sure he wasn't going to inherit and of his father's estate, so they drove him away. Jephthah runs off into the hills and becomes a bandit.
So time passes and then, surprise of surprises, the Ammonites attack the Israelites in Gilead (don't you just love these stories where names and place are all the same?) and the elders decide that Jephthah is best suited to lead them in battle against them. So they ask him to come back and lead the Israelites in battle.
It's no surprise that Jephthah's response is that after all they have done to him, hated him, driven him out of the community, now that there is some tzuris (and here the Hebrew actually using the root of that word!) they coming crawling to him?
The elders respond simply that they have "shavnu," "turned back" to him. Now, we can add all sorts of layers of meaning on top of this, especially in the sense of what we have made of the concept of "t'shuva," of returning to G"d. And many commentators buy into this. I'm not quite so willing to let the elders off the hook so easy-their understanding of "we have returned to you" may simply be a straight answer. "Yeah, maybe we screwed up by driving you out, but we really need you." Of course, even that's a lot to eisegete into the text. I'm not sure they were really apologizing, so much as simply acknowledging the truth - they treated him badly and now they needed him. I see no apology in their words. And they even sweeten the deal by telling Jephthah that if he helps he will be in charge of all of Gilead.
Still, it seems to be enough for Jephthah, for agrees. Yet, like so many other biblical heroes, he has no misguided sense of who it is that really allows victories, and Jephthah acknowledges that G"d will be the one that deliver the Ammonites in Jephthah's hands.
And, to make a long story short, that's what happens.
There are several themes that I am gleaning here. One is that quality or virtue of a man who recognizes G"d's role in the universe. Another is the valor of a man who, although ill-treated by his "brethren" still comes to their aid. I think that's something worth pondering this Shabbat, and I comment it to you. How many of us might do the same? How many could put aside thoughts of revenge and come to the aid of someone who treated them wrongfully?
And thirdly, there is the theme of the danger of using yichus as a value system. Even today, many Jews seeks a marriage for themselves or their children that will bring more yichus to them and their family. I guess it's not unusual for anyone to want to "marry well." But it becomes a meat market in which people are stamped with their grade, their suitability as a partner or even as a friend or business partner. How many potential Jephthah's have been overlooked in the search for greater and greater yichus? How man Jephthahs have been hatefully spurned or treated with indifference or even ill will due to their lack of "yichus?" Haven't we learned that it takes more than a good family lineage to make a great person. I can think of plenty of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had lots of "yichus" but were hardly paragons of virtue. (We need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days to be certain of that. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day said, "Who knew Jeb was the smart one?")
We ought to take the measure of each human being individually. Not on the basis of who their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, or their fourth cousin twice-removed was. We need to look at who someone is on the inside and not just the outside. How many pearls have gone unnoticed for want of someone willing to look at the ugly shell that produces them? This Shabbat, look for the pearls inside everyone.
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some other musings on this parasha:
Chukat 5764 - Man of Great Character
Chukat 5762-The Spirit of Miriam
Chukat Balak 5763-Mi ChaMicah
Chukat-Balak 5760-Holy Cow!
Chukat 5759/61-Wanting to See More Than The View From The Mountaintop
Balak 5764 - Bad Habits
Balak 5761-Beating Our Donkeys
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