Thursday, June 01, 2023

Today’s parsha opens with the oft-discussed law of the para aduma. Due to our familiarity with this portion we may tend to connect the entire Parshat Chukat to this one subject. Our rabbinic authorities, however, do not.

Tellingly, the haftorah selection today is taken from Sefer Shoftim and connects to the main focus of the Torah reading, those events that took place during the 40th year in the desert, specifically the wars against the Emorite kings Sichon and Og. This reading tells the story of Yiftach, one of the later shoftim (judges, or, better, leaders), who, although initially rejected by his family and community, is approached by the elders who entreat him (and his “rag-tag” army) to confront the threat of Ammon, their neighbor to the east.

The enemy king had gathered his army and began open battles with the residents of Gil’ad, claiming that Israel had “stolen” their land from them when the Israelites had left Egypt years before. Yiftach attempts to negotiate with Ammon, arguing that Israel had never warred with them (as we read in Sefer Devarim) nor taken any part of their land. Retelling the episode we read in today’s parsha, he explains that it was the Emorite kings who defeated Ammon and took their land and Israel who, subsequently, defeated Sichon and Og. Arguing that even the former kings of Ammon had accepted Israel’s ownership of these lands for over 300 years, Yiftach condemns the king for his unprovoked attacks against Israel. His claims, however, fail to move the enemy and, with Hashem’s help, Yiftach subdues Ammon in battle and removes the enemy’s threat from Israel.

Interestingly, both in the parsha and the haftorah, Israel attempts to avoid war by attempting to negotiate with, what turns out to be, intractable enemies. Likewise, in both places we read of how the Israelite leadership reviews their past history before the enemy: Yiftach to Ammon and Moshe to Edom. It is also interesting to note that, despite Yiftach’s reluctance to fight and his desire for peace, he refuses to consider the enemy’s proposal of peace in exchange for Israel’s surrender of her land. As Yiftach explains to the king, “Certainly, whatever your god K’mosh has you conquer, you will possess, and whatever nation Hashem drives out for us, we shall possess!”

The puzzling choice of Yiftach to lead Israel is discussed by scholars throughout the centuries, but what remained clear to Chazal is that, regardless of ancestry or accomplishment, any leader who was chosen by God to lead Israel demands respect and allegiance. “Yiftach b’doro k’Shmuel b’doro—Yiftach in his generation is (to be regarded) as Shmuel in his generation,” remains a binding imperative for us in all generations.

By Rabbi Neil Winkler

Rabbi Neil Winkler is a past rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.


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