This article was first published in TABC’s Kol Torah and is reprinted here with the permission of the author.
Stunning! Just stunning! The parallels between the haftarah for Parshat Chukat and our current situation in Israel send shudders down our spines! The lessons that emerge are crucial and critical.
Justifying Violence With Bald Lies
The haftarah for Chukat regularly reminds us of the king of Ammon justifying his unprovoked aggression against Am Yisrael with a false claim that we stole his nation’s land. Yiftach responds with a firm and extremely detailed response documenting (from Parshat Chukat and elsewhere) that we took their land only in response to Sichon’s senselessly attacking us. Ammon ignores Yiftach’s response and resumes his violent attacks. Yiftach is left with no option other than to counterattack. In doing so, Yiftach devastates Ammon in battle.
The pattern is intimately familiar to us nowadays. Am Yisrael makes every effort to avoid war, our neighbors attack us while justifying their violence with outright lies, our responding by setting the historical record straight, the attacks resuming, and finally, when faced with no other option, our military dealing a devastating blow to our enemies.
How remarkable it is that the events from 3,000 years ago recorded in Sefer Shoftim Perek 11 perfectly match the events of today. Missing only is an equivalent to the contemporary international community contemptibly ignoring the aggression of our enemies followed by their ugly condemnations of our “disproportionate response.”
Four critical lessons emerge from this story for which we must be keenly aware.
The Torah Represents The Word of Hashem
Most believing Jews (and many believing non-Jews) recognize the Divine origin of the Torah from our stories matching the Torah’s stories. The Ramban emphasizes in his comments to Bereishit 12:8 that the Torah is a blueprint for the history of the Jewish people, “ma’aseh avot siman l’vanim.” While today’s newspaper is irrelevant the next day, the Torah’s relevance is eternal. The parallel between Yiftach’s struggle with Ammon and our struggle is one of many such palpable parallels between our story and the stories set forth in the Torah.
The Urgent Need to Know the Facts
Yiftach very capably composed a detailed response to the king of Ammon’s blatant lies. Yiftach is clearly in full command of our history. Yiftach even clarifies portions of the story that do not appear explicitly in the Torah, as noted by Rashi to Bamidbar 21:21.
Unfortunately, even among the Religious-Zionist community, ignorance of basic facts regarding the more than a century of Arab aggression in Eretz Yisrael is pervasive. For example, even most of our community is not aware of the 1938 Peel Partition Plan. The British offered Palestinians a state comprising 78% of Eretz Yisrael whereas the Jews would receive only the remaining 22%. While the Jewish leadership accepted this plan, the Palestinian leadership summarily rejected it.
This pattern continues with Palestinians rejecting numerous other opportunities for a state in 1947, 2000 and 2008, leading the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban to famously quip that the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. This information is a powerful response to those accusing Israel of denying the Palestinians a state. If Religious Zionists are not armed with this critical information, how can we expect better from our detractors?!
One may counter, though, that Ammon’s king ignoring Yiftach’s impressive history lesson points to the futility of responding to our critics. Our critics, much like Melech Ammon, view facts that do not fit their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agenda with disbelief and disdain.
Yiftach, however, shows the importance of knowing the history of hostilities. Armed with the facts, Yiftach in Pasuk 27 resolutely states to the king of Ammon that Yiftach and Am Yisrael have not wronged Ammon. Moreover, Yiftach resolutely condemns Ammon’s unjustified aggression as evil. Pasuk 33 then describes Yiftach leading our people to a resounding victory.
Knowing the facts provides the moral clarity needed to win in battle. It is a moral obligation to win a justified war. Knowing the facts fortifies us with the moral strength to achieve complete victory.
The first step in victory is to label the wrongdoer as evil. Esther’s (Esther 7:6) courageously identifying Haman as intractably evil directly led to the latter’s precipitous downfall. We must follow in the footsteps of Yiftach and Esther to know the facts. Knowledge will, with the help of Hashem, serve as the moral guidepost leading to triumph.
The Tanach did not have to devote so much space to record in detail Yiftach’s response to Melech Ammon. The Navi could have presented the story much more concisely. The navi presents all the details of Yiftach’s letter to Ammon to model how we must thoroughly master our history to empower us to success.
This past year we have witnessed even heretofore highly esteemed media networks and newspapers slandering Israel and Jews with transparent lies. For example, police video captures the unprovoked May 10, 2021, Arab attack on a Jewish motorist outside Jerusalem’s Lion’s Gate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6huiy5Acfhg&ab_channel=ArutzSheva).
However, on May 11, 2011, TABC students Natan Solomon and Joseph Mann showed me the video recording of this incident posted on the NBC website. NBC deleted the Arab attack at the beginning of the recording and begins the video with the Jewish-owned car attacking Arabs, falsely depicting Jews as initiating the violence.
On May 28, 2021, the New York Times on its front page printed pictures of Gazan Arab civilians they claimed Israel killed in its response to Hamas firing thousands of weapons. Former head of the Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman canceled his subscription to the Times, rightly declaring the Times guilty of a blood libel against Israel (https://www.jns.org/opinion/the-new-york-times-repackages-a-classic-blood-libel/).
Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/health-care-workers-call-for-support-of-palestinians/) published a scandalous lie-filled report accusing Israel of creating a health care crisis in Gaza. After being called out by CAMERA (https://www.camera.org/article/scientific-american-breaks-176-year-legacy-to-shill-for-terrorists-and-promote-bds/) and a torrent of letters decrying the falsehoods, Scientific American removed the article from its website.
Scientific American posts on their website: “Editor’s Note: This article fell outside the scope of Scientific American and has been removed.” Notice how this well-respected publication did not even have the intellectual honesty or basic decency to admit its error in publishing falsehoods!
The falsehoods abound even in the hallowed halls of academia. The following is a link to hate-filled commentary on the May 2021 Hamas attacks on Israel that assigns blame solely on Israel: https://releases.jhu.edu/2021/05/18/johns-hopkins-experts-available-to-discuss-the-deepening-crisis-in-gaza/.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 22b) teaches that human nature is to refrain from lying when the lie can be easily detected. However, the king of Ammon shamelessly lied, falsely accusing us of stealing his people’s land. Most people are embarrassed to tell bald-faced lies. NBC, the New York Times, Scientific American and Johns Hopkins University, like the King of Ammon of old, are not embarrassed to blatantly falsify information in regard to Israel and the Jewish people. Shame on them! What a disgrace!
There is, nonetheless, a silver lining to this ugly behavior masquerading as high-minded morality. In a certain way, never in recent memory has it been easier to realize that the truth lies with the Torah and Am Yisrael. One used to be tempted to view the truth as emanating from the more sophisticated media, publications and universities. Now, though, the Zohar’s description of the “alma d’shikra,” the world of deception, is openly displayed. The sacred obligation of all Jews and any responsible human being with a shred of decency is to muster the courage to step up, like Yiftach and Esther, and point out the lies and label the evildoers and their enablers as evil!
It is also an opportunity to recognize, by contrast, the truth of the Torah. The Gemara, Rishonim, Acharonim and yeshivot until this day are replete with admissions of error and recognizing when one does not know the answer. A formative experience for me as a youth learning at Yeshivat Har Etzion was its rosh yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, retracting a long shiur klali when a student posed a compelling question on the shiur’s major thesis after an hour-long lecture. I privately approached Rav Amital with a possible answer, to which Rav Amital responded that the other student is correct. The truth lies in the Torah.
The Perspective of Time
Three thousand years have passed since the time of Yiftach and the King of Ammon. Jews read this story as part of their standard liturgy and remember the story in vivid detail. What about the Ammonites? They have long ago been relegated to the dustbin of history. The Gemara (Shabbat 104a) teaches that the truth prevails and falsehood eventually crumbles and disintegrates.
We Jews can be reassured that so too in a thousand years from now there will still be a vibrant Torah community. We can also state with confidence that within a thousand years the venerable New York Times, NBC, Scientific American, and Johns Hopkins University will follow the path to oblivion beaten by the King of Ammon.
Hashem gifts us the ability to plug into chayei olam (Daniel 12:2 and Shabbat 33b), eternity. The fact that we currently are reliving Yiftach’s struggles with Melech Ammon points to our being an eternal people to whom The Eternal One has bestowed upon us an eternal Torah that presents a blueprint for our future.
Conclusion: The Haftarah As Encouragement
The haftarot, as I heard from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, inspire our belief in the geulah, as is quite apparent from the brachot we recite for the haftarah. Hearing Yiftach’s encounters with Ammon powerfully reinforces our belief in the geulah. The contemporary verification of the Yiftach story reassures as that just as the Yiftach story is true, so too the Nevi’im’s promises of the geulah are all also true and will eventually materialize. Regularly hearing Yiftach’s story in the haftarah for Parshat Chukat fortifies our unbendable confidence that am lanetzach lo mefached miderech aruchah, an eternal nation does not fear a long road.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.