June 14, 2024
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Israel’s Most Dangerous Threat

Parshat Chukat

One of the goals that I hoped to reach when I began these articles some years ago was to clarify the connection(s) between the parsha and the haftarah. In the process, I have often incorporated the contrast between the two sources as well, in the hope of illuminating the possible reasons for Chazal’s choice of that specific haftarah for that specific parsha. In the process, I have also taken the liberty of expanding upon the background that led to the navi’s words or that illuminated the events that may have preceded or followed those described in the haftarah.

When writing about this week’s haftarah, I have, in the past, explained that there is almost no need to reveal the connection between parsha and haftarah as the reading from the Prophets parallels and, indeed, uses the exact wording we find in the parsha. The story of Yiftach, the reluctantly appointed leader of Gil’ad, which is found in the 11th perek of Sefer Shoftim, describes how the army of Ammon besieged the residents of Gil’ad in an attempt to wrest control of the area from Israel. Claiming that the Israelites had “stolen” the land from Ammon on their way out of Egypt some 300 years earlier, the king demands that Israel surrender that area to him. In response, Yiftach uses the story we read in our parsha, arguing that Israel had conquered the land from the Emorites who had taken the land from Ammon.

Yiftach’s attempts to avoid an armed conflict are rebuffed, and, as our haftarah relates, he, with the help of Hashem, is successful in repelling the enemy. And here the haftarah ends. But the story does not. And in order to illuminate the situation within Israel at that time, in order to derive the necessary lessons from the entire episode, we will include here the sad “epilogue” to this entire episode.

I do not choose to clarify the unfortunate results of the well-known story of Yiftach’s oath that led to tragedy for his daughter, for, although it is important to discuss, it only had a personal impact, affecting only him and his daughter. Rather, I prefer to discuss the subsequent events that had a national impact, affecting thousands of our people.

After Yiftach’s glorious victory, the tribe of Ephraim mustered an army and marched northward to confront the new leader. Upon reaching Yiftach they threatened to burn down his house for never having summoned them to join him in the battle. Yiftach denied the accusation, claiming that, indeed, he did summon them but they refused to come. The disagreement, tragically, led to a civil war between Yiftach’s army from Gil’ad and the army of Ephraim, a war that led to the deaths of 42,000 men of the tribe of Ephraim.

This horrific closing to the era of Yiftach (he ruled for only six years) grants us a peek into the condition of the nation at that time. Even when victorious, the tribes thought only of themselves and not the nation as a whole. Even when granted respite from their enemies, when victory was miraculously snatched from the jaws of defeat and Israel was spared a predictable massacre, despite all of this, they could find no common ground upon which to build a united nation.

History teaches us over and over again that the divisions within our people weaken us and, all too often, lead to heartbreak and misfortune. The most dangerous menace our nation faces confronts us when we forget that we are one nation and, despite our differences, we can move forward only when we move together.


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

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