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Parshat Chukat

Today’s parsha opens with the oft-discussed law of the parah adumah. 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 haftarah 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, was approached by the elders who entreated 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 attempted 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 explained 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 condemned the king for his unprovoked attacks against Israel. His claims, however, failed to move the enemy and, with Hashem’s help, Yiftach subdued Ammon in battle and removed the enemy’s threat from Israel.

Interestingly, in both the parsha and the haftarah, Israel tried to avoid war by attempting to negotiate with, what turned out to be, intractable enemies. Likewise, in both places we read of how the Israelite leadership reviewed 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 refused to consider the enemy’s proposal of peace in exchange for Israel’s surrender of her land. As Yiftach explained 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 has been discussed by scholars throughout the centuries, but what remained clear to Chazal was that, regardless of ancestry or accomplishment, any leader 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.


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

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