The Mayor and the Shofet

There is nothing new under the sun. (Really, you can believe me; it says so in the bible.)  

By way of additional proof of this statement, here is another example of the present mimicking the past.  Watching the distressing disintegration of Rob Ford has reminded me of nothing so much as the story of Yiftakh/Jephthah in the book of Shoftim/Judges.  You may recall the story:  Yiftakh becomes the shofet/leader of Israel at a low point in the nation’s history.

 In Ch. 10 of Shoftim, the people have strayed after other gods and abandoned true worship.  As a result, God has unleashed the surrounding nations to attack them and they are hard put to defend themselves.  Astonishingly, even when the people try to return to God and pray to Him, He rejects them.  “You have abandoned Me and served other gods; Therefore I will not continue to save you; Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen, and they will save you in your time of trouble.” (Shoftim 10:13-14)  But Israel persists in their pleas and God relents and provides them a champion — Yiftakh.

Who is this champion?  An unlikely hero — he has been kicked out of his father Gil’ad’s home after his death, because he is Gil’ad’s son by a prostitute (or perhaps a concubine) and his half-brothers are determined that he will not share in their princely inheritance. Bereft of his father, he goes out into the world and gathers around him worthless people — reiqanim (literally, “empty ones”). (Ch. 11:1-3)  The text doesn’t tell us how this happens, but there is certainly an attraction in a powerful heroic figure that can lure the weak-minded.  The ‘wish for kings’ — the desire to find someone else who will take charge and make decisions (cf. President Bush II in the US, who referred to himself as “The Decider”) — is alive today and a potent influence in the political process.  It is part of this type of leader’s appeal; he displays no doubt, never reconsiders, and is always absolutely convinced that he is absolutely right.  For those who are tired of the complexity of the morally nuanced world and long for a black-and-white version, this leader offers them a simple set of stereotypes against which he will take action.

Another kind of reiqanim are those who are morally null. The perplexing problem is why the champion allows himself to be surrounded by such figures.  On page 92b of the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Bava Qama, this episode is used as an example of the idea of “like attracts like”.  (The talmudic version is:  A bad palm will usually make its way to a grove of barren trees.)  The implication is that Yiftakh’s followers recognized some shared quality, even if negative, upon which a relationship could be built.

When Yiftakh is first approached by the Gil’adi elders to fight against the ‘Amonim, his answer echoes that of God to the straying people of Israel:  “You have hated me and chased me out of my father’s house.  Why do you come to me now when you are troubled?” (11:7)  The Metzudat Tziyon commentary interprets this remark as indicating that Yiftakh still sees the Gil’adites as his antagonists, that their enmity is still in place and they have only approached him now out of desperation.  This refusal to forgive and to recognize a gesture of reconciliation is common to forceful leaders.  Nothing an enemy says can be trusted, and there is no such thing as a former enemy.

But like the people of Israel, the Gil’adites persist and they persuade Yiftakh to take on the leadership. He engages in a series of parleys with the ‘Amonim in which the whole history of the Israelite territorial rights is reviewed, and finally is forced to embark on a war. (11:28-29)
His final gesture is to make a vow: “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to greet me upon my return in peace from the ‘Amonites, it will be for God and I will raise it up as a raised-offering.” (11:31) Famously, it is his daughter who first emerges from his house to greet him. (It’s not my place here to discuss his daughter although there is a reading that suggests that she doesn’t die. Perhaps in another post…)

This rashness of Yiftakh typifies both his courage and his folly. His short-sightedness allows him to face the risks of battle coolly, but it also causes him to throw away his daughter’s life for nothing.

In Breishit Rabbah 60:3, the midrash discusses what Yiftakh ought to have done. A vow to sacrifice a human being to God is no vow at all! It is as if he had vowed to offer any prohibited thing. Yiftakh could have gone to Jerusalem to see Pinkhas, the High Priest, for the annulment of the vow. But Pinkhas said: He needs me and I should go to him!? And Yiftakh said: I am the head of Israel’s generals and I should go to Pinkhas!? Each stood on ceremony and expected the other to humble himself and capitulate. The midrash laments: Between this one and that one, the lass was lost.

Ultimately, both Pinkhas and Yiftakh are punished for their recalcitrance (in the midrashic version). But again we see the forceful leader unable to bend himself, to make reasonable accommodations to events as they unfold, too enamoured of his own image as a steadfast hero to realize what may be lost by his inability to recognize any voice or consider any view other than his own.

Yours for less myopia and more vision,


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