Category Archives: Shofetim

Shofetim Chapter 21 – The Conclusion of Sefer Shofetim

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 21

The final chapter of the Book of Shofetim describes the consequences of the civil war with the tribe of Benjamin. The allied tribes had decimated Binyamin, leaving only six hundred male survivors. The nation gathers together at Mitzpah and undertakes a solemn oath that no one should give his daughter in marriage to a member of the tribe of Binyamin. Shortly after making this vow, however, the Jews regret this choice because it will inevitably lead to the elimination of a tribe of Israel. Unwilling to violate their oath, they must find a way to provide wives to the surviving Benjaminites so they do not die out.

Upon reflection, it becomes clear that there was one community in Israel that did not join with the allied forces in the war against Binyamin – namely, the men of Yavesh Gilead. The decision is made that in retribution for failing to support the military effort, they will kill of the men of Yavesh Gilead and then present the women of that city to the tribe of Benjamin for marriage. Yavesh Gilead is attacked and its male citizens are slaughtered, but only four hundred women become available. Two hundred of the men of Benjamin still require mates.

The congregation comes up with another creative solution; each year at Shiloh, there is a festival during which the young women go out and dance in the fields. The vow taken by the Jewish people stipulated only that they would not GIVE their daughters to the tribe of Binyamin for marriage – they didn’t say that the Benjaminites couldn’t TAKE wives for themselves! So they advise the men of Binyamin to hide out in the fields and, when the girls arrived to dance, kidnap the ones they liked to keep as wives.

If the family of the girl protested, they would be implored to have compassion on the remnant of Binyamin that had no other viable way to ensure the survival of its tribe and its heritage. The tribe of Benjamin followed this advice and was thereby confident that its future was secure. The Book of Shofetim concludes by once again remarking that at this time there was no king in Israel; each man did what was right in his eyes.

This narrative, like that of the Pilegesh in Givah, is full of tragic irony. Lack of foresight leads the nation to take a vow with disastrous (and rather obvious!) consequences, reminiscent of the vow of Yiftah that symbolized a misguided religious fervor not tempered by reason or proper deliberation. Considering that, as a communal oath, it must have been formulated and promulgated by the leaders of the community, we can infer that whoever was guiding the Jewish people politically and spiritually was doing an inadequate job, to say the least.

Rather than devise a creative way to release themselves from their vow, they are fully committed to honoring their foolhardy proclamation, and this propels them to further bloodshed. They massacre the citizens of Yavesh Gilead who, as far as we know, had committed no actual trespass that made them worthy of the death penalty. Finding even this outcome insufficient for the needs of the tribe of Benjamin upon whom they had imposed sanctions, they advise kidnapping young girls as the solution to the problem. As horrific a suggestion as this is, one wishes they had thought of this idea first rather than seeking a pretext to justify the attack on Yavesh Gilead.

Ironically, in their zeal to demonstrate their distaste for the events in Giveah and to isolate the offending tribe by refusing to intermarry with them, the Nation of Israel ends up justifying mass murder and (for all intents and purposes) recommending kidnapping and rape, the same crimes for which they were condemning the Tribe of Benjamin to begin with!

The Book of Shofetim ends with a clear message to the reader as to the underlying cause for all of this confusion of values and priorities – there was no king in Israel, no central authority to provide Torah-based religious and political guidance to the people so that such tragedies could be mitigated or avoided. The disorder and disarray that reigned in the land left much destruction and despair in its wake, and leaves those of us studying the book with a definite sense of the important role that strong and determined leadership plays in the spiritual and material success of our nation.

In this way, the Book of Shofetim serves as the ideal prelude to the Book of Shemuel. By illustrating the havoc that ensues in the absence of a strong central government, the prophet demonstrates that the institution of the monarchy, while imperfect, is truly necessary. The Book of Shemuel will pick up on this theme by describing to us the process by which a stable and principled national leadership is finally put in place.

Shofetim Chapter 20


Sefer Shofetim Chapter 20

In a rare show of unity, the entire nation of Israel gathers together to address the travesty that occurred in Givah. The Levite husband presents a sanitized version of the events that acquits him of all wrongdoing while highlighting the evil of the people of Binyamin. The Jewish people demand that the Tribe of Binyamin hand over the perpetrators of the crime to be punished; this request is denied. The tribes decide to go to war against Binyamin because they have chosen to harbor, and therefore aid and abet, wicked criminals.

A large military force representing all eleven of the tribes is mobilized to fight against Binyamin. The nation consults with Hashem (via the Urim Vetummim) and are told that the tribe of Yehuda should lead them into battle. Surprisingly, the Tribe of Benjamin defeats the much larger national army in the first conflict. The Jews again ask Hashem if they should attack their brethren and they are told that they should; however, they suffer serious losses in the second battle as well.

Crying, fasting and offering sacrifices to Hashem, the Jews inquire for a last time whether they should pursue this cause and Hashem assures them that in the third battle they will prevail. The “allied forces” position an ambush outside of the city of Givah and lure the soldiers of Binyamin out onto the open roads and fields. They flee from before the Tribe of Benjamin so as to convey the impression that they are once again losing the fight. This spurs the Benjaminites on with even greater intensity.

Meanwhile, the ambushing party conquers the city of Givah and sets it aflame, and a pillar of smoke billows up to the heavens. When Israel see this signal of victory they are emboldened; when Binyamin realizes they have been fooled, they are bewildered and begin to fail. The national military force finally and decisively triumphs over Benjamin in the civil war as promised by Hashem.

There are several interesting points in this story that are worth mentioning. One is the obvious similarity between the consultation with Hashem here in our chapter and the consultation with Hashem at the beginning of the Book of Shofetim, both of which culminate in the same answer – namely, that Yehuda should go first. The similarity in phrasing suggests that the Jewish people have, in the wake of this tragedy, recaptured some of the initial unity that they had exhibited when they first entered the land and began settling it.

The third and final battle against Binyamin is also unmistakably similar to the battle against Ha-Ai. In that conflict, recorded in the Book of Yehoshua, the Jewish people lost the first battle only to employ the same sort of “lure-them-out-and-ambush-them” strategy to vanquish them in the next fight. Here, too, the national army capitalized on the growing confidence of the troops of Benjamin and fooled them into exiting the confines of their city, leaving it exposed to the soldiers who were lying in wait to destroy it.

There is a very important question that nearly all of the commentaries raise about this story; namely, why did the national army of Israel lose the first two battles? The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Hashem Himself endorses their attack of Binyamin, implying that He will provide assistance, support and victory to their troops. Instead, they sustain enormous casualties in both conflicts.

The Sages explain that these losses can be attributed to an element of hypocrisy in their pursuit of this battle. The Jews acted as if they were motivated to preserve the purity of Judaism and Jewish ethics and therefore could not tolerate the depravity of Binyamin, yet they were not mobilized in such a fashion against the graven image of Mikha and the proliferation and embrace of idolatry among the Jews.This irony and self-contradiction is highlighted by the limited Divine assistance provided to them in the story; the battle with Binyamin is both a success and a failure, both a positive accomplishment and a punishment of the victors for their complacency in the face of idolatrous worship.

We may be able to take this a step further and suggest that the nation of Israel believed that the righteousness of their cause guaranteed that miracles would be done on their behalf. They assumed, in their “religious” fervor, that they had no chance of losing on the battlefield against Binyamin – God’s justice would not allow it. As in the battle against Ha-Ai in the era of Yehoshua, there was an exaggerated sense of entitlement at play in their rush out to the battlefield.

However, the truth was that, in order to win, they would have to employ intelligent strategy to vanquish their opponents. Hashem would not present them with victory on a silver platter as if they deserved it. And as the Rabbis point out, we can understand His hesitation to “reward” them with such assistance given their tolerance for the idolatrous practices that were being imported into Jewish society via their assimilation. Ironically, again, the same nation that was so hesitant to drive the Canaanites and their pagan traditions out of Israel and chose, instead, to dwell alongside them, is now arming itself to battle fellow Jews over an incident (however terrible) of injustice.

We have also learned, both in the Book of Yehoshua and of Shofetim, that one of the signature signs of the Jews’ distance from Hashem is their reliance on magical thinking in battle, their belief that without any strategy, planning or intelligent preparation for battle, they are guaranteed success. The mere fact that they are under the illusion that Hashem will help them supernaturally without any effort on their part is an indication of their remoteness from Him, not their closeness to Him. Their irrational religious zeal leading up to this battle is symptomatic of the influence of idolatry upon the thought processes and attitudes of the Jewish people such that they have adopted a simplistic, distorted perspective on the workings of Divine providence.

Shofetim Chapter 19

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 19

This chapter is the first of three that contain the concluding story of the Book of Shofetim, known as “Pilegesh B’Givah” or “The Concubine in Givah”. It begins with a tale of marital discord between a Levite from Har Ephraim and his “pilegesh”, or concubine. She leaves him and returns to live with her father in Bet Lehem in the territory of Yehuda. After one year and four months, the husband decides to attempt reconciliation with his concubine, so he travels to her father’s home and remains with his in-laws for three days.

The reunion is a joyous and positive one, so much so that, contrary to his planned itinerary, he stays a fourth day. On the fifth day, the couple get a late start returning home but insist on leaving, over the objections of the concubine’s father. Unfortunately, it becomes dark long before they make it home, so they must find a place to stay for the night. Rather than seek lodging in a non-Jewish town, they come to a city of the tribe of Binyamin hoping to be invited into someone’s residence to sleep. However, they are ignored completely; nobody offers them hospitality.

Eventually, an elderly man from Har Ephraim who is sojourning in Givah encounters them on the street and welcomes them into his home. In a scene clearly reminiscent of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the townspeople form an angry mob and surround the house, demanding to meet the strange visitor who had trespassed in their village. The homeowner initially offers to give them his virgin daughter and his visitor’s concubine as a consolation prize so they will desist from harming the Levite guest; they stubbornly refuse.

The Levite then decides to take the initiative himself, placating the crowd by physically presenting them with his concubine. This strategy seems to satisfy the mob which proceeds to abuse the woman throughout the night. When the Levite wakes up in the morning he founds her lifeless body on the doorstep. He cuts her corpse into twelve pieces and sends one to each of the tribes of Israel, insisting that they respond to this depraved behavior and redress the horrific injustice that was committed.

This terrible story illustrates the moral decline of the Jewish people. The tribe of Binyamin conducts itself like Sodom and Gomorrah, denying hospitality to fellow Jewish visitors and raping and assaulting innocent women to satisfy their aggressive instincts. The details of the plot are disturbingly similar to those of the account of Lot and his daughters in Sodom. Indeed, the phraseology used in the text is deliberately borrowed from the story in Genesis to emphasize this commonality. The Torah’s description of Sodom and Gomorrah was meant to serve as an illustration of everything the descendants of Avraham are NOT supposed to become; clearly, they have fallen short of this expectation.

Ironically, the Levite believed he was making a wiser and safer choice visiting a Jewish town than a non-Jewish neighborhood; the text means to highlight how far the circumstances on the ground had changed. The kindness and compassion of Jews, our sacred heritage from Avraham Avinu, could no longer be relied upon simply as a matter of course. The Jewish people had exchanged their moral and ethical standards for those of their Canaanite neighbors; they had fundamentally lost their unique “Jewish” identity.

At the same time, the story does not reflect well on the “protagonists” either. The Levite, first of all, has a concubine instead of a legal wife. This is surely inconsistent with the spiritual calling of the Tribe of Levi. When approached by the man from Har Ephraim who becomes his host, he presents himself as a pilgrim on the way to the House of God in Shiloh, a far cry from the true explanation of why he happened to be in Givah that night (his marital situation coupled with partying a bit too intensely at his in-laws’ home).

The Levite is supposedly repulsed by the horrific deed committed by the Benjaminites, but he himself was responsible for providing the angry crowd with his concubine as a plaything and he didn’t even bother to check on her again until he had gotten a good night’s sleep inside! Bear in mind that he had just “reconciled” with this woman after a lengthy separation and was happily returning with her to their shared residence in Har Ephraim; yet somehow neither he nor his host had any compunction about offering her as a commodity or a bribe to the townspeople so they would leave the men in the house alone.

None of the characters in this sordid tale emerge as paragons of justice, compassion or morality. This is undoubtedly a further indictment of the Jewish people, and the Levites in particular, for their spiritual and religious failures and for the wanton violation of their covenant with Hashem.

Shofetim Chapter 18

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 18

The tribe of Dan is still in the process of securing its inheritance in the land of Israel and has sent a delegation of five men to scout out a potential conquest. On their way to complete their mission, these men stop in at the house of Mikha, which not only provided a place for religious worship but also served as a kind of “bed and breakfast” for traveling Jews. They recognize the Levite who is working for Mikha (he had apparently made the rounds in Israel during his search for gainful employment) and ask him what he is doing there; he happily explains to them the wonderful financial package he receives from his boss. They then ask him to inquire of God whether they will succeed in their military efforts and he reassures them that they will indeed triumph in battle.

The Danites plan to attack the current citizens of Layish who are living in peace and tranquility, isolated from the rest of the Canaanites in the land and blissfully unaware of the threat to their existence. Once the troops are mobilized for the conquest, the delegation of spies first leads them to the house of Mikha which they totally plunder, robbing him of his idol, his teraphim, and all the accoutrements of his “House of God”.
When the Levite questions their actions, they recommend that he remain silent and follow them – wouldn’t he rather be the priest of an entire tribe than a priest working for just one man?

Mikha discovers that he has been robbed and pursues the Danites in protest, but they respond with fierce threats and he is forced to retreat. The men of Dan go on to conquer the land they had chosen, slaughtering its innocent inhabitants, and they establish the “House of God” and the idol of Mikha in their newfound territory, where it remained until the Jews were exiled from their land centuries later.

Once again we are struck by the thread of injustice and betrayal that weaves its way through this story. The plot of the tribe of Dan to conquer Layish while its inhabitants dwell there peacefully and vulnerably is itself troubling; it reflects an almost Amaleq-like quality about these Jews. Furthermore, the Danites shamelessly steal from Mikha who had only recently provided them with lodging in his home, demonstrating absolutely no sense of gratitude or common decency to their hosts.

The Levite-priest of Mikha, who had been treated like a son by his employer, did not hesitate to abandon him for a more prestigious and lucrative position, joining the pirates who plundered him. Clearly, they are birds of a feather. And yet, this travesty is committed in the name of establishing a “House of God” in Dan, a tragic irony that underscores the self-contradiction and hypocrisy that had become part and parcel of the culture and worldview of the assimilated Jews in Israel.

The Rabbis (and many other scholars) contend that the last two stories in the Book of Shofetim actually transpired much earlier, closer to the beginning of the period of the Judges. There are several pieces of evidence to support this, such as the fact that the Tribe of Dan is still seeking to inherit its portion in the land and the fact that Pinhas, son of Elazar, is still serving as Kohen Gadol.

The Sages also have a -tradition that the Levite-Priest of Mikha, Yehonatan the son of Gershom the son of Menashe, was none other than the grandson of Moshe Rabbenu (the letter nun in the name Menashe is small, suggesting that it should read “son of Gershom son of MOSHE.”) This tradition supports the earlier dating of the narrative and also points to how quickly and pervasively spiritual corruption spread amongst the Jews as soon as they began to live side-by-side with the idolatrous and immoral Canaanites.

Shofetim Chapter 17

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 17

The last five chapters of the Book of Shofetim comprise a kind of concluding section of the text. The fact that there is no king in Israel is mentioned four times, twice in each of the last two narratives we read. The upcoming stories will present us with a picture of Israel at its spiritual low-point – the breakdown of religious worship and its admixture with paganism as well as the terrifying loss of any sense of morality or decency among the Jewish people. Both of these phenomena can be traced to the fact that there is no king in Israel – the Jews lack a central authority to guide and direct them, and therefore are subject to the influence of the culture around them and are overpowered by the temptation to assimilate.

This chapter is the first half of a famous story known as “Pesel Mikha” or the graven image of Mikha. Mikha lives in Har Ephraim. His mother had stashed away a significant amount of money (1100 pieces of silver) and found them missing; she cursed whoever it was who had misappropriated them. Mikha informs her that he was the one that took the money and returns it. Regretting the curses she unwittingly heaped upon her own son, she reassures him that he is blessed to Hashem and that, in fact, she has dedicated the funds in honor of Hashem. Ironically, however, she has actually consecrated them to become a graven image.

Sponsored by his mother’s generous donation, Mikha establishes a “house of God” at his residence, which includes various items typically associated with pagan religion (“teraphim” or statues and an ephod which apparently serve some fortune-telling function). He appoints one of his sons to serve as officiant in the new sanctuary.

One day, a Levite from Bet Lehem is passing through and visits the house of Mikha. Mikha enthusiastically invites this Levite to become a Kohen/priest in his temple, offering him a handsome salary, new wardrobe and a stipend for food and other necessities. The Levite accepts the deal and Mikha feels blessed that God has provided him with a genuine priest to lead services in his sanctuary.

There is an obvious element of tragic irony in this story. Mikha and his mother see no contradiction between pagan worship and idolatry on one hand and the service of Hashem on the other, combining them in their ungodly “House of God”. The Levite, who is expected to be a representative of Hashem and Torah wisdom and who should have rebuked the family of Mikha for their waywardness, is in reality a mercenary who is willing to sell his religious services for a price.

The tale of “Pesel Mikha” illustrates to us the extent to which living among the Canaanites has influenced and distorted Judaism even among the purported spiritual leaders. Indeed, it seems that even the Levites, who had historically been the most outspoken against idol worship and most fervent in their devotion to Hashem, have themselves fallen victim to the allure of paganism and materialism.

Shofetim Chapter 16

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 16

This chapter essentially depicts the downfall of Shimshon. It opens with Shimshon visiting a harlot in Azza. Hearing that is in town, a group of Pelishtim in Azza attempt to ambush him but their plot is foiled when he wakes up in the middle of the night and carries the gates of the city up to the top of a mountain with his bare hands.

The remainder of the chapter contains the famous story of Shimshon and Delilah. Shimshon becomes smitten with Delilah and takes her as his wife. The Pelishtim, seeing an opportunity, bribe Delilah to investigate the source of Shimshon’s great strength so they may take advantage of this information and capture him.

Delilah accepts the offer and probes Shimshon for the secret to his strength. Three times he provides her with misinformation and, acting based on that misinformation, Delilah summons the Pelishtim to ambush an (allegedly) vulnerable Shimshon. First, he claims that binding him with seven cords would restrain him. She ties him with seven fresh cords while he is sleeping, but when the Pelishtim attack him he is still fully capable of defending himself. Delilah presses Shimshon for the truth, and Shimshon then claims that being tied with seven brand new ropes would rob him of his strength; Delilah tries this as well, and it fails. Third, he claims that tying the locks of his hair to a loom would weaken him but this, too, does not have any effect on him.

It is interesting to note how, with each answer, he moves closer to the truth – the number seven is, indeed, the number of locks of hair he has, and this is mentioned in the first two answers. The third answer correctly identifies his hair as the source of his strength but misleads Delilah as to how that strength could be taken from him (i.e., by cutting it, not attaching it to a loom.)

A careful reading also suggests that the Pelishtim were less and less involved in Delilah’s ruse as they came to doubt her ability to complete the job. For example, while the first time they provided the cords to Delilah to bind Shimshon, suggesting they had confidence in her, it doesn’t even seem that an ambushing party showed up to fight Shimshon the third time.

Eventually, under intense pressure (the Rabbis say Delilah withheld marital relations from Shimshon until he could no longer stand it) Shimshon finally reveals his secret – he is a Nazirite whose long hair symbolizes his devotion to God Who is the true source of his strength, and were his hair to be cut, he would become like any other man. Delilah summons the Pelishtim one final time and they successfully capture Shimshon and blind him in both eyes. He is taken to the temple of the idol of Dagon so that the Pelishtim can mock him and celebrate the great victory that they believe their god has handed them.

The Pelishtim order the blind Shimshon to dance so they can jeer at him; tired after his performance, he asks the boy who has been leading him to let him lean upon the pillars of the building. During his time in prison, Shimshon’s hair has begun to grow once again; calling out to Hashem for one last miracle, he asks that his supernatural prowess be restored so that he can put a stop to the terrible desecration of God’s name that is transpiring around him. He pushes against the pillars, bringing the entire building down on the assembled gathering and killing himself together with thousands of Pelishtim. His family recovers his body from the rubble and gives him a proper burial.

There are a couple of important points to consider in this chapter. First, it is noteworthy that the chapter begins with Shimshon visiting a prostitute for no reason – purely for pleasure – unlike his prior romantic escapades that were motivated by his search for pretexts to attack the Pelishtim. Along similar lines, he seems to genuinely “falls in love” with Delilah rather than having a plan to use his relationship with her to extract vengeance from his enemies.

These two elements of the narrative point to the disintegration of Shimshon as a leader – he begins to focus on himself and the satisfaction of his own desires separate and apart from his higher mission as a savior of Israel.

This trend also helps us explain the strange episode with Delilah. The story of Shimshon and Delilah raises two obvious questions – first of all, why is Shimshon so foolish? Realizing that Delilah intends to carry out whatever actions he claims will rob him of his strength, he must know that she will cut his hair, leaving him exposed to the assaults of the Pelishtim (attacks we can safely assume that love-struck Shimshon did NOT realize his own wife was instigating.) Second, why does the shaving of his head “magically” cause Shimshon to lose his strength? Is there something magical about the physical locks of hair that makes him powerful?

I believe the answer is that the story with Delilah is meant to illustrate the extent to which Shimshon has lost all focus on his Divine mission. He is so wrapped up in his relationship with her, so consumed with seeking her love and approval, that he places the nation at risk by divulging a closely guarded secret. Again, it is reasonable to assume that he did not believe she would place him in harm’s way and invite the Pelishtim to take advantage of his weakened state.

However, Shimshon’s desire for Delilah blinded him (note the poetic justice of his punishment!) to the healthy suspicion he should have had of this foreign woman – suspicion that should have forbidden him to hand over information that rendered the entire Jewish people vulnerable to their enemies. By sharing the secret with her, he literally empowered her to determine his fate and the fate of the nation of Israel – a horrific mistake on his part.

It was this poor decision of Shimshon, this placing of his amorous interests above those of the people of Israel, that truly resulted in the withdrawal of the Divine Presence from him and in his losing the position of leadership that he had been granted. The cutting of his hair was merely a manifestation of his absolute and final failure as protector of the Jewish people. Shimshon is the only one of the Shofetim whose career ends in a dramatic and tragic defeat, and he is the last Shofet whose story is detailed in this book.

Shofetim Chapter 15

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 15

Shimshon returns to visit his Phillistine wife only to find that she has been given away to another man in his absence. His father-in-law offers his younger daughter as a substitute but Shimshon declines. Instead, he uses the injustice as a pretext for inflicting more harm on the Pelishtim. He catches three hundred foxes and lights one hundred and fifty torches; he ties the foxes in pairs with torches between their tails and releases them into the grain fields and olive groves of the Pelishtim where they cause extensive damage.

When the Phillistine community discovers the reason for Shimshon’s actions – the infidelity of his wife, abetted by her father – they burn the two perpetrators in fire as a punishment and perhaps also to assuage the rage of Shimshon. However, rather than find favor with the measures taken on his behalf, Shimshon “switches sides” in the conflict, now holding the Pelishtim accountable for killing rather than merely chastising his wife. This time, he slaughters an untold number of Pelishtim as revenge.

Shimshon goes into hiding for a while and he is approached by the people of Judah who ask him to turn himself in to the Pelishtim for their sake. He agrees to allow them to deliver him to the Pelishtim while bound by ropes; however, when the Pelishtim approach him, he easily casts the restraints aside and proceeds to kill a thousand Pelishtim with the jawbone of a donkey. After his mighty feat, Shimshon is thirsty and cries out to Hashem for water; Hashem miraculously causes water to flow from a nearby rock to satisfy his need and restore his energy.

This chapter highlights the vigilante nature of Shimshon’s activities against the Pelishtim. Not only does he fail to develop any following, his controversial behavior is seen as troublesome and potentially dangerous by his fellow Jews. Nonetheless, Shimshon ignores his lack of popularity and low approval rating and continues to fulfill the mission Hashem has given him – namely, to interfere with and obstruct the dominion of the Pelishtim in the land of Israel as much as possible.

Shofetim Chapter 14

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 14

Shimshon’s method of wreaking havoc on the Pelishtim is quite unorthodox. He becomes enamored with a Pelishti woman; over the objections of his parents (who do not see such a strange choice as part of the divine plan), he insists upon marrying her. One day Shimshon is attacked by a lion which he tears in half with his bare hands. Later he passes by the carcass of the lion only to find that some bees have settled inside it and it is now flowing with sweet honey, which he tastes himself and then brings home to share with his family. He tells no one of his encounter with the lion nor of his discovery of the unusual source of honey.

At the wedding feast, he challenges thirty of the groomsmen to answer a riddle, promising them thirty changes of clothes and thirty bedsheets if they can solve it. The riddle is “from that which eats comes food, and from the strong comes the sweet”, clearly a reference to the fierce lion that had become a veritable honeycomb. None of the Pelishtim could solve the riddle, and they pressured Shimshon’s new wife to ply him for the answer, threatening the lives of her family should she refuse.

On the seventh and last day of the festivities, Shimshon finally reveals to her the secret, which she smuggles to her fellow Pelishtim, allowing them to “win” the contest. Shimshon correctly accuses them of having wrested the solution from his wife illegally; however, honoring his word, he slays thirty Pelishtim, confiscates their clothing and bedsheets and delivers them to the “winners” as promised.

From this unconventional vignette, we develop the sense that Shimshon’s approach to confronting the Pelishtim is to remain within the bounds of “justifiable revenge” or “proportionate response”. He always maintains a veneer of fairness and judiciousness when he strikes, and he never strikes unless he is reacting to some provocation. Shimshon always provides his rationale and melodramatically expresses his indignation before making his moves so that it is clear that he has the right to do what he is doing.

In this way, Shimshon never openly “declares war” on the Pelishtim as a group, nor does he possess the authority to do so. He merely operates within the framework of what is considered in their society to be fair, appropriate and acceptable. By milking the loopholes of their dubious moral system and honor code to the extent possible, he inflicts maximum damage upon the enemies of Israel. His focus is not on the infrastructure, armies or government of the Pelishtim; rather, his target is the community of Pelishtim that he seeks to terrorize and harass so that their chokehold on the Jewish people is thereby loosened.

Shofetim Chapter 13

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 13

This chapter is the first of four that present the story of the famous Shimshon. The Jews have reverted to their idolatrous ways and the Pelishtim oppress them mercilessly for forty years. Manoah and his wife, members of the tribe of Dan, have not yet been blessed with children. Manoah’s wife is visited by an angel of Hashem who informs her that she is going to bear a child who is destined to save the Jewish people from their Pelishti oppressors. Because the baby in her womb will be consecrated to the service of Hashem, during her pregnancy she must abstain from wine as well as impure food; once born, his hair must never be cut as long as he lives.

Manoah’s wife tells him the news and he is skeptical; he prays to Hashem to send the messenger again so he can verify the story. Hashem obliges and the angelic figure appears once more to Manoah’s wife, who runs to bring her husband to meet him. The angel reiterates his message to Manoah, who offers to prepare him some food. The offer is rejected, as is Manoah’s request to learn the name of the mysterious figure. Instead, Manoah is told to present the bread and meat as a sacrifice to Hashem; when the fire miraculously rises heavenward, the mysterious visitor disappears.

At first, Manoah fears that he and his wife will die after having beheld a divine being’s countenance. His wife reassures him that Hashem would gain nothing from assigning them such an important task and accepting their offering only to kill them before they had the opportunity to fulfill the mission they had been given. The chapter concludes telling us that Shimshon is born, Hashem blesses him, and inspires him to take action on behalf his people.

There are a couple of very unusual elements to this story. Most striking is the fact that the Jews show no interest or inclination to repentance; for the first time, a savior or judge is dispatched to them without their requesting help from Hashem. Shimshon is also the first figure in the book of Shofetim whose birth and mission is foretold to his parents in advance – he is groomed as a leader from birth. And without any clear explanation or reason, Shimshon is expected to abstain from cutting his hair.

It seems that these odd aspects of the narrative of Shimshon all point to a single, unifying theme – the Jewish people as a whole are not reachable at this time, and Shimshon must separate himself from the collective from the beginning in order to protect and defend them. The nation doesn’t deserve any salvation per se and is not quite “saved” during the period of Shimshon; in fact, they never rally around him or follow him. He acts alone and operates to the best of his ability as a “vigilante” who does the best he can to foil the designs of those who wish to harm the Jewish people.

Shimshon’s being “separate” is what allows him to merit divine assistance at a time when the nation is unworthy of that benefit. It signifies the fact that his arrival on the scene is not as a member of the Jewish people, a leader of the Jewish people or even the answer to any prayer of the Jewish people (not even of his parents!) – he is a messenger of Hashem, standing apart from the Jewish and non-Jewish culture around him, a loner whose sole focus is to minimize the damage inflicted by the Pelishtim upon the Jews to the extent he can.

Shimshon’s career is the ultimate example of salvation wrought only “for the sake of Hashem’s name” – not the function of any merit of the Jewish people but purely for the purpose of allowing the nation to survive so that at some future time it can find its way once again and achieve the glory for which it was originally chosen. The Jews of that period were not deserving of Hashem’s help but Hashem could not abandon His promise to preserve and protect them for the sake of generations to come who would return to embrace that path of Torah as intended.

Shofetim Chapter 12

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 12

The tribe of Ephraim complains to Yiftah that he neglected to summon them to join him in battle against Ammon. Yiftah turns the blame around on them, accusing the Ephramites of failing to come to his aid to save the Jewish people in their time of need. Yiftah explains that this lack of support on their part was his basis for not including them amongst his troops. These aggressive comments exacerbate tensions between the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe (from which Yiftah hails) and the situation escalates into a full-blown civil war.

The men of Gilad controlled the river-crossings along the Jordan and would not permit members of Ephraim to cross. Anyone who wished to pass through would have to demonstrate that he was not of the tribe of Ephraim. People suspected of lying were subjected to a special test – Ephramites could not pronounce the “sh” sound and would therefore say “shibboleth” as “sibboleth”. Those who failed the exam, unwittingly revealing their Ephramite heritage, would be killed on the spot; forty-two thousand members of the tribe perished.

Yiftah led the nation for six years. After him arose three “minor” judges who are only described by the sizes of their families and estates – Ivtzan of Bet Lehem, Elon HaZevuloni and Avdon Ben Hillel the Pirathoni. We are not provided with any details about their deeds, regimes or the specific challenges they faced during their respective tenures.

There is an obvious comparison to be made between Gideon and Yiftah. Both were assailed by the tribe of Ephraim for having excluded them from a military operation. Gideon assuaged their concerns calmly and diplomatically, settling the issue without further incident. Yiftah, by contrast, fans the flames of discord by arguing with the tribe of Ephraim and claiming that they are the ones at fault.

It is tempting to infer from this that Gideon was a more skilled and savvy politician than Yiftah, who exhibits hot-headedness and impulsiveness in his dealings with other tribes. However, this would be a hasty conclusion to reach. After all, Yiftah attempted to neutralize the initial conflict between Israel and Ammon with sophisticated diplomacy before opting for war. What happened to Yiftah’s political acumen in the meantime? Why didn’t he utilize it in his exchange with the tribe of Ephraim?

I would like to suggest the following explanation for Yiftah’s conduct. His dream was to become the leader of the nation of Israel – for all intents and purposes, to become the king. He imagined that as a result of winning this crucial battle with Ammon, he would move on to establish a monarchy in his own name. However, the incident with his daughter rendered all of those hopes null and void. Whether she was actually killed or merely kept celibate is irrelevant – either way, she was no longer able to serve as Yiftah’s heir or to provide him with a grandson who could do so. Thus, after her “demise” (however it is interpreted), Yiftah’s hopes are dashed.

Political acumen is a powerful tool in the hands of an ambitious leader with aspirations to greatness. But someone who is hopeless and has nothing to lose has no use for such niceties. Once Yiftah saw that he had no future as the founder of a dynasty in Israel, he threw caution to the wind, preferring to keep himself busy with civil war and endless conflict over simply waiting for his time to expire and his career to reach its inevitable but premature conclusion.

Shofetim Chapter 11

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 11

Yiftah was the illegitimate son of a man named Gilad and was banished from his father’s home by his father’s legitimate children who did not want to share the inheritance of their father’s estate with him. Yiftah leaves home and establishes himself as the ancient equivalent of a successful mob boss.

Ammon threatens to attack the Jewish people and recapture from them the territory they occupy on the Eastern side of the Jordan River. Faced with this crisis, the Elders of Gilad approach Yiftah to put his organizational and management skills to work and lead them in battle. Yiftah is hesitant to accept the job, but agrees to do so on the condition that, if he is successful, he will be permanently appointed leader over all of Israel. A solemn agreement to these terms is made in the presence of Hashem at Mitzpah.

Before engaging in battle, Yiftah attempts to resolve the problem through diplomacy. He questions the motive of Ammon in laying siege to Israel, reminding them of the history of the disputed territory. The Jews had never conquered any Ammonite territory and were, in fact, forbidden to do so. However, Sihon, King of the Emori, had captured some land that originally belonged to Ammon.

When Sihon attacked the Jewish people in the times of Moshe Rabbenu, the Jews overpowered his forces on the battlefield and annexed that territory. While it was true that it had once belonged to Emorites, it was not directly taken from them by Israel. The Jews had never committed any wrongdoing to Ammon and did not deserve to be treated harshly or for war to be declared on them.

The King of Ammon is not impressed with these diplomatic overtures and proceeds to attack anyway. Before leaving for battle, Yiftah makes the fateful oath to Hashem that, if he returns in peace, the first thing to exit his home will be offered as a sacrifice. Yiftah successfully routs Ammon and joyfully heads home, only to be greeted by his only daughter, who is now “condemned”, as a result of the vow, to become an offering to the Almighty!

Yiftah’s daughter insists that her father fulfill his promise but asks that she be allowed to go to the mountains with her friends and “cry over her virginity for two months.” After this grace period, he fulfills his vow; however, it became an annual tradition for Jewish women to mourn for the daughter of Yiftah four days per year.

It is interesting to consider how the social status of the judges of Israel continues to decline; from Gideon, a reformed idolater, to Avimelekh, his illegitimate offspring, to Yiftah, who is the son of a prostitute (not even a concubine) and is a gang leader who was rejected by his family because of the circumstances of his birth. This certainly reflects the general spiritual decline of the Jewish people. Hashem, so to speak, “begrudgingly” provides the nation with the salvation they seek, and by sending them a “dishonorable” leader, He conveys the message that He continues to harbor reservations about their worthiness of providential assistance.
The oath of Yiftah is also a fascinating subject that is widely debated among the commentators. Some take it literally and understand that Yiftah offered his daughter as a sacrifice to God. It is difficult to accept this view, since such a ritual would contradict every tenet of Judaism; moreover, the text would be expected to detail the horror of such an act more explicitly if it had indeed taken place.

More appealing is the view that “giving her to God” in this context meant that, to honor her father’s vow, she had to commit to a lifetime of celibacy. This would explain her decision to mourn over her virginity. She would never be able to marry or have children and in this sense sacrificed herself to the Almighty.

In the next chapter, we will further explore the implications of this fateful choice for Yiftah’s political future. For now, it suffices to note what an unusual relationship Yiftah has with religion. On one hand, he invokes the name of Hashem quite a bit, and seems to be sincere, even going so far as to honor his outrageous vow. On the other hand, his conception of religion seems to be distorted.

Yiftah sees no contradiction between his excessive ambition, seedy past or inclination to human sacrifice (of one kind or another) and authentic Judaism. His Judaism seems to be somewhat tainted or at least heavily influenced by idolatrous religious ideas. This suggests a further decline in the level of Torah knowledge even among the leadership of Israel, and does not bode well for the population as a whole.

Shofetim Chapter 10

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 10
This chapter describes for us a couple of “minor” judges about whom we are not told too much. Tolah ben Puah of the tribe of Yissakhar led the Jewish people for twenty-three years and Yair HaGiladi did so for twenty two years. The latter was best known for the thirty sons (each of whom had his own donkey upon which to ride) and the thirty cities that belonged to him.

Neither of these shofetim/judges distinguished themselves through any specific manifestation of spiritual or political greatness that was substantial enough to record in the Tanakh. It is interesting that the Navi sees fit to mention the material wealth and large family of Yair HaGiladi; the fact that this is what we know about him suggests that there may not have been much more to say.

The Jewish people finally hit rock bottom. Previously, even when they served other gods, they demonstrated some (albeit lukewarm) devotion to their own God. However, as of this chapter, not only have they embraced the worship of all forms of idolatry indigenous to the land of Israel, but they have completely abandoned the worship of Hashem. This leads to the harshest and most intense persecutions yet, with the Pelishtim and the people of Ammon dominating the Jews on both sides of the Jordan River for a full eighteen years.

Finally, the Jewish people cry out to Hashem for salvation. Rather than respond immediately to their call, Hashem’s message is to further castigate them for their lack of dedication and their fickleness. He refuses to once again assist the Jews, only to be forgotten as soon as He saves them from their troubles.

The Jewish people again plead with Hashem for help, removing all of the false gods from their midst and committing themselves fully to the service of the God of Israel alone. Hashem no longer denies their request but does not make the resolution of their plight an obvious one. The chapter ends with the Jewish people gathered at Mitzpah and puzzling over whom to appoint as a Shofet to lead them toward some resolution of the crisis.

Shofetim Chapter 09

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 9

Avimelekh, the “illegitimate” son of Gideon, convinces his family in Shekhem to choose him as leader of Israel rather than accept leadership by all seventy of the children. They agree, and Avimelekh proceeds to hire a band of evildoers who assist him in massacring all of the sons of Gideon except for a single survivor, Yotam, who escapes. Avimelekh has himself anointed as king in Shekhem.

Yotam stands atop Mount Gerizim and delivers a message to the people couched in a parable. When the trees sought a king for the forest, they went from tree to tree offering the position and everyone declined. The olive tree, fig tree and grape vine all have something beneficial to offer the world and have no interest in lording over others.

The thornbush, however, accepts the title with the threat that if his leadership is not taken seriously, fire will burst forth and devour the entire forest. So too, Yotam says, none of the judges or prophets who led Israel in the past sought to become king, even though they contributed so much to its welfare. Avimelekh, someone who has done nothing for his people, has arranged for himself to be coronated. If this is an unjust or unwise arrangement, then it will certainly lead to the destruction of the nation that has selected him.

Avimelekh’s leadership is not well received and after only a few years, rebellion is brewing. Many signs of resistance to his authority are already evident amongst the citizens of his hometown, Shekhem. A man by the name of Gaal ben Eved (who was not Jewish) capitalizes on the dissatisfaction with Avimelekh and escalates the situation into a full-blown civil war, the “rebel base” now being Shekhem. Avimelekh puts down the resistance with great force, repeatedly battling the opposition until they submit. When the upper class citizens (termed the Baalei Migdal Shekhem) take refuge in a bunker, he and his men burn it down, killing one thousand men and women.

Avimelekh proceeds to Tevetz and captures it; this time, the citizens hide in a fortified tower to escape his forces. When Avimelekh approaches the structure to set it aflame, a woman drops a piece of grinding stone on his head, crushing his skull. He asks his armor-bearer to put him out of his misery so that he won’t suffer the dishonor of having been killed by a woman. The young boy complies, stabbing him, and the unjustly founded regime of Avimelekh comes to a bitter end, precisely as foretold by his brother, Yotam.

This chapter is long and rich in interesting detail. One noteworthy aspect of the story is the prediction of Yotam that Avimelekh’s regime will self-destruct. We can interpret this less as a prophetic pronouncement and more as an astute and realistic political analysis. Someone who is contributing meaningfully to a community doesn’t need a title to prove his or her importance; goodness will be recognized in and of itself.

By contrast, someone who seeks a powerful title for its own sake is attempting to feed his ego for selfish reasons. Such an egotistically driven person is dangerous and destructive. Not only will he fail as a shepherd of his flock, he will ultimately alienate his own constituents and set himself against those who once supported him.

As one instance of this, we see that Avimelekh, the “home grown” politician from Shekhem, relocates to another neighborhood when he makes it big, and this distance from his own community seems to exacerbate the emotional and ideological distance that develops between them. The flames of passion that propelled him to seek power in the first place will fuel the aggression and terror he employs to hold onto that power. In the end, his government will implode.

Another noteworthy aspect of the narrative is the significance of the geographical locations mentioned therein. Avimelekh’s home base is Shekhem, which has symbolic importance as the first place in which Avraham settled in Canaan, the place Yosef went to meet his brothers when he was sold, the place Yehoshua and Yosef were buried and the place in which Yehoshua contracted the final covenant between the Jewish people and Hashem before his death. The fact that Avimelekh attempts to establish the first Kingdom of Israel in Shekhem reflects his understanding of the significance of that location in Jewish history – specifically in the lives of the Patriarchs – and his desire to position himself as a link in the chain of tradition, a patriarch of sorts.

Interestingly, Yotam ascends Mount Gerizim to deliver his message. Mount Gerizim (together with Mt. Eval that stands opposite it) is the place where the Jewish people fulfilled the commandment to “reaffirm” their covenant with Hashem by building an altar, pronouncing blessings and curses and reading from the Torah. Symbolically, this was a reminder that the relationship between the nation of Israel and Hashem must ultimately be rooted in the truths of the Torah and adherence to its commandments, and that no project, however ambitious, can succeed if it runs counter to the principles they teach us. Yotam draws the attention of the people back to the real basis of all “power” in Judaism as it was shown to us by all previous Shofetim going back to Moshe Rabbenu – namely, knowledge and observance of Torah.

Shofetim Chapter 8

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 8

The men of Ephraim complain to Gideon that they were not invited to join him in the battle against Midian – they were only included at the end when Orev and Ze’ev had to be seized. Gideon wisely and diplomatically responds that the men of Ephraim were far better warriors than he and were “too good” to be deployed for such a rudimentary mission. Gideon explains that he intentionally saved their outstanding skills for the most challenging part of the campaign, arresting and executing the princes when they escaped. The Ephramites were satisfied with this response.

Gideon and his men were still in hot pursuit of two other Midianite princes, Zevah and Tzalmuna, who remained fugitives. The troops reach the point of exhaustion and Gideon stops at Sukkot to request provisions from the community to feed his ailing soldiers. The leaders of Sukkot refuse to help, pointing out that fact that Gideon has not yet captured Zevah and Tzalmuna itself shows that he has not done anything to deserve their loyalty or support thus far.

Gideon rebukes them and says that when he has successfully killed the princes he seeks, he will return to Sukkot and punish the leaders for their offense. Gideon then leads his men to Penuel and make another request for provisions; they are once again rebuffed by the locals for the same reason. Gideon likewise warns them that once he completes his mission he will return and visit retribution upon the people of Penuel for having acted this way.

When Gideon does eventually capture Zevah and Tzalmuna, he travels back to Sukkot and obtains a list of the elders of the city, whom he whips with thorns and thistles. He then goes to Penuel where he broke the community’s tower and killed many of its inhabitants.
The chapter then records a somewhat cryptic dialogue between Gideon and his captives, Zevah and Tzalmuna. Gideon asks them to identify the men they killed on Mount Tavor; they reply that their victims looked just like Gideon, “with the appearance of the sons of the king”. Gideon informs Zevah and Tzalmuna that the men they killed were actually his brethren, and had they spared the lives of his relatives, he wouldn’t be executing them now. Gideon instructs his son to kill the two princes, but the young lad is too hesitant to carry out the task. Zevah and Tzalmuna request to be killed by Gideon himself, and he obliges.
Upon his return, the Jews entreat Gideon to become their king. He refuses, explaining that Hashem is their only King. Gideon takes up a collection of earrings, jewelry and other spoils of war and fashions from them an Ephod, some sort of a beautiful garment. This is then displayed in his city, Ophra, and later becomes an object of worship or superstitious belief for the people of Israel.

The chapter then describes the many wives and children that Gideon had. He even had a concubine who bore him a son, Avimelekh. Although for the rest of Gideon’s life the Jewish people remained secure and stable, after his death they reverted to idolatry and began worshiping Baal Berit, one of the Canaanite gods. Just as they cast aside Hashem, they cast aside any remnant of loyalty or love for the house of Gideon, as we will see in the next chapter.

There are a few points in this chapter worth highlighting. One is the theme of kingship, which we know is central to the Book of Judges. Gideon seems to have an ambivalent attitude toward the possibility of becoming the first king of Israel. Publicly, he denies any interest in such a position and certainly doesn’t establish any monarchy. Yet he also takes it upon himself to punish the communities who commit treason against him, thereby acting like a king. He implies that he would have been willing to spare the Midianite princes if only they had not harmed his own family, thus assigning a special significance to his “royal” blood and not demurring when Zevah and Tzalmuna make reference to his regal status.

Gideon instructs his son to execute the prisoners (before finally doing so himself), something we would expect of a king who is training his protégé in the art of war. He places the special commemorative Ephod in his own city, underscoring the key role that his family is meant to play in Israel. He takes many wives and a concubine which is reminiscent of kingly behavior, and even names his son “Avimelekh” – “my father is king!”

Given that we already observed a sense of self-importance at play in Gideon in the last chapter, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise to us. We might say that Gideon is interested in the benefits and perks of kingship, the pleasures, glory and honor, but without the responsibilities the official position would entail.

It is interesting to note that the two communities confronted by Gideon – Sukkot and Penuel – are both related to the pivotal meeting between Esav and Yaaqov when the latter returned from his lengthy sojourn with Lavan. Yaaqov’s experience wrestling the angel the night before the meeting occurred at Penuel; after the meeting, he settled in Sukkot.

This reveals a connection between Gideon and another Biblical character, Yaaqov who, when he came back from Aram Naharayim, had to prove he was entitled and qualified to lead the emerging Jewish nation in Israel after having been “out of the picture” for so long. So too, Gideon’s legitimacy as a leader is being challenged and his credentials being “proven” in this story. The association is further solidified by the mention of Shekhem, the third location that is linked with that period in Yaaqov’s life.

Finally, there is no doubt that the collection of jewelry taken up by Gideon is meant to call to mind the collection taken up by Aharon when he constructs the Golden Calf. Even the language used in both stories is similar. Gideon was fashioning a kind of idol, a symbolic item placed in his home town that was intended to remind people of the salvation he had provided to them and that would promote a sort of hero-worship of himself and his family.

Gideon’s commemorative Ephod served the purpose of sublimating the national desire to appoint him king, translating reverence and obedience into more subtle forms of admiration and recognition that are nowadays the purview of celebrities rather than politicians. Not inclined to accept any official title of leadership, Gideon preferred to decline the offer but allowed and even encouraged the people to relate to him on a psychological and social level as their monarch. This gave him all of the benefits and few if any of the drawbacks of kingship.

The Golden Calf, too, was created in the absence of Moshe Rabbenu (their king) to reassure the Jewish people of the presence of Hashem and of the promise of stable leadership in their moment of crisis and insecurity. The decision to fashion a physical symbol to accomplish this – both in the case of Gideon’s Ephod and the Golden Calf – turned out to be problematic and even disastrous decisions.

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 7

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 7

Thirty-two thousand troops rallied around Gideon for the battle against Midian. Hashem conveys to Gideon that this situation is not acceptable; such a large army might give Israel the impression that their salvation is the result of their numbers and strength, not Divine intervention. Gideon instructs anyone hesitant about fighting to return home, but he still has ten thousand soldiers under his command. Finally, Hashem tells Gideon to lead the troops to water; any soldier who gets down on his knees to drink will be sent home and any soldier who laps up the water with his hand without lowering himself to his knees will remain. At the conclusion of the selection process, Gideon is left with three hundred soldiers.

Hashem commands Gideon to mobilize his forces against Midian and assures him of victory. However, Hashem also offers Gideon one more opportunity to witness a “sign” that will bolster his courage. Gideon and his servant sneak over to the enemy camp and overhear a Midianite soldier recounting a terrible nightmare he had dreamt. In the dream, an enormous barley cake rolled through the camp and overturned his tent, flattening it. His friend tells him that the dream symbolizes Gideon and his men, who are going to triumph over the Midianite army.

With a refreshed sense of determination and confidence, Gideon plans his attack. He divided his three hundred men into groups of one hundred men each, and gave every soldier a shofar, a pitcher and a torch. The strategy would be to hide the lit torches inside the pitchers and to stealthily surround the camp in the middle of the night. When Gideon blows his shofar, everyone else is to follow suit and do the same, shouting “for Hashem and for Gideon”. The soldiers are then supposed to smash the pitchers, revealing the brightly burning torches, and to lay siege to the Midianites.

Apparently, the logic of Gideon was based upon the principle that only a small fraction of a given army is normally expected to blow shofarot or hold torches. The sudden appearance of 300 torch-holding shofar-blowers in the dead of night would give the Midianites the impression that they were being surrounded by many thousands of troops and would overwhelm them and cause them to panic.

This is indeed what occurred, with members of the camp of Midian fleeing and even turning against one another amidst the hysteria. The Jews defeated their enemies decisively but several princes of Midian escaped with their lives. Gideon sends word to the elders of Ephraim to intercept two of these princes, Orev and Ze’ev, and not to permit them to become fugitives of the law. The tribe of Ephraim successfully apprehends and executes Orev and Ze’ev, and when we reach the end of the chapter, the story is ALMOST over.

Several details of the story demand an explanation. First, what was the reason why Hashem wanted Gideon to use such a small army to attack Midian? We don’t find such a concept elsewhere in Tanakh. In fact, one of the criticisms of Yehoshua was that he relied on a very modest band of troops to defeat Ha-Ai, and he lost! Second, what is the reason why Gideon is provided with so many signs to reassure him of Hashem’s continued commitment to support him in battle? Why is he so insecure?

I would like to suggest that these aspects of the story highlight a personality defect of Gideon. The fact that he feels so deeply insecure about winning the battle actually indicates that he is relying on HIMSELF too much and fears that he is inadequate to the task. His protestations and worries reveal that he sees himself as critical to the victory and therefore doubts his chances of success because he questions his own capabilities and talents. What seems like modesty or humility may point to quite the opposite – an assumption that it is Gideon who is responsible for making this happen, not Hashem.

We see a similar phenomenon in the case of Moshe Rabbenu who protested that his inability to speak effectively meant that he wouldn’t be able to liberate the Jews from Egyptian bondage. After much back and forth, Hashem relieves Moshe of the responsibility of addressing Pharaoh directly, delegating it instead to Aharon. This was because Hashem knew that Moshe’s fear of failure on account of poor speech indicated that he believed that his own rhetorical ability was the determining factor in whether the Jews would be redeemed or not. If he succeeded, he might take the credit and attribute the achievement to his own skilled oratory! In order to make clear that Moshe was not “the savior”, Hashem gave the duty of speaking to Moshe’s older brother, Aharon.

In the case of Gideon, the decrease in number of troops and the various signs along the way to the mission, all meant to underscore that Hashem is the true orchestrator of victory. We will see the further evolution of this characteristic of Gideon’s personality later on in the next chapter; in the meantime, it is worth noting that in formulating the battle cry “for Hashem and for Gideon”, Gideon assigns to himself a very prominent role in the battle that seems like exactly the sort of thing that Hashem is discouraging here.

Another interesting question is why drinking on one’s knees disqualifies one from fighting in Gideon’s army. The traditional commentaries assume that one who would go down onto his knees to drink must have been habituated to the prostrations that were typical of Baal worship at the time. Anyone involved in this military conflict had to be – like Gideon was – totally divorced from any vestige of idolatry. The beginning of the chapter refers to Gideon first and foremost as Yerubaal – the iconoclast who rejected idol worship and is therefore worthy of reestablishing the independence of the Nation of Hashem. The men under his command were expected to meet the same religious standard.

Shofetim Chapter 5

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 5

This chapter contains the “song” or poem that Devorah and Baraq composed following the triumph over Yavin, King of Hatzor. Prophetic poetry is designed to be recited or chanted and places events into perspective in the context of some “bigger picture”. Usually, when we encounter Biblical poetry in the midst of stories, it is an indication that the narrative represents a major development or breakthrough of some kind in the unfolding of the Divine plan.

For obvious reasons, attempting to “summarize” a poem would eviscerate it and would not do justice to its beauty, nuance or power. It needs to be read and experienced to be appreciated. However, it behooves us to at least identify some of the key themes Devorah and Baraq speak about in their song.

A key element of Shirat Devorah is its depiction of how severe the persecutions were under the regime of Yavin. Normal everyday activities like traveling on open roads and drawing water from public wells was made difficult or impossible for the Jews. They would be attacked, have arrows shot at them, and otherwise be terrorized for simply going about their business. They were “demilitarized” by Yavin, to the point that the army under Baraq’s command didn’t even have spears or shields with which to engage in battle when the hour arrived. This underscores how dramatic the salvation was; even more, it highlights how miraculous the battle was from the standpoint of the Jewish people (and perhaps allows us to see why Baraq was so nervous about it.)

Another motif of the song is the emphasis on “hitnadvut”, voluntary involvement. Because there was no central political authority in Israel with the means to compel citizens to follow any program or course of action, participation in the rebellion was totally voluntary on their part. Some of the tribes, like Yissakhar, Zevulun, Binyamin, Menashe, Ephraim and Naftali, willingly and enthusiastically committed themselves to the effort.

Those who lived on the other side of the Yarden, however – Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe – as well as Dan and Asher were hesitant to take any risks on behalf of their people and therefore remained neutral until the conflict was settled. These tribes, either due to the location of their territory or the nature of their occupations, were more economically independent than the others and seemingly had little to gain and much to lose by getting involved.

The confederacy of tribes, like our far flung Jewish communities today, will only survive and thrive if we are concerned with the welfare of all Jews, even when their crises don’t impact us directly. Nobody can or will compel us to act; we must internalize a sense of responsibility for one another based on the transcendent values that unite us and not based upon practical calculations alone.

Shirat Devorah praises those who stood up of their own accord to support their nation and casts some aspersions on those who were resistant to doing so. The song contrasts the behavior of these tribes with that of many of the Kings of Canaan who, without any financial incentive, joined the battles against Israel; they volunteered for what they believed in, even if it was wrong! Why did some tribes not do the same for the sake of their own brethren?

The manifestation of the Divine presence in the history of Israel is another element of the song. Shirat Devorah makes references back to the Revelation at Sinai as well as to the miraculous assistance that attended the triumph against Yavin and Sisera, which many commentaries infer was facilitated by some kind of natural disaster that rendered their chariots immobile. Ultimately, Hashem is the King, and human despots, no matter how intimidating, are subject to His will and His will alone.

Finally, Shirat Devorah revisits the “feminine” or “motherly” motif of the story, describing the roles of Devorah (“a mother in Israel”) and Yael (“of the women in the tent she shall be blessed”, women in the tent meaning matriarchs, mothers) as well as the reaction of the mother of Siserah, another maternal character who had not been mentioned before but is now inserted into the narrative.

The mother of Sisera is in denial about the outcome of the battle and imagines her son raping and pillaging in Israel (what a comforting thought!!!???); of course, these are all illusions and as she comes to terms with the reality that he himself has been vanquished, she sobs. The song concludes with the prayer that just as the wicked designs of the enemies of Israel evaporated in this instance so should they evaporate in the future…Hashem has the power to make that happen as long as we are worthy of His providential care.

Shofetim Chapter 4

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 4

After the death of Ehud ben Gera, the Jewish people again sink to the depths of idolatry and assimilation. As a result, they find themselves subservient to and persecuted by Yavin, King of Hatzor and his general Sisera. The oppression suffered by the Jews at the hands of Yavin is particularly intense and extends for twenty years. Realizing that Yavin’s power is backed by highly intimidating and heavily armed military forces and that his regime cannot be resisted by human means, the Jewish people cry out to Hashem, Who sends them a distinguished leader – Devorah – to guide them.

First, we witness a spiritual reawakening and return to Torah, as the nation of Israel embrace Devorah as a Judge and listen carefully to her instructions. Then Hashem commands Devorah to direct Baraq ben Avinoam to mobilize the Jewish military in a rebellion against Yavin. Baraq is hesitant and refuses to go unless Devorah is willing to accompany him to battle. Although she warns him that he will not achieve glory in this conflict because a woman will be credited with the victory, she agrees to join the military forces as a representative of Hashem Who is the true source of success in battle.

The forces of Yavin, led by Sisera, are defeated soundly by the soldiers of Israel, despite the fact that the latter were neither well-armed nor well-prepared. Sisera abandons his chariot and runs on foot to the estate of a prominent ally of Yavin, Hever HaQeni. Ironically, Hever HaQeni was a descendant of the father-in-law of Moshe Rabbenu and had historically maintained close ties with the Jews; Sisera relied upon the assumption that the alliance of King Yavin with Hever was genuine and assumed he would be granted refuge at his home despite this. As we know, this turned out to be a faulty assumption; once the tides had turned against Yavin, Hever and Yael immediately sided with their natural allies, the Jewish people.

Yael, the wife of Hever HaQeni, receives him warmly and reassures him that she will keep his visit a secret. She provides him with a blanket to rest and some milk to quench his thirst. As soon as he dozes off, she takes a tent-spike and drives it through his skull, killing him. Not long after, Baraq arrives in pursuit of Sisera and is informed of what transpired. This marks a decisive turning point in the struggle and eventuates in the Jewish people regaining its political autonomy in the Land of Israel.

This narrative is rich in detail and drama and much commentary could be written about it. For the sake of brevity, I would like to highlight just two noteworthy aspects of the story.
First, it is remarkable that the undisputed leader of the Jewish people is a woman, Devorah. Moreover, another woman, Yael, plays a critical role in resolving the military conflict (typically a manly enterprise) when she assassinates Sisera.

On the other hand, the male characters in the story are rather weak. Baraq is afraid to go out to battle without Devorah, a spiritual mother-figure, present. Moreover, in his moment of weakness and humiliation, Sisera runs to another “mother-figure”, Yael, who provides him with a place to rest and a glass of milk, emblematic of her nurturing role. Two maternal personalities are contrasted here with two “mama’s boys”.

Second, this is the first time we see the roles of religious and political leader bifurcated. Devorah is the prophetess, the teacher, the religious visionary; Baraq, although he believes in Hashem and in the message of His representative, is essentially a military leader whose task is to implement the instructions of Devorah.

Moshe Rabbenu, Yehoshua, Otniel ben Qenaz and Ehud ben Gera all embodied both spiritual and political greatness – they combined and integrated the religious and the secular, the holy and the mundane, and provided an all-encompassing, holistic form of leadership to the Jewish people. During their career, the blend of Torah life and political-social life in Israel was smooth and seamless.

By contrast, the era of Baraq and Devorah is one of significant disintegration and fragmentation – it is a period of time in which there is no ONE LEADER fully capable of guiding the nation at every level and for every purpose. This loss of unification of the transcendent and the practical is indicative of increased disconnection between the Jewish people and the ideals and principles of Torah, and is a harbinger of even further decline that will be documented in future chapters of Sefer Shofetim.

Shofetim Chapter 3

Shofetim Chapter 3
This chapter opens with a list of the groups of indigenous Canaanites who were not driven out of the land by the Jewish people. Interestingly, here these populations are characterized as having been left there by Hashem so as to test the Jews, and “so that the generations of the Children of Israel will know – to teach them the art of war, which before they had not known…” Another reason given for their continued presence in the land is to test the Jewish people “if they will listen to the commandments of Hashem that he commanded their fathers through Moshe.”

The Jews began intermarrying with their non-Jewish neighbors and eventually started worshiping idolatrous gods – the Baalim and Asherot, which were the most popular deities in the region during that period. As predicted by the “cycle of Shofetim” described in the previous chapter, this led to the emergence and dominance of Kushan Rishatayim, King of Aram Naharayim, over Israel. He subjugated them for eight years, until they “cried out to Hashem”, signifying a return to Torah and mitzvot; as a result, Otniel Ben Qenaz was inspired by Hashem to save them from oppression. He mobilized the Jewish military and defeated Kushan Rishatayim, thereby restoring Jewish independence. The situation was stable for forty years, until the death of Otniel ben Qenaz.

Following the death of their leader, Israel sank even more deeply into idolatry and found itself once again dominated by a foreign power – Eglon, King of Moav. After eighteen years of suffering, the Jews turned to Hashem for salvation and He provided them with another Shofet, Ehud ben Gera. After bringing Eglon a tribute from the Jewish people, Ehud returned to the palace and requested a private audience with the King. Eglon granted his wish and ordered his officers to leave the chamber immediately.

Upon being told that Ehud had a divine message to share with him, Eglon rose from his throne, and Ehud quickly thrust a double-edged spear into his belly (Ehud was left handed, and kept his sword on the right side of his body – a place that the security guards had apparently neglected to search when they allowed him entry!) Because Eglon was so corpulent, the entire sword, including the handle, was sucked into his belly, and his guts spilled everywhere. Ehud departed from the chamber and closed the door behind him, making his escape.

Meanwhile, the guards did not check on Eglon for some time, assuming that perhaps he was using the bathroom inside and could not be disturbed…When they finally investigated and found him dead, it was already too late to seize the perpetrator who was long gone. The ensuing battle culminated in political freedom, secure borders and independence for the Jews that would last another eighty years.

The chapter concludes with a brief vignette about Shamgar ben Anat, a Shofet about whom we are not told much. All we know is that he managed to slaughter six hundred Pelishtim single-handedly with little more than a cattle prod.

One question worth exploring in this chapter is the multiple messages we are given regarding who is responsible for the Canaanites remaining in the land. Previous chapters have indicated that this was the fault of the Jews, or even of Yehoshua, for not having removed them forcibly as they were commanded. Our chapter suggests that Hashem planned for them to stay, either in order to “teach the art of war” to the Jews or to test their obedience to the Torah. Which one of these explanations is correct?

Rashi, Radaq and others explain that the “teaching of war” here was actually a PUNISHMENT for the Jewish people. Prior battles had been one with divine assistance alone, no military training necessary. The fact that they now needed to prepare physically and tactically for war was a sign that they had lost the divine support that allowed previous generations to succeed without such preparations. According to this interpretation, earlier chapters that described the laxity of the Jews with respect to the conquest were in fact accurate; here, we read about the consequences of that laxity, the absence of divine providence and the challenges and temptations that interfere with Torah observance were of their own making!

I would like to tentatively suggest another possibility for your consideration. Perhaps the “learning of war” mentioned here is actually a blessing, not a curse. The transition into Israel had to be accompanied by greater self-reliance and a decreased dependence upon supernatural help. True, the Jews were obligated to remove the Canaanites and create a territory free of idolatrous influence that would undermine their adherence to the Torah. However, had Hashem enabled them to drive out all of these enemies in Yehoshua’s time, they may not have been compelled to develop the “inner strength” and military capabilities necessary for functioning as an independent nation-state on the international scene.

Hashem saw that the Jewish people had become reticent and resistant to pursuing the military campaigns in Israel. When Hashem had taken care of them in a miraculous fashion, all was well. But the more they had to rely upon their own sweat and tears to secure their borders, the more they lost their passion for the fight. The “test” was to see if the Jews would continue to wait for miracles in the establishment of their community or would gain the knowledge, wisdom and practicality needed to take care of and defend themselves.

From this perspective, all of the explanations for the continued presence of Canaanites in the land are also true. However, rather than seeing the mastery of the art of war as a punishment for not removing the Canaanites, this training could have actually been the GOAL of that experience. Ideally, they would have developed this competence during the initial military campaigns and conquest under the leadership of Yehoshua; since they did not, they were left with a complicated political landscape that demanded they continue to engage in war without supernatural assistance. Note that, in the language of the verse, there is no clear indication that learning the art of war was a bad thing, which provides some support for this explanation.

I see a precedent for this line of reasoning in the words of HaRambam, who comments that the reason the First Temple was destroyed was that, rather than focusing on mastering the art of war and learning how to defend themselves properly in battle, the Jews of that time turned to astrology, superstition, mysticism and other supernatural means of protection when their existence in the land was threatened. This lack of wisdom and failure to act intelligently led to their exile to Babylonia.

The interpretation of HaRambam teaches us that it is possible to view the possession of military skill as a blessing and not a curse. In fact, it is the ultimate example of divine providence – Hashem’s gracious act of giving us intelligence that we can use to protect and advance our interests every moment of every day, even in the absence of miracles. Only when the Jewish people mature out of a framework of magical thinking and dependence on the supernatural and can live as a wise and understanding nation in the world are they truly worthy of representing Hashem in His chosen land.

Shofetim Chapter 2

Shofetim Chapter 2

This chapter begins with an “angel of Hashem” addressing and rebuking the entire Jewish people. This “angel” or messenger is identified by our Sages as Pinhas the son of Elazar. Pinhas reminded the Jews of Hashem’s great benevolence to them and of their covenantal commitment to Him. Specifically, the Jews had been expected to remove all of the idolatrous populations and altars from the land of Israel and they had failed to do so, instead allowing these pockets of Canaanites to coexist with them in peace. While this may have seemed like a wise, judicious and tolerant choice from the perspective of the war-weary nation, it was a violation of the Torah’s commandments and created a situation that would soon cause substantial spiritual and political damage to Israel. The people cried when they heard this message and brought sacrifices to Hashem, but there was no real follow-through in practice; they maintained the status quo.

The chapter proceeds to chart the decline of the spiritual stature of the Jewish people, beginning with the generation of Yehoshua and the Elders who all remained steadfast in their commitment to Hashem. After the death of Yehoshua and the rest of those who had witnessed Hashem’s miraculous acts of providence firsthand, the Jews began to fall prey to the influence of their gentile neighbors and to assimilate into the surrounding culture, going so far as to worship idolatry. As foretold in the Torah, this caused Hashem to cease providing His support for the economic, political and military endeavors of Israel. The Jews found themselves harassed, persecuted and subjugated by Canaanites who had once paid them tribute and whom they had mistakenly allowed to dwell in their midst when they first conquered the land.

This chapter is a critical one because it defines for us the fundamental “cycle” of the Book of Shofetim. Almost every narrative in the book of Shofetim follows the four-stage pattern that is introduced and detailed here. First, the Jews engage in idolatry, abandon the Torah and assimilate, and this causes them to lose their Divine protection as well as their political independence and security. Second, they return to Torah under the leadership of a Shofet/Judge(whether it is Ehud, Devorah, Gideon, etc.) , who guides them away from paganism and back to the observance of mitzvot. Third, as a result of this turnaround, they once again become worthy of Hashem’s providential care and begin to experience remarkable successes in their military campaigns, reestablishing their sovereignty and enjoying the blessings of prosperity. Finally, following the death of the Shofet who orchestrated the initial spiritual-political revolution, the Jews lose their momentum and find themselves back in the clutches of idolatrous influence, only to see the cycle start over again…Tragically, with each revolution of the cycle, the Jews sink to lower and lower depths of depravity and materialism, as the Book of Shofetim will demonstrate.

One fascinating question we can raise is why the Sages identify the anonymous “angel” at the beginning of the chapter with Pinhas. In order to explain this, we must consider the early career of Pinhas, which began during the lifetime of Moshe Rabbenu. Witnessing a Jewish prince entering his tent with a Midianite woman in a public act of immorality and disregard for the holiness of the nation of Israel, Pinhas stood up and killed the paramours in their moment of passion. He had a profound understanding of the dangers of assimilation and the need to employ strident and even aggressive tactics to prevent the erosion of the purity of the Jewish people. So it is reasonable that he would be the person to stand up and preach vigorously against the laxity of the Jews in ridding their land of the influences and encroachment of idolaters, a compromise he knew would lead to intermarriage, the dilution of Judaism and the disintegration of the Nation of Hashem. Perhaps this is why the Rabbis were convinced that the messenger described at the beginning of this chapter was none other than Pinhas.

Shofetim Chapter 1 – Introduction

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 1

The Book of Shofetim, or Judges, picks up after the death of Yehoshua. According to tradition, it was written by the Prophet Shemuel. As per the instructions Yehoshua delivered before his death, the tribes continued their efforts to conquer territory in the land of Israel and to expand and secure their borders. The chapter provides several highlights of these incursions.

For example, the tribe of Yehuda captured Adoni Bezeq, a ruthless dictator who punished the kings whom he vanquished by cutting off their thumbs and big toes and forcing them to scavenge for scraps under his table. The Jews cut off his thumbs and big toes, and he himself acknowledged the Divine justice at play in this punishment before dying in Jerusalem, which the tribe of Judah captured and set aflame.

The chapter also describes the conquest of Devir, Qiryat Sefer and Hevron, which were already discussed in Sefer Yehoshua because of their relevance to the division of territory and are repeated here for the sake of chronology (they actually took place after the death of Yehoshua). Included is the story of Kalev, Otniel ben Qenaz and Akhsa the daughter of Kalev, first recounted in Sefer Yehoshua and recapped here almost word for word. We also read about the tribes of Yosef and their conquest of Bet El.

Several of the tribes – Menashe, Ephraim, Zevulun, Asher, Dan and Naftali – stopped short of removing all of the Canaanites from their midst. Instead, pockets of gentiles were permitted to remain in Israel, provided they paid the requisite taxes to the Jews who ruled over them.

Unfortunately, this failure to cleanse the land of idolatry and to fully establish an exclusively Jewish community in Israel set the stage for future spiritual and political problems. The challenges created by this lack of follow-through will form much of the subject matter of the Book of Shofetim.

It is important to mention one key motif of the Book of Shofetim that differentiates it from the Torah and the Book of Yehoshua – the absence of a “central government”. The tribes act independently or based upon alliances with one another, but not as a collective, national body. Although the entire nation is still united by their observance of Torah, connection to the Mishkan and belief in Hashem, they are no longer politically united by any form of “Federal Government”.

At this point in history, the loose structure of tribal affiliation most resembled the American colonies under the “Articles of Confederation” – at that time, the states functioned as independent, sovereign nations with an agreement to work together but no power over one another. This was, of course, prior to the adoption of the constitution and the establishment of the United States as a single, cohesive entity. With this in mind, we can understand how the Book of Shofetim (written by the Prophet Shemuel who anoints the first King of Israel) is meant to trace the evolution of the community of Israel from this “Articles of Confederation” type arrangement with all of its associated difficulties to the unified monarchy that will finally be constituted in the Book of Shemuel.