FROM THE TORAH
Last week’s Sedra Korach ended with the demarcation of duties and perquisites of Kohanim and Levites. Fundamental to their sacred access is their status of ritual purity. Its rules are provided in this week’s Sedra Chukkat at the outset. Then follow succinct accounts of crucial events: the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the fate of Moses, continued hardships, objections, and punishments. Israel is confronted with the unprovoked hostility of several nations in the vicinity of its destination. Whencesoever bellicosity breaks out—the king of Arad, Sichon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan—Israel prevails and the enemy is supplanted. Then Israel encamps in the plains of Moab.
Contamination and Purification
PREPARATION OF THE ASHES OF PURIFICATION
The Eternal explains to Moses and Aaron: The following is a statute (Chukkat) of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded and which you should communicate to the Children of Israel. They must provide you with a completely red cow (parah adumah), which has no defect and has not borne a yoke. You must then give it to Elazar the Kohen, who shall remove it from the camp and have it slaughtered before him. Elazar the Kohen shall then sprinkle its blood with his finger toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times.
He shall then have the cow burned in his sight—its skin, its flesh, its blood, along with its dung—and throw into the fire cedar wood, hyssop and crimson material.
Let the Kohen then wash his garments and bathe his body in water. He may then enter the camp, but he is impure until the evening. In addition, the one who burned it must wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and he is impure until the evening.
A pure man shall gather up the ashes of the cow and put them in a clean place outside of the camp, where they shall be reserved for water of purification from sin. He also shall wash his clothes and be impure until the evening.
This shall serve the Children of Israel and the alien who sojourns in their midst as an everlasting statute.
HUMAN DEATH AS A SOURCE OF IMPURITY
One who has contact with a human corpse shall be impure for seven days.
These are the rules:
If a person dies in an enclosure such as a tent, whoever is in the tent and whoever enters the tent is impure for seven days, and any open vessel without a lid fastened upon it is impure.
Outside of an enclosure such as in a field, anyone who touches a corpse, whether the person died of natural causes or by violence, or a human bone, or a grave, is impure for seven days.
PURIFICATION BY THE ASHES
In order to become pure he must be purified by the ashes on the third day and on the seventh day. If not, he will defile the Tabernacle of the Eternal and be cut off from Israel.
In order to achieve purification, fresh water shall be combined with some of the ashes in a vessel. Then a pure man shall dip hyssop into the water and sprinkle it upon the tent and upon all of the vessels and the people who were in it, or upon the one who had contact with the person who died, whether violently or naturally, the bone, or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, purifying him on the seventh day, but he still must wash his clothes and bathe in water to be pure by the evening.
Unless the water of purification is thrown upon him, he remains impure indefinitely.
The one who sprinkled the water of purification must wash his clothes. Whoever touches the water of purification is impure until the evening, and whatever that impure person touches becomes impure. Whoever touches him shall be impure until the evening.
Crises from the Wilderness of Zin to the Plains of Moab
DEATH OF MIRIAM
All of the congregation of the Children of Israel arrive in the wilderness of Zin in the first month (cf. Numbers 33:36-38), staying at Kadesh. There Miriam dies and is buried.
THE WATERS OF MERIVAH
There was no water for the congregation, so they assemble against Moses and against Aaron (cf. Exodus 17:1-7). The people quarrels with Moses: Better that we had perished when our brethren perished before the Eternal! Why have you brought the Eternal’s congregation to this wilderness to die in it along with our beasts? Why have you removed us from Egypt to bring us to this horrible, infertile place, incapable of figs or vines or pomegranates, without water to drink?
Moses and Aaron seek refuge from the congregation at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, where they fall upon their faces and the Dense Presence of (K’vod) the Eternal appears to them. The Eternal tells Moses to take the staff and assemble the congregation: You and Aaron your brother, speak to the rock in their sight to give forth its water (cf. Exodus 17:6). Thus shall you bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the congregation and their beasts.
So Moses takes the staff from before the Eternal (cf. Numbers 17:25) as He commanded him. Moses and Aaron gather the community in front of the rock, “and he says to them: ‘Now listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?’” (Numbers 20:10) Moses then lifts his hand and strikes the rock with his staff twice, and abundant water pours forth, which the congregation and their animals drink.
To Moses and to Aaron, the Eternal says the following: Because you did not in good faith sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land which I am giving to them.
They are the waters of Merivah, which means “Quarrel,” in that the Children of Israel quarreled with the Eternal, who was sanctified through them (cf. Exodus 17:7).
ISRAEL REQUESTS PASSAGE THROUGH EDOM
Moses then sends messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. Thus declares your brother Israel (cf. Genesis 25:30; 36:1-8), they say: You know of the hardship that has befallen us, how our ancestors went down to Egypt, how the Egyptians dealt harshly with them and with us, how we cried out to the Eternal, who heard our voice and sent an angel to bring us out of Egypt; here we are now in Kadesh, on the border of your territory. Allow us safe transit through your land, we shall not stop in your fields or vineyards, we shall not drink water from your wells; we shall remain strictly on the king’s highway until we pass through your territory (cf. Deuteronomy 2:1-8)!
Edom rejects Israel’s petition and threatens military action if its rejection is not respected. The Children of Israel appeal and attempt to reassure Edom that they will take only the highway, that they will pay for any water that man or beast might drink on the way, and that their passage would be only on foot. Their appeal also is rejected, additionally with a demonstration of force by the appearance of people from Edom’s side heavily armed. Thus Edom refuses to allow Israel to pass through its territory, and Israel turns away from Edom.
DEATH OF AARON
The Children of Israel then journey from Kadesh, and all of the congregation arrive at Mount Hor. There, on the boundary of the land of Edom, the Eternal announces to Moses and to Aaron that Aaron will be gathered to his people, that he will not enter the land that the Eternal is giving to the Children of Israel “because you disobeyed My command for the waters of Merivah” (Numbers 20:24). Moses is instructed to bring Aaron and his son Elazar up to Mount Hor. There he is to remove Aaron’s vestments and transfer them to Elazar his son. There Aaron is to be gathered to the dead.
Moses does as the Eternal commanded. They go up to Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. Moses transfers Aaron’s vestments to Elazar his son, and Aaron dies there at the top of the mountain. Moses and Elazar come down, and all the congregation sees that Aaron has passed away. All the House of Israel weeps for Aaron for thirty days.
ATTACK BY THE KING OF ARAD
The Canaanite king of Arad, dwelling in the Negev, learns that Israel is coming by way of the Atarim. He attacks them and takes captives from them. Israel makes a vow to the Eternal: If You deliver this people to me, then I shall proscribe their cities. The Eternal hears the voice of Israel and delivers the Canaanite to Israel. They and their cities are proscribed. The name of the place is Chormah, “proscription.”
ANGRY COMPLAINTS ENGENDER VENOMOUS SERPENTS
From Mount Hor they follow the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, but the people grow impatient on the way. They speak out against God and against Moses: Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and there is no water, and we cannot stand the accursed bread!
The Eternal sends venomous serpents against the people: they bite the people, and many of Israel die. The people appeal to Moses: We have sinned in speaking against the Eternal and against you; pray to the Eternal to remove the serpents from us! In respect of Moses’s prayer, the Eternal instructs him to make a fiery serpent and mount it upon a pole, so that whoever is bitten can see it and live. Moses thus makes a copper serpent and places it upon the pole. It serves the purpose that the Eternal intended.
JOURNEY TO WATER
The Children of Israel journey on, encamping along the way at Ovot, at Iyey Ha’avarim in the wilderness next to Moab on the east, at the Zered wadi, and in the wilderness between the Arnon border of Moab and the Amorite border. In The Book of the Wars of the Eternal is found the following: “…Wahev in Sufa and the Arnon wadis and the lower slope of the wadis which extend to the settlement of Ar alongside the border of Moab.” From there they continue to Be’er, which means “well” and is the place where the Eternal says to Moses, “Gather the people, and I shall give them water!”
Then Israel sings this song:
Rise up, O well, be regaled with these words:
O well dug out by rulers, by nobles of the people,
with their own scepter and staffs–
from wilderness a gift!
And from Mattanah, “a gift”: Nachaliel, “wadi of God”;
and from Nachaliel: Bamot, “heights”;
and from Bamot: the valley which is in the countryside of Moab,
the summit of Pisgah,
overlooking the wilderness waste.
WAR WITH SICHON AND THE AMORITES
Israel sends messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites: Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off to field or vineyard or drink water from a well. We shall travel only the king’s highway until we have passed through your territory.
But Sichon denies Israel passage and instead goes out to the wilderness with all of his people to confront Israel and attack them at Yahatz. Israel strikes back with the sword and conquers their land and all of its cities from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the Ammonites, whose border is strong. Israel settles in the land of the Amorites and in all of their cities, in Cheshbon and in all of its surrounding towns.
Cheshbon was the city of Sichon, king of the Amorites, as he conquered it from the former king of Moab as far as the Arnon. Therefore the poets would say:
Come to Cheshbon,
built and established,
the city of Sichon!
Fire went out from Cheshbon,
to consume Ar of Moab,
lords of the heights of Arnon.
Woe to you, O Moab!
Your god Chemosh
has allowed his children
to become fugitives and captives
of Sichon, the Amorite king!
But we shoot them down
from Cheshbon to Divon;
cause desolation as far as Nofach,
which is by Meydeveh!
Moses dispatches scouts to reconnoiter Jazer. Israel captures its towns and dispossesses the Amorites who are there.
DEFEAT OF OG, KING OF BASHAN
They turn and ascend the road to Bashan. Og, the king of Bashan, emerges with all of his people to engage them in battle at Edrei. The Eternal tells Moses not to fear him: I will give him and his people and his land into your hand. You will do to him as you did to Sichon, king of the Amorites, who lives in Cheshbon. Indeed they defeat him and his sons and his people thoroughly, leaving no survivor, and they possess his land.
ISRAEL ENCAMPS IN THE PLAINS OF MOAB
The Children of Israel set out again and then encamp in the plains of Moab, across the Jordan from Jericho.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Chukkat
Jephthah Overtakes Ammon
Jephthah the Gileadite, a heroic fighter, was the son of Gilead and a harlot. Gilead had other sons by his wife. When they grew up, they drove Jephthah away and denied him an inheritance in their father’s house.
Jephthah settles in the land of Tov and draws around him a questionable entourage. But the time comes when the Ammonites attack Israel, prompting the Elders of Gilead to call upon Jephthah to be their leader in defending against the Ammonites. Jephthah reminds the Elders that they had once shown him hatred and had driven him away. They acknowledge that now they need him for this military challenge.
So Jephthah stipulates that he will lead them in battle if they will acknowledge him as their leader not only for the battle but also, if he is victorious, after the Eternal delivers the Ammonites into his hand. They so pledge with the Eternal as witness and establish Jephthah as their leader before the Eternal at Mitzpah.
The first thing that Jephthah does is to send messengers to the king of the Ammonites seeking peace and not war. But the Ammonite king tells the messengers of Jephthah that the land surrounded by the Arnon, the Jabbok and the Jordan, was taken from them by Israel when Israel came up from Egypt. Thus, he demands, Israel should restore that land to him.
Jephthah sends his messengers again to explain to the Ammonite king that when Israel came up from Egypt and arrived at Kadesh, they requested peaceful passage through the land of Edom. The king of Edom denied their request, so Israel went around Edom and around Moab and encamped on the other side of the Arnon without invading the border of Moab, which was the Arnon (cf. Numbers 20:14-21). Then Israel sent messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites, king of Cheshbon, requesting from him peaceful passage through his land to their destination. But Sichon would not grant Israel passage. Instead he gathered all of his people and fought against Israel at Yahatz. The Eternal, the God of Israel, delivered Sichon and all of his people into the hand of Israel so that Israel took possession of all of the land of the Amorites, who were then its inhabitants (cf. Numbers 21:21-25). The boundaries of the land were from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan.
Now, says Jephthah, do you think that you should dispossess us of the land which the Eternal, the God of Israel, has taken from the Amorites for His people Israel? You should possess whatever your god Chemosh has taken for you, and that which the Eternal our God has taken for us shall we possess (cf. Numbers 21:26-30)! Do you think that you are better than Balak son of Tsippur, king of Moab? Did he ever fight against Israel (cf. Numbers 22:2ff.)? While Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and in Aroer and their nearby towns, and in all of the cities along the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time? I have not wronged you, but you would wrong me by attacking me. Let the Eternal judge between the Children of Israel and the Children of Ammon! But the king of the Ammonites does not pay heed to the words which Jephthah sends to him.
Then the spirit of the Eternal comes upon Jephthah: he passes through Gilead and Manasseh, through Mitzpah of Gilead, and then to the Children of Ammon. Jephthah vows to the Eternal: If You deliver the Children of Ammon into my hand, then whatever emerges from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Children of Ammon shall be the Eternal’s and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering (cf. Judges 11:34-40)! Jephthah attacks the Children of Ammon, and the Eternal delivers them into his hand. He strikes them from Aroer to the entrance of Minnit, twenty cities, as far as Avel Keramim, with a very great slaughter. Thus are the Children of Ammon overtaken by the Children of Israel.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Pesikta Rabbati 14:65a
Why the Parah Adumah?
A gentile once asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: The things that you do with the parah adumah (cf. Numbers19:1-22) seem like magic. You obtain a cow, burn it, crush it, and pour water over its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a human corpse, you sprinkle two or three drops and declare, “You are pure!”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the gentile: Have you ever been invaded by a bad spirit? No, said the gentile. Well, then, asked the Rabbi, have you ever seen what they do to one who has been? The gentile answered: They turn roots into smoke under him, pour water upon him, and the bad spirit goes away. Said the Rabbi: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying? The bad spirit is the spirit of impurity, as is written: “I shall also make the false prophets and the impure spirit pass away from the Land” (Zechariah 13:2).
When the gentile left, his students said to him: Rabbi, you refuted him with a reed, but how would you answer us? The Rabbi said to them: A corpse does not defile, and water does not purify. Rather, it is simply a statute of God. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I have made a statute, issued a decree, which you are not permitted to transgress—“This is a statute (chukkat) of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded…” (Numbers 19:2)!
Another question about parah adumah: While all the other offerings are male, why is this one female? Said Rabbi Ayvu: It may be likened to a handmaiden’s child who soils the palace of the king. Says the king: Let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: Let the cow come and atone for the incident of the calf (cf. Exodus 32)!
Numbers Rabbah 19:9-10
Moses Between Rocks and Hard Places
“Moses and Aaron gather the community
in front of the rock…”
As there would not be enough space
for more than 600,000 to stand before the rock,
this must mean that everyone saw himself standing over the rock
and that they saw all of the miracles that were of a rock.
They began to call for Moses to bring forth water from a particular rock that they saw. Remembering the miracle at Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-7), where Moses struck the rock and water came forth, they said: Moses knows how to bring forth water from a rock. If he wants to, he can bring forth water from this rock!
Now Moses faced a dilemma before God and a danger to himself: If I listen to them, I will violate the words of God, who intends for me to bring forth water from a different rock. On the other hand, God “captures the wise in their presumption” (Job 5:13): For these forty years since the incident of the scouts, Moses carefully avoided showing anger at his people because he feared that the Holy One, blessed be He, would include him in the promise He made at that time, “Not one of these men…will see the good land…” (Deuteronomy 1:35)—thus he feared not listening to them!
“Here is a rock!” the people acclaimed. “Just as you chose to bring forth water from another rock, bring forth water from this rock!” At that, Moses’s dilemma got the better of him, and he shouted at the people, “Listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock” (Numbers 20:10b)? “This rock” is meant to imply that Moses brought forth water not from the rock that the people had seen, but from the rock that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded him. Then, in the throes of his conflict, he angrily struck the rock instead of speaking to it in their sight as commanded (cf. Numbers 20:8) and not only once but “twice” (Numbers 20:11)! At the same time, what he spoke in the people’s hearing were pained words of sarcasm which implied doubt (cf. Numbers 20:10b).
“Because you did not act
faithfully to Me…
you will not bring this congregation
to the Land…”
But was any of this worse than what Moses had said before? When God promised to satisfy the people’s yearning for meat for many days, Moses reacted, “Are there enough flocks and herds to be slaughtered to feed them? Could all the fish in the sea be harvested to suffice them?” (Numbers 11:22) Why did God not pass an edict upon Moses at that time, when he angrily denied God’s power to satisfy the needs of His people? Those direct words were certainly more faithless than Moses’s frustration before the rock!
To what may this be compared? To a king whose confidante speaks harshly to him in private, and the king does not punish him. But another time, when the confidante speaks against the king in the presence of the king’s legions, the king sentences him to death.
Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, effectively says to Moses: The first time, when you spoke against My power to fulfill My promise to My people, harsh as those words were, they were just between you and Me. But before the rock, even though what you said and the fact that you hit the rock instead of speaking to it as I had commanded you, were not very offensive, the fact that you committed these acts in the presence of the Children of Israel was a greater offense. Not so much the words but the situation was deserving of death in the wilderness, as was said, “Because you did not act faithfully to Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation to the Land that I am giving to them” (Numbers 20:12).
Numbers Rabbah 19:12
The Reputation of Moses
The Eternal tells Moses to take the staff: “…Speak to the rock…to give forth its water….” Moses says to the congregation in front of the rock: “Now listen, O rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?” Moses then lifts his hand and strikes the rock with his staff twice, and abundant water pours forth… Says the Eternal: “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the sight of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land which I am giving to them.” (Numbers 20:7-12)
This may be understood through the parable of two women who were punished by the court for two different offenses: one for sexual indiscretion and one for eating unripe figs during the sabbatical year. The woman punished for eating unripe figs during the sabbatical year asked the court to clarify her offense to the public so that she would not be considered as one who committed a sexual indiscretion. The court complied with her request.
Similarly, when Moses learned that he was sentenced to die in the wilderness with the generation who angered God, he feared that it would be said of him what was said of that generation: “How they rebelled against Him in the wilderness; how they saddened Him in the desert” (Psalms 78:40)! Therefore he asked that the offense for which he was being punished should be clarified, and it was: “Because you did not have faith in Me…!”
Numbers Rabbah 19:13
Moses, Cut your Losses
“You will not bring this congregation to the land…”
The Holy One, blessed be He, asked Moses, “Now, on what basis would you even want to enter the Land?” This question is understood by considering the parable of a shepherd who looked after the king’s flock, but under his care the king’s flock was captured and stolen. When the shepherd sought to return to the royal palace, the king warned him that if he were to enter the palace, in the presence of the court he would be seen as the shepherd who caused the loss of the king’s flock.
Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, reminded Moses: It will be your praiseworthy achievement that you brought out 600,000 and buried them in the wilderness. Now, if you should bring in the next generation, people would say that the generation of the wilderness had no portion in the world to come. Rather, remain at their side, stay with them, as can be inferred from your prophecy of Gad: “He came with the first ones of the people; he executed the justice of the Eternal and His judgments with Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:21). For that reason is it written, “You will not bring this congregation” (Numbers 20:12), viz. the next generation, but you will bring to their portion the one that came out with you!
Numbers Rabbah 19:27
Peace is Unique among the Commandments
“Israel sends messengers to Sichon, king of the Amorites: Let me pass through your country. We will not turn off to field or vineyard or drink water from a well. We shall travel only the king’s highway until we have passed through your territory.” (Numbers 21:21-22)
This is what is meant by the verse:
“Trust in the Eternal,
and do good;
settle in the Land,
and be a faithful neighbor.”
and, in addition, by the verse:
“Depart from evil,
and do good;
and pursue it!”
The Torah does not generally require the pursuit of commandments. For example: “If you chance upon the nest of a bird…” (Deuteronomy 22:6); “If you encounter your enemy’s ox…” (Exodus 23:4); “If you see the ass of your enemy…” (Exodus 23:5); “When you beat down the fruit of your olive tree…” (Deuteronomy 24:20); “If you enter the vineyard of your neighbor…” (Deuteronomy 23:25)—if the occasions arise, you are commanded concerning them, but not to pursue them. However, with respect to peace, “Seek peace, and pursue it!”: “Seek” and “pursue?” Even in another place!
Even though the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them of Sichon, “Begin the occupation; engage him in battle” (Deuteronomy 2:24), they sought peace, “Israel sends messengers (of peace) to Sichon…‛Let me pass through…’” (Numbers 21:21-22)!
Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25b
Jephthah Like Samuel
“The Elders of Gilead say to Jephthah…
‘You shall be Chief over us,
over all the inhabitants of Gilead!’”
“The Eternal sent…Jephthah and Samuel…”
(I Samuel 12:11)
Samuel was reckoned the equal of both Moses and Aaron, as was said “Moses and Aaron among His Kohanim, and Samuel among those who would speak in His name—when they called to the Eternal, He would answer them” (Psalms 99:6). Moreover, “Samuel said to the people: The Eternal is the Source of Moses and Aaron and all that they achieved…” (I Samuel 12:6); but then he cited along with himself three lesser of the “Judges”: “The Eternal sent Jerubaal (who is Gideon, cf. Judges 6:29,32) and Bedan (here referring to Samson, a Danite, cf. Judges 13:2ff.) and Jephthah (cf. Judges 11:8ff.) and Samuel…” (I Samuel 12:11).
So here we see that Scripture compares three light “judges” to three profound leaders, saying that Jerubaal was in his generation like Moses in his generation, that Bedan in his generaton was like Aaron in his generation, and that Jephthah in his generation was like Samuel in his generation, in order to teach you: Even when a mediocre person is appointed as leader over the community, he should be respected as on the level of the greatest!
Talmud Bava Kamma 92b
Birds of a feather…
“Unworthy men gather around Jephthah
and go out with him.”
Rava asked Rabbah bar Mari: Whence do we derive the popular maxim, “A bad palm makes its way to a gathering of barren trees?” He answered him: It is written in the Torah, again in the Prophets, yet again in the Writings, and we learn it in the Mishnah, and it is taught in a Baraitha.
It is written in the Torah: “Esau (generally hostile towards Jacob and his values) goes to Ishmael (generally hostile towards Isaac and his values)” (Genesis 28:9).
Again in the Prophets: “Unworthy men gather around Jephthah (rejected by his brothers as unworthy) and go out with him” (Judges 11:3b).
Yet again in the Writings: “Every bird dwells with its kind, and men with theirs” (Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus 13:15).
And we learn it in the Mishnah: “That which is hooked to an item that is subject to impurity will likewise become impure, while that which is hooked to an item that is not subject to impurity will not become impure” (Kelim 12:2).
And it is taught in a Baraitha: “Rabbi Eliezer says that it is not for nothing that the starling found the raven but because they are of the same kind” (cf. Genesis Rabbah 65:3).
Tanchuma Bechukotai 5
Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 2:5
The Vow of Jephthah
“Jephthah vows to the Eternal:
If You deliver the Children of Ammon into my hand,
then whatever emerges from the doors of my house
to meet me when I return in peace from the Children of Ammon
shall be the Eternal’s and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering!”
“The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,
and the wise acquires souls.”
Even if one is righteous but does not engage in Torah, which is a “tree of life” (cf. Proverbs 3:13-17), he has nothing (no fruit), according to the first part of the verse, “The fruit of the righteous is the tree of life…” (Proverbs 11:30a). Moreover, having knowledge of Torah, he learns how to appraise the value of a human life, as the second part of the verse may be understood, “…and the learned knows how to acquire a life that was vowed to the Eternal” (Proverbs 11:30b)! He would learn this from the Torah: “When a man vows the value of a life to the Eternal…” (Leviticus 27:1-8)!
Thus you find with Jephthah the Gileadite. Because he was not learned of Torah, he took the life of his daughter: “When Jephthah returned home to Mitzpah, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and dancing, only she alone…, and when he saw her, he rent his garments and exclaimed his woe, ‘I made a vow to the Eternal and I cannot retract’” (Judges 11:34-35)!
This occurred because the Holy One, blessed be He, was originally incensed over Jehpthah’s vow to offer up “whatever emerges” from the doors of his house: Suppose that a dog or a pig or a camel were to emerge, would he then sacrifice one of those unclean animals to Me? Therefore He arranged for his daughter to be the one to emerge as the strongest of incentives, for those who vow, to learn the laws of votive offerings!
Even though Jephthah was not learned of Torah, Pinchas (cf. I Chronicles 9:20 according to Yefey Toar) was there to annul his vow! But Pinchas would not deign to lower himself: Should I, the Kohen Gadol, son of a Kohen Gadol, meet with an ignoramus? While Jephthah, for his part, would not deign to lower himself: Should I, Chief Judge over all of the Officers of Israel, meet with a commoner? Between the two of them, they were responsible for the loss of that poor woman, and both of them were duly punished for their malfeasance.
Seeing that her father was intent on sacrificing her, his daughter, weeping, said to him: Father, I came out to greet you in joy, and you would slaughter me? Did the Holy One, blessed be He, provide in the Torah that Israelites should sacrifice human beings? Is it not written, “When any of you presents an offering to the Eternal of an animal…” (Leviticus 1:2)—“of an animal” and not of a human being! But, my daughter—he responded—I undertook a vow that whatever emerges I will offer up as a burnt offering. Should anyone who undertakes a vow be able to avoid fulfilling it?
What about our father Jacob?—she continued. He undertook a vow to God, “Of all that You give me, I shall set aside a tithe for You” (Genesis 28:22). The Holy One, blessed be He, gave him twelve sons, but did our father Jacob sacrifice even one of them? Hannah, too, “made this vow: ‘O Eternal of hosts, if You would recognize the hardship and remember the suffering of Your maidservant and grant Your maidservant male offspring, then I will dedicate him to the Eternal’” (I Samuel 1:11), but did she sacrifice her son to the Holy One, blessed be He?
Notwithstanding her learned arguments, her father was not persuaded. Observing his discountenance, she requested of him: “Grant me two months to descend upon the mountains and bewail my maidenhood…” (Judges 11:37). Rabbi Zechariah interpreted the surprising expression, “descend upon the mountains” (instead of “ascend upon the mountains” as one might expect), to refer to going before the Sanhedrin, as the prophet said, “Hear, O mountains, a dispute with reference to the Eternal” (Micah 6:2)!
So she went down before the Sanhedrin, but they did not provide Jephthah an opening by which to annul his vow. Why? Because, when “the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim…, they held the fords of the Jordan that served as a crossing for Ephraimites who were fleeing from Gilead back to Ephraim” (Judges 12:4-5a). The Ephraimite refugees were detected by their dialectical pronunciation of the word for those piled-up waters, “Sibboleth,” instead of the way their captors pronounced it, “Shibboleth”, whereupon the Gileadites, under Jephthah’s command, slaughtered the hapless refugees of Ephraim to the extent of 42,000 lives” (cf. Judges 12:5b-6)!
Of such as Jephthah it is written: “A poor man who oppresses the weak is as a sweeping flood which leaves no bread” (Proverbs 28:3). Jephthah, as poor in Torah as the stump of a sycamore, oppressed the weakened fugitives of Ephraim, sweeping them away with the word for flood, with the result that the Holy One, blessed be He, concealed from the Sanhedrin the life-giving “bread,” the halachic ingredient which could annul his vow and save his daughter’s life! “And so it was, at the end of two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her in accordance with the vow that he had taken” (Judges 11:39).
Now the Holy Spirit cries out: Putting their children to the fire as burnt offerings for Me? “Something that I never commanded, never suggested, never even considered” (Jeremiah 19:5)! And I never commanded Abraham that he should slaughter his son; rather I said to him, “Raise not your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:12)—in order to make known to all nations the devotion of Abraham, who withheld not his only son from Me in order to do the will of his Creator! Likewise, I did not tell Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter.
Rabbi Yochanan said: He was obligated by his vow to offer the equivalent in money for her life, in accordance with, “When a man vows the value of a life to the Eternal…” (Leviticus 27:1-8).
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: He had no obligation at all, as he had stipulated something that was unofferable.
“Mesha king of Moab saw
that his battle against Israel and Edom
was going against him…
so he took his firstborn son,
his heir apparent,
and offered him up as a burnt offering…”
(II Kings 3:4,26-27a)
“Righteousness exalts a nation,
and sin is a disgrace [chesed] to all peoples.”
Mesha’s astrologers had warned him that the merit of Abraham would prevent his victory over the Jews. What was Abraham’s merit? asked Mesha. He was given an only son at the age of 100, answered the astrologers, and he sacrificed him! He sacrificed him?! exclaimed Mesha in disbelief. Not exactly, clarified his astrologers, he was prepared to but he did not. Well then, said Mesha, if miracles could be expected for the merit of almost sacrificing his son, how much the moreso could miracles be expected for one who actually does sacrifice his son!
So did Rabban Gamaliel interpret the proverb:
“Righteousness exalts the nation of Israel,
while pious acts [chesed] of other peoples mask a sin!”
But consider what occurred
after Mesha king of Moab
sacrificed his son:
“…whereupon a great wrath
came upon Israel!”
(II Kings 3:27b)
Thus Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakanah interpreted the proverb:
“Righteousness exalts the nation of Israel,
while pious acts [chesed] of other peoples
highlight the sin of Israel!”
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Israel: My children, the nations of the world, who do not recognize My power, rebel against Me, yet you, who recognize My power, even so rebel against Me!
But, as far as Mesha is concerned, what is the underlying reason why he sacrificed his son? Because he was not learned of Torah, for if he had studied Torah, he would have learned, “When a man vows the value of a life to the Eternal, if it is a male…the equivalent shall be…and if it is a female…” (Leviticus 27:1-8)! Indeed: “One learned of Torah acquires souls” (Proverbs 11:30b)!
Copyright © 2021 Eric H. Hoffman