Friday, June 18, 2010

A Parsha Thought - Yiftah in His Generation

Tomorrow we read my bar mitzvah parsha, Hukkat, with its haftara recalling the war conducted by the judge Yiftah against Ammon. Our sages tell us that Yiftah was not the best of the judges, that he was a ba'al gaavah (arrogant fool) who made a rash vow and was too proud to go to the High Priest and have it annulled. We are told, "Yiftah in his generation is as Shmuel in his generation," Shmuel being the paradigmatic wise and scholarly leader of the nation. Our leadership may not be ideal, but if it is the best our generation can produce we have to follow it.
Let's look at the character of Yiftah. He is a gibor hayyil, a military man from a wealthy and prominent family. But he had problems early on. He was born to an isha zona, some sort of innkeeper or secondary wife; the word zona in Tanakh does not necessarily connote a prostitute. In an echo of what we see with Yitzhak and Yishmael ("the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son Yitzhak"), and what so often happens in polygamous societies, the sons of the primary wife dispossessed Yiftah and threw him out of the house. Others gravitated to him and they lived by their wits until the leaders of the nation asked them to fight the Ammonites. The text characterizes Yiftah's followers as anashim reikim, empty people. But if they were so empty, why were they chosen to spearhead the campaign against Ammon? I submit that Yiftah was a "tough guy," young, strong, ready to fight at the drop of a hat, and a natural leader. His followers were tough guys like himself, dispossessed, empty of material wealth, living on what they could honestly acquire with their strength if not by outright banditry. They had a little bit of Eisav in them. Brothers do share genes, and sometimes you need an Eisav to deal effectively with the Nimrods of the world, and the Ammons. They would have been empty of scholarship as well; most people living hand to mouth have neither the time nor the inclination to sit in yeshiva. But Torah learning was not going to chase away the Ammonites. Yiftah and his gang were up to the task, and the powers that be wisely recruited them.
Today, alas, we are afflicted with a total vacuum of leadership. We don't have Shmuels, scholars who live in the real world and can teach us how. At any rate, such men are not in positions of authority. Our "leaders" are old fools who think they can erase reality be banning books. The lifestyle they promote is an unsustainable fantasyland where one need not work for a living with one's brains or one's hands, where "the Lord will provide," somehow, perhaps with thieves and professional schnorrers. And we don't even have a Yiftah. The people who figured so prominently in building the state, empty of Torah learning but full of mesirut nefesh, willing to sacrifice themselves to lay a foundation upon which a structure of learning can be built, are no more. Obama says jump, and we all say how high. Or perhaps Obama says don't jump, don't build up your land, don't build in your capital, and we say how deep a hole should we crawl into. I don't see this ending well, unless we somehow: 1. Take back the Torah from the doddering old fools who make a travesty of it, and 2. Find political leaders with the backbone to defy the movers and shakers who were never very comfortable with the idea of strong Jews in a strong state.

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