Haftarah: Chukat: The Choice
Judges 11:1-33: The Children of Israel were offered a choice at Sinai: Do you want to live as “A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation” or, do you want to live as do all others? (Exodus 19:4-6) Perhaps they did not fully understand and appreciate the opportunity offered by God on the opening day of Revelation. We have been struggling with the choice ever since. They struggled between an existence based on all the laws of the “normal”, or – Chukim – and a life in which those who are willing to live with a full attachment to the Creator are not limited by any of those laws.
They struggled even when Moshe was alive, as they ate Manna and drank the water of Miriam’s Well. (Numbers 20) They continued to alternate back and forth when Joshua led them into Canaan, and long afterward. (Judges 2) How would they choose to live in Israel? Did they want their country to be normal – should Tel Aviv be another Paris? Or, should they build a country that existed beyond the laws of this world?
They entered Canaan with a bang. The Jordan dried up before them. They captured the mighty and heavily fortified Jericho. Joshua sanctified the captured city as a sign that Israel could and would build their country beyond the rules of “normal” people and “regular” nations. (Joshua 6:17)
Even as Joshua made his declarations, Achan violated this pact with God. (Joshua 7:20) The struggle between the Infinite and the Normal continued. The stories of the Book of Judges make it clear that God wanted the people to realize that if they chose the latter, they would have to live with its consequences. The people chose a more normal life of politics, economics and military action. Our story begins with the “realities” of such a nation:
Ammon’s traditional territory was east of the Jordan River. Their capital, Rabat-Ammon, present day Amman, Jordan, was strategically located at the point where the east and west branches of the only trade route between Eilat and Damascus converged. This was the route traveled by all the traders of products from Egypt, Arabia, Canaan, Syria and Mesopotamia would travel.
Ammon was frustrated by Israel’s possession of land between Ammon and the Jordan. They formed an alliance with the Philistines (Judges 10:7) due to converging trade interests. Ammon’s raiding parties probed across Gilead to establish control over roads in Judah leading to the coast, the road in Benjamin leading to Gibeon and the road in Ephraim leading to Bet-El.
The Children of Israel preferred the “realities” of politics and economics so God allowed them to live within those rules, and they soon discovered that they were helpless.
The leaders of Gilead did not understand the underlying message of their situation. They turned to an outcast – “The Stone Which the Builders Rejected” (Psalms 118:22) – perhaps a hint to another such “rejected stone” in the future – King David. “Empty-handed men gathered themselves about Yiftach.” (Judges 11:3) “They gathered to him (David) – every man in distress, every man with a creditor, and every man embittered of spirit.” (Samuel I 22:2)
Yiftach drove a hard bargain with the leaders of Gilead. Our first meeting with this new leader seems to be with a man who wants power and position. Yet, Yiftach, the “mighty man of valor” (Judges 11:1) quickly became more than a warrior.
The new leader “sent emissaries to the king of the children of Ammon. The king of the children of Ammon said to Yiftach’s emissaries, ‘Because Israel took my land when it ascended from Egypt.” (Judges 11:2-15) Israel’s great history began to resonate in Yiftach’s mind and soul. The man chosen to lead as a “chief” (11:6) was transformed into a spiritual leader. The “rejected stone” became (forgive the pun) the foundation stone of Israel.
“A spirit of God was upon Yiftach. He declared a vow unto God.” Yiftach understood that his role was not to lead a nation as other nations were led. His inspired spirits connected him to the Israel that stood at Sinai. Yiftach reached out to God and won the battle against Ammon. He restored Israel to its proper status as the nation of God. Once Yiftach assumed responsibility he was inspired by a “Spirit of God” and he became much more than a mighty warrior.
“Yiftach in his generation was equal to the prophet Samuel in his.” (Rosh Hashana 25b)
Our spirit is still torn: How shall we, the Children of Israel live? Shall we live according to realpolitik or according to the Chukim of the Torah?
We await our Yiftach.