When To Talk And When To Act
Comparing Moshe to Yiftah raises questions about when we should be people of speech and when we should be people of action.
After this episode, there are a series of diplomatic and military interactions between the Jews and the first Canaanite peoples they encounter as they approach the Land of Israel. Moshe and the Israelites wage a successful campaign against the Amorites, who attacked Israel after refusing Moshe's request to pass peacefully through their territory, in which Israel captures Amorite territory.
It is this last episode, the conquest of the Amorite land, which clearly seems to be the connection to the Haftarah that is read in conjunction with parshat Hukkat--the story of Yiftah the Giladi in the book of Judges. The story begins by telling us that Yiftah, Gilad's illegitimate son (we are told that his mother was a prostitute) was thrown out of his parental home by his younger half-brothers, who denied him a share in their father's inheritance because he was "the son of another woman." Yiftah takes up with a group of men described as "worthless fellows." Yiftah seems to be a typical marginal youth; unfairly rejected by his family, he opts for a life on the edge, surrounded by other marginal people.
But then, the people of Israel are attacked by the Ammonites, who seek to conquer the Amorite territory that, 300 years earlier, in our parsha, Moshe had captured in his defensive war against the Amorites. Yiftah's old tormentors, the men of Gilad, approach him and ask him to lead them in battle. It would seem that the personality-type that Yiftah was--an adventurous roustabout, was exactly what was needed. The respectable burghers of Gilad knew that they were not fighters, and turned to Yiftah to do that job for them.
Yiftah agrees, and becomes their leader. He then does something that is somewhat unexpected. We have been prepared by the narrative for a Yiftah who is a man of action, who will be a captain for the beleaguered and frightened people of Gilad. And what does this man of action do? He sends a diplomatic mission to the king of Ammon asking for peace.
In the discussion that follows, Yiftah argues that the land that Ammon is attacking was conquered legitimately by Israel from another nation, the Amorites, some 300 hundred years earlier, in a defensive war, after Israel was attacked by the Amorites. The Ammonites, whom Israel did not fight at that time, have no legitimate reason to attack Israel over that land now.
All the diplomacy is to no avail; the Ammonites attack, and Yiftah goes into battle. Before he does, he makes a vow to God, saying that, if he is victorious, and returns from the battle, "whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." He was assuming that it would be a goat, or sheep, or cow, which would first come out to greet him upon his return.
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