Parashat Hukkat

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.

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Tragically, after Yiftah returns home, victorious, it is his daughter, his only child, who comes out, singing and dancing, to greet him. The end of the story is horribly tragic:

"When he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, 'alas, my daughter, thou hast brought me very low, and thou hast become the cause of trouble to me, for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I can not go back.' And she said to him, 'my father, if thou hast opened thy mouth to the Lord, do to me that which has come out of thy mouth.' " She is given two months to 'weep for her virginity', and is then forced to live out her life, alone, remaining unmarried.

Although Moshe's fight and Yiftah's fight over the same piece of land, separated by some 300 years, is the obvious connection between the parsha and the haftarah, I am struck by the connections between the Yiftah story and the story of Moshe and the rock.

Moshe, back in Exodus, began his career as a man of action. Like Yiftah, he was estranged from his family (albeit under very different circumstances), and what we know of him is very like what we think we know of Yiftah--the first act he does in the Torah is to smite and kill the Egyptian oppressor of his Jewish brethren. Later, at the burning bush, when God calls on Moshe to go to Pharaoh and lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, he demurs, claiming that he is not a man of words, not a speaker. God insists, but does seem to agree with Moshe's self-assessment and supplies him with his brother Aharon to act as a spokesman. The staff, which accompanies Moshe, and through which he accomplishes all the plagues and miracles, seems to underscore Moshe's personality as a man of action, rather that words.

It would seem that in our parsha, as the 40 years in the desert come to an end and the Israelites ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, God's telling Moshe to take the staff but TALK to the rock is a kind of final test. Moshe is challenged to transcend his persona as a man of action, of violence, and clearly opt for the role of the speaker, the person who achieves not by hitting, but by talking. Moshe fails, and is denied the right to enter the land, his goal for the last 40 years and more, as a punishment.

It is worth noting that the same word "va'yach"--"and he smote"--is used back at the beginning of his career, when he killed the Egyptian, as well as here, in our parsha, when he hits the rock. It would seem that the act of talking to the rock, and, in effect, rejecting the staff that he held in his hands, was meant to be Moshe's final apotheosis, from the man of action to the man of words. It is this that he failed to achieve.

Yiftah's story seems to contain a similar tension between speech and action. Yiftah refuses to be typecast as a simple strong-man, and tries diplomacy before military engagement. When the Ammonites refuse to listen to reason, Yiftah is forced to be what everyone wants him to be; a tough guy, the son of a prostitute, who hangs out with worthless bums, a man of action and violence.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.