Overview

The period was known as that of the “Judges.” No king or united state had yet been created in the Land of Israel. Unity on a nationwide scale was rare, and it usually occurred in a time of trouble. The usual cause for such trouble was the relapse of Jews towards the idolatrous ways of their neighbors; then, one of Israel’s enemies would begin to be successful in their hateful endeavors. In this case it was the nation of Ammon that harassed the Jews for years, mainly in the territories of the Transjordanian tribes (Reuben, Gad and part of Manasseh). Realizing their wrongdoings, the Jews returned to G‑d and begged for salvation. This came in the form of a man called Yiftach (Jephthah).

The verse introduces Jephthah as a “mighty man of valor.” His story begins with his being banished from his father's estate by his half-brothers. Although the verse is clear that this was because of the status of Jephthah's mother, the commentaries differ as to what her status actually was. Some say that she was a concubine to his father, Gilead, and his brothers from Gilead’s wife did not consider him a rightful heir to their father. According to this interpretation, his brothers had done this illegally, as the laws of inheritance dictate that any son of a man has equal rights in his estate. Others, however, read the verse in a more literal way to mean that Jephthah's mother was actually a prostitute. Since there was no way of proving that Gilead was the true father, Jephthah could not legally extract his share in the inheritance from his half-brothers.

Either way, his brothers had not been kind to him at all (some say they wanted to kill him1). Jephthah was forced to flee. He settled in a land that the verse calls Tov, “Good.” It was a place outside Israel where produce was in abundance and life was cheap. There Jephthah became a gang leader of some local emptyheaded individuals who were attracted to him.

Later, when the Ammonites were harassing their Jewish neighbors, the elders of Jephthah’s town came to him and invited him to return home and lead them in battle. Jephthah was incensed at the fact that they had not come with an apology for their lack of support for him in the past, and they had remembered him only now, when they needed him. The elders explained that it was just for this that they had come personally: they were seeking to appease him, and promised that he would be appointed to be their leader if he would be victorious in battle. Jephthah retorted that this was not sufficient: he wanted to be appointed leader before any battle was fought, and that he would go to battle upon appointment to this position. The elders swore to him that they would follow through with his proposal.

Now in his new position of power, Jephthah sent a message to the king of Ammon demanding an explanation for the ongoing terror: “What is there between you and me?” he asked. The response came back that the king of Ammon was attempting to reclaim territory that the Israelites had taken from Ammon in the days of Moses, about three hundred years earlier.

Jephthah sent back a lengthy response in which he set the Ammonite king right on some historical facts—these taken from the portion of Chukat. In order to enter the Land of Israel via the Jordan River, the Jews had to cross through one of the lands that were on the other side of it. The kings of Edom and Moab had refused them entry. Circumventing both of the above countries, they then turned to Sichon, king of the Amorites, to see if he would allow them to pass through. (Sichon had previously fought with Moab and conquered a large part of their territory.) Not only did Sichon not allow the Jews to pass, but he attacked them with a massive army. Miraculously, the Jews won the war, and in turn took Sichon’s entire land—including the areas that he had earlier taken from Moab.

“If G‑d miraculously gave us the land of the powerful Amorites, then you are not going to take it away from us,” said Jephthah. “For three centuries,” Jephthah continued, “no king of Moab attempted to reclaim these lands—not even the mighty and famous Moabite king Balak, who lived at that time. No one has done you any harm, and you are just looking for an excuse to attack us.”

This was indeed the case. Ammon wanted war for no legitimate reason. A G‑dly spirit of power rested upon Jephthah as he led the Jews to the battlefield. He struck a mighty blow against Ammon, who afterward would not raise their heads against Israel for a long time.

Today’s leaders

What emerges from the description of Jephthah in both the written and oral Torahs is that the man was not among the greatest of characters in the history of our people. Although he successfully led the Jews in battle against their enemy, his other actions, recorded in and after this haftarah, reveal his very flawed character. But even with all this considered, Jephthah was still the leader of the people in his time.

It is a fact that some generations are more fortunate with their leadership than others. In molding our attitude towards this, our sages are adamant: regardless of their caliber, the leaders in each generation possess an equal amount of credibility and credence. This is not to say that the actions of the individuals in these positions are always righteous (in the case of Jephthah they were definitely not); but as long as they are not at fault in a particular case, they have to be respected and adhered to, just as much as to our most revered of leaders.2

The Mishnah makes note of the fact that although we find in the Torah a number of references to the “seventy elders,” we are never given the names of these people. These men were members of Moses’ court, and were giants of the spirit in their own right. The Torah describes the event at Mount Sinai at which these seventy elders were privy to the most lofty revelations of G‑dliness.3 Why then do the names of these important individuals remain unknown? This is to indicate that essentially, it did not matter who they were. What mattered was the position they held. “This is to teach us that any court of three (beit din) that is established for the Jewish people is equal to the court of Moses.”4

As another source for this, the Talmud quotes a verse where the prophet Samuel—one of the greatest Jewish leaders ever to live—lists Moses, Aaron, and himself in the same breath as Gideon, Samson and Jephthah. Although the later three were “Judges” and leaders of Israel, they were much lower in spiritual caliber than the first three. It is from this verse that we learn that “Jephthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation.”5 The leader might have great shortcomings, but it is by G‑d’s will that this person has been appointed to this position, and this must be respected. In the words of King Solomon: “Do not say, ‘How was it that the former days were better than these?’ For not out of wisdom have you asked concerning this.”6

It is true that we are not always fortunate to possess great leaders. What these verses teach us is that “once even the lightest of the light (the least distinguished individual) has been appointed as a leader over the community, he must be treated like the greatest of the great.”7

By extension, this idea is applicable in another area:

Over time, there have been some great innovations introduced into Jewish life that changed the status quo in a major way. A good example for this can be found in Chassidism and the chassidic way of life. The chassidic masters introduced radically new ideas and conducts that had been almost unheard of till then. These were not, G‑d forbid, deviations from Torah; on the contrary, these were reemphasizing Torah concepts that had been dormant or neglected until that time. Nonetheless, they did introduce some very new things. Even if one accepts their place in Judaism, it is tempting to think that these ideas or customs are to be viewed with a lesser degree of importance than those which have accompanied the Jewish people for all time. Could these innovations be accredited the same validity as time-honored Jewish concepts?

The approach that the Talmud lays out for us with regard to leadership is to be applied here as well. In essence, it really does not matter when or to whom a certain revelation is made. Providing that it answers to the criteria of being Torah-true and necessary, this idea or concept is essentially part of Torah, just that it has been unearthed and revealed at a later time. It is to be incorporated into our tradition and held with the same reverence and meticulousness as any part of our sacred heritage.8