I always have trouble deciding what to write about for Chukat. Four years ago, I wrote about the boastful victory hymns (jodies) of chapter 22. Two years ago I revisited an orthographical oddity in Chukat that had important implications for the idea and concepts of taking possessing/conquering/inheriting/dispossessing.
I find this topic still very much on my mind as I struggle with both troubling texts in the Torah and the troubling realities in modern day Israel.
Without commenting on them, I urge you to read these verses (and then perhaps consider them in light of what I had written in earlier musings like those above, and the current troubles in Israel:
Our history with conquest leaves a lot to be desired, and should give us pause in today’s realities.
Those topics are too heavy for me to wade into at the moment given my own physical, mental, and emotional states, so I’ll beg off and leave it to you, dear readers, to explore this. I’d like to go revisit some thoughts on the haftarah for Chukat, which we only read in years when Chukat is read separately.
Now Jephthah was a man with no yichus. Yichus means one’s lineage, their pedigree, their family background as it were. Although he was known as a great warrior, he was also the son of Gilead the Israelite and of some woman who was not legally living with his father. (The exact situation is unclear. The text describes him as the son of a prostitute. But the Hebrew uses a word, zonah, for which there are conflicting understandings. So whether she was an actual prostitute, or a woman who behaved like one, or for whatever reason was simply “shacking up” with Gilead without following the appropriate protocols, we’ll never know.) In any case, it made Jephthah persona non-grata, and his “brothers,” all sons of Gilead’s “legal” wife made sure he wasn’t going to inherit any of his father’s estate, so they drove him away. Jephthah runs off into the hills and becomes a bandit.
So time passes and then, surprise of surprises, the Ammonites attack the Israelites in Gilead (don’t you just love these stories where names and place are all the same?) and the elders decide that Jephthah is best suited to lead them in battle against them. So they ask him to come back and lead the Israelites in battle.
Is it any surprise that Jephthah’s response is that after all they have done to him, hated him, driven him out of the community, now that there is some tzuris (and here the Hebrew actually using the root of that word!) that they coming crawling to him now?
The elders respond simply that they have “shavnu,” “turned back” to him. Now, we can add all sorts of layers of meaning on top of this, especially in the sense of what we have made of the concept of “t’shuva,” of returning to G”d. And many commentators buy into this. I’m not quite so willing to let the elders off the hook so easy-their understanding of “we have returned to you” may simply be a straight answer. “Yeah, maybe we screwed up by driving you out, but we really need you.” Of course, even that’s a lot to eisegete into the text. I’m not sure they were really apologizing, so much as simply acknowledging the truth – they treated him badly and now they needed him. I see no apology in their words. And they even sweeten the deal by telling Jephthah that if he helps he will be in charge of all of Gilead.
Still, it seems to be enough for Jephthah, for he agrees. Yet, like so many other biblical heroes, he has no misguided sense of who it is that really allows victories, and Jephthah acknowledges that G”d will be the one that delivers the Ammonites in Jephthah’s hands.
And, to make a long story short, that’s what happens.
There are several themes that I am gleaning here.
One is that quality or virtue of a man who recognizes G”d’s role in the universe. This may or may not be a positive character attribute, depending upon your understanding of the Divine. From a biblical standpoint, it’s a plus. From a believer in G”d as ineffable, it’s a plus. For a believer in a less than perfect G”d, or a G”d perhaps self-limited through the act of giving human beings free will, it’s not such a plus. For a believer in a capricious G”d, or a G”d with a slow learning curve, it’s also not so much of a plus. Pray to G”d but row toward shore.
Another is the valor of a man who, although ill-treated by his “brethren” still comes to their aid. I think that’s something worth pondering this Shabbat, and I commend it to you. How many of us might do the same? How many could put aside thoughts of revenge and come to the aid of someone who treated them wrongfully? (I am reminded here of the lepers in the haftarah for M’tzora from I Kings chapter 27.) This seems to be a reasonable virtue, and one that appears not so easy or common to embrace. Though how many of us silently work our way through situations where we feel we have been mistreated but wish to continue to show a professional or upstanding demeanor? Anyone who has done that knows it’s not always easy to do. I used to believe that such a virtue was always worth the effort. As I age, and experience more and more such situations, I begin to weary of having to find the strength to carry on. Yet old habits die hard.
And thirdly, there is the theme of the danger of using yichus as a value system. Even today, many Jews seeks a marriage for themselves or their children that will bring more yichus to them and their family. I guess it’s not unusual for anyone to want to “marry well.” But it becomes a meat market in which people are stamped with their grade, their suitability as a partner or even as a friend or business partner. How many potential Jephthahs have been overlooked in the search for greater and greater yichus? How man Jephthahs have been hatefully spurned or treated with indifference or even ill will due to their lack of yichus?
For those who believe the liberal Jewish communities are free of such practices, I’d urge you to take a closer, longer, harder look. The same to those who believe that the orthodox world still continues to rely solely on the principle of yichus. Yes, it still carries great weight, but orthodoxy is recognizing the pitfalls. Our communities have developed different understandings of what conveys yichus other than lineage: fame, wealth, fortune, education (not just what but where, too,) physical attributes, health, character, virtue, righteousness, piety, s’micha (and not only orthodox rabbis play the s’micha yichus card-it’s easily found in the liberal Jewish world as well) and so many more. Many of these have been incorporated into the traditional/orthodox understanding of yichus for a long time – others are newer. I daresay the balance of which of these are more prized than others has changed over the centuries, and even more so in the last few decades.
I’d like to believe that dynastic families are becoming less common and wield less power than in the past. I’m not sure that’s true. In addition, what I do see are classes of people that are taking the place of individual dynasties. It’s no longer just the 1%. It’s the 20% in the top tier. Go read Richard Reeve’s “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.”
Haven’t we learned that it takes more than a good family lineage, financial success, etc. to make a great person? I can think of plenty of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, who had lots of yichus but were hardly paragons of virtue. [When I first wrote this musing, Dubya was in the White House, and I commented: “We need look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days to be certain of that. As a bumper sticker I saw the other day said, “Who knew Jeb was the smart one?”] Don’t even get me started on the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The office of POTUS is one that should have lots of yichus, no? Sadly, it is no longer held by a virtuous person.
We ought to take the measure of each human being individually. Not on the basis of who their parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, or their fourth cousin twice-removed was. [Or their wealth, or success in business. If you stop and think about it, our current POTUS plays the yichus card all the time, though his understanding of what truly conveys yichus is sadly mistaken.] We need to look at who someone is on the inside and not just the outside. How many pearls have gone unnoticed for want of someone willing to look at the ugly shell that produces them? This Shabbat, look for the pearls inside everyone.
© 2017 (portions ©2005) by Adrian A. Durlester
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