For the week of June 23, 2007 / 7 Tammuz 5767
Torah: Bemidbar / Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim / Judges 11:1-33
You Don't Have To Do Stupid Things
And Yiftah (English: Jephthah) made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." (Shoftim / Judges 11:30,31)
The biblical book of Shoftim (English: Judges) includes some "interesting" stories and characters. It underscores for us the interpretive principle of prescriptive vs. descriptive passages. Prescriptive passages are those that provide general directives or life principles to live by, such as "Honor your mother and your father" or "To give is better than to receive." Descriptive passages are those which simply describe an incident or provide dialogue without necessarily encouraging the reader to follow suit. This isn't always straightforward, which gives us the opportunity to ponder over these passages as we seek God to speak to us through them.
Shoftim, is especially challenging in this regard. Several of its characters who seem to be the heroes of the stories, engage in some disturbing behaviors. Since these characters appear to be divinely inspired to save the day, so to speak, the reader may be inclined to think that these behaviors are acceptable.
When this passage was chosen to be part of the annual cycle of readings, it was decided to stop the reading at the point where the hero wins the day, which leaves out the disturbing part. Maybe the conclusion of the story was just too embarrassing or too difficult to handle. Yiftah promised God that if God would give him victory in battle, then, upon his return home, he would sacrifice whatever came out of the door of his house to meet him. That much we learn from this week's passage. But what is not included is what it was that met him upon his return. I don't know what Yiftah was thinking when he made his promise in the first place. Did he think he would be initially met by one of his goats or sheep? As it turned out it was his daughter. So what does he do? Does he say to himself, "Oy veh! Am I meshuge (English: crazy person)! Forgive me O Lord for making such a rash vow!"? No, instead he tells his daughter how bad he feels that he has to go through with his promise!
I could see some supposedly spiritually minded people attempting to justify Yiftah's actions. After all it was God to whom he made this promise. Of course his daughter's death was tragic, but "God is God," they might say. But what does God think about murder and human sacrifice? While we should keep our promises even when it is extremely difficult, it is never to late to stop ourselves from doing stupid things.
One of the things about descriptive passages, even though they are not prescriptive, is that we are still to learn from them. The story of Yiftah and his daughter shows us how someone could be chosen by God and inspired by him to do great things, yet still say and do some of the most ridiculous and destructive things in the entire Bible.
What lesson should we learn from this? Are we to learn that if we are really spiritual, then we can get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, or should we stop and realize that being spiritual doesn't automatically prevent anyone from doing stupid things? I suggest that as soon as we realize that we have gone down a foolish road - no matter how we got there or how far down that road we are - it is never too late to change course.
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