Looking Beyond our Expectations

Darrell Ginsberg

In approaching the different leaders portrayed throughout Tanach, one is quite often faced with clear distinctions between good and evil, the chacham and the rasha, where individuals possess certain traits that either lead them to a life in line with God’s will or to an existence ultimately resulting in their loss of the world to come. When studying Sefer Shoftim, though, one is, at times, faced with personalities and leaders who do not easily fit into a category. One such person is Yiftach, the center of attention in this week’s Haftorah. Yiftach is best known for the famous neder that had tragic consequences for his daughter. He also was somewhat responsible for a civil war between shevatim. Clearly, he was not the greatest of leaders. Chazal, though, caution us how to approach someone like Yiftach, and offer a guide to assist us in doing so.

We find in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 25b) a strange directive involving how to view the leaders of Bnai Yisrael:

“Scripture also says, And Samuel said to the people, It is the Lord that made Moses and Aaron, and it says [in the same passage], And the Lord sent Jerubaal (Gideon) and Bedan (Shimshon) and Jepthah and Samuel..…It says also: Moses and Aaron among his priests and Samuel among them that call on his name. [We see therefore that] the Scripture places three of the most questionable characters on the same level as three of the the most estimable characters, to show that Jerubaal in his generation is like Moses in his generation, Bedan (Shimshon) in his generation  is like Aaron in his generation, Yiftach in his generation is like Samuel in his generation, to teach you that the most worthless, once he has been appointed a leader of the community (parnes), is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty.”

The key message that the Talmud seems to be telling us is to avoid “ranking” the great leaders of Jewish history, as there is a certain equality of greatness to them all. Nice. Clearly, though, one can see that the Talmud implies more than this simple point. It would almost seem that even though an individual may not be of the highest caliber, the nature of his position demands respect and adulation. This may be relevant to the above three “lesser” leaders; yet, if this were applied universally, we would be obligated to respect rishei yisrael, as found with some of the shoftim and melachim, a ludicrous possibility. A subtler issue lies in the method of pairing chosen by Chazal. Are these random pairings of different leaders with varying degrees of greatness, or is there some relationship between each one?

Let’s take the last issue first. It would be difficult to assume Chazal was randomly picking a great leader and not-as-great leader and pairing them together. When it comes to understanding the perfection of a Jewish leader, people tend to take a famous middah of that person and then view it as particular to that individual alone. An example of this lies with Moshe Rabbeinu. He was the paradigm of humility, with a unique understanding of his place in the universe in relation to God, possessing the greatest expression of this trait. But this does not mean, so to speak, that he “owns” humility. There are other times where this trait is expressed in people of lesser caliber than Moshe, and yet one can still gain insights into the importance of the middah from them. The same logic should be applied to Yiftach and Shmuel, and this could be the rationale for why they are paired. In looking at Yiftach, it could be that he shared a similar positive quality as Shmuel, meriting the requisite respect. Clearly, Shmuel was on a higher plane of perfection than Yiftach. However, their common trait is worthy of emulation, as will soon be demonstrated.

We see an interesting exchange between Yiftach and the elders of Gilead, who approach Yiftach in an attempt to recruit him to lead them in battle against the nation of Amon. As we know, Yiftach was driven away from his home as a result of his status as the son of an “isha zona”. When the threat from Amon materializes, Yiftach is sought after to be the general (katzin) and lead them in war. He rejects their overture, as they were the same people who drove him away and are now coming to him out of desperation. They respond by offering to make him leader (rosh) in order to drive out Amon – in essence, bribing him. Yiftach responds by saying he will be leader if God is delivers them to victory. After the elders accept this decision, the people acknowledge him as their leader, and then Yiftach addresses the nation at Mitzpeh. The Malbim (Shoftim 11:11) explains that he expressed to the nation the extent of his leadership and its responsibilities, analogous to when Shmuel reviewed the consequences of Bnai Yisrael’s desire to have a king. In that instance (S.A. 8:11), Shmuel explained that having a king would lead to their complete subjugation, both physical and psychological, to a monarch. What the Malbim is alluding to is the similarity both leaders had in common. Bnai Yisrael sought out a leader to be their savior, someone they could invest their security in. While the concept of a leader can lead to a higher state of perfection for the nation at large (ie – melech), if the desire for this is based on clouded judgments and dominant insecurities, the leader becomes a detriment to their perfection. Shmuel saw this flaw and pointed out the inevitable result of having the king – the nation would serve him in lieu of God, and the king would replace God as their source of security. Yiftach was also sensitive to this flaw, realizing that his position as shofet was dependent on God’s agreement. His ascension to leader could not be the result of desperation or bribery. He emphasized to the nation that he was no more than a vehicle, and that their security had to be in God. Yiftach makes this clear in expressing the limitations of his leadership. This could also be why the Talmud uses the term “parnes” when discussing the respect that should be given these people. While it used to mean “leader”, its root is the source of the concept of sustaining (parnasa) and success. The Talmud is, in a very subtle way, drawing the line between the types of leaders we should respect. In the case of Yiftach and Shmuel, while Yiftach's flaws as a leader prevent him from achieving the greatness of Shmuel, both Yiftach and Shmuel were able to communicate important concepts concerning leadership to the nation, concepts that are just as relevant today. 

We see from this that the idea presented in the Talmud extends beyond simply “ranking” different Jewish leaders. One might be quick to dismiss a leader like Yiftach, troubled by his flaws. People take comfort in believing their leaders are flawless, that they somehow transcend human behavior.  Quite often, we project unrealistic expectations on our leaders, chachamim and tzadikim alike, imagining them to operate outside the boundaries of the very human limitations they were created with. Even today, in many circles, they are deified to an extent, reaching the point where mystical achievements are attributed to them. What should make these people distinguished are the chachma they are able to infuse into the nation, along with the examples they are able to set in their middos and traits. This should be our objective in studying and benefiting from them. As long as we can keep our focus on this pursuit, our relationship with our leaders will help us in our pursuit of perfection.