This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein, and in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel, my grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta, and all of the Cholei Yisrael, as well as a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas, Rebbetzin Miriam Liba Bas Aharon, and all of the lives who were taken in terrorist attacks, and a Z’chus for the success of Tzaha”l, as well as the success of all of Klal Yisrael!
הַפְטָרָה שֶׁל פַּרָֺשַת חֻקַּת
“The Great Defenders of Israel”
With another multifaceted Sidrah in Parshas Chukas and room for only one Haftarah, we might have to, once again, acknowledge the challenge of our Mesorah to decide which themes and lessons in the Sidrah must be highlighted in that Haftarah slot.
Chukas deals with many unique topics such as the Parah Adumah, Moshe’s hitting of the rock at Mei Merivah, the story of the “fiery serpent” swarm and Moshe’s copper serpent on a pole, just to name a few.
Parah Adumah gets enough attention during the week of Parshas Parah and even has its own Haftarah from Yechezkeil [36:16-36]. But, perhaps a Haftarah that highlights the tragedy of Mei Merivah would be appropriate. Suppose we read about how Hashem forbade Dovid HaMelech from doing the one thing he desired most, building the Beis HaMikdash [Melachim Aleph 18]. It might serve as a great parallel to Moshe Rabbeinu whom Hashem forbade from fulfilling his dream of entering Eretz Yisrael at Mei Merivah. Or, perhaps we could revisit the story of the serpent on the pole by reading about how Chizkiyah HaMelech later destroyed the very same serpent statue as it had been served as a false deity [Melachim Beis 18].
So, what has our tradition gone with? The story of Yiftach HaGil’adi [Shoftim 11:1-33], how Yiftach becomes the Shofeit and leader of his family and defeats the B’nei Amon in war.
So, how’s goes the story of Yiftach connect to Chukas? The truth is, it’s connection is quite precise, but you have to know Chukas really well. That’s because the Haftarah references a small, unassuming passage in Chukas whose significance, in the Sidrah at large, seems quite minor, and certainly not to present any overarching themes.
Rashi in our Sidrah [to B’Midbar 21:13] apparently spells out the connection between our Sidrah and the account of Yiftach, as Yiftach recalls how, as implied in our Sidrah, the B’nei Mo’av did not allow the B’nei Yisrael to cross through their land.
The Artscroll Chumash (Stone Edition) walks this connection out further, describing the historical and diplomatic discussion revolving the land of Mo’av. In our Sidrah, despite the fact that no nation gave Israel permission to even pass through their lands, Hashem came to Israel’s aid so that when Sichon decided to attack Israel, Israel, merely defending itself, overtook Sichon and the B’nei Emori as well as the lands which their opponents had conquered from Mo’av.
Our Haftarah picks up in the times of the Shoftim when the B’nei Amon, Mo’av’s brother nation, approaches the Israelite people of Gil’ad for war, accusing Israel of having stolen its land years ago, as if it had usurped the land from the hands of Mo’av itself. Yiftach stands up and defends Israel with a fiery but matter-of-fact response, tearing apart Amon’s false accusation and educating them about the true history of Israel’s diplomatic right to the Mo’avi land, as it is presented in our very own Parshas Chukas. Not only did Israel not take anything from Amon or Mo’av, but neither of the nations showed even the slightest hospitality to the vulnerable B’nei Yisrael when they were traveling through the desert. And, it was in fact the nation of Emori that knocked off Mo’av and took their land. It was only when Emori forced itself upon Israel that Israel fought back and, by Hashem’s grace, won the land from them. Ultimately, Yiftach’s brilliant citation of “History of Israel for Dummies” did not avail either Israel or the dummies of Amon as Amon decided to go through with the war anyway. In the end though, Amon had neither the moral and political high ground nor the military high ground as Hashem granted Yiftach and the B’nei Yisrael the victory. It was a great day for the B’nei Yisrael.
Now, as a Haftarah, there are a couple of important questions we have to address. Before we get to those questions, we should definitely acknowledge, again, the fact that the connection between the Sidrah and this Haftarah is a direct one, and this reading is therefore, by no means a stretch of a choice of a Haftarah. In fact, it is quite rare to see a Haftarah that references such specific points, taken right out of the Sidrah itself, so kudos to the Mesorah.
However, as was mentioned, the reference to Chukas in the Haftarah hardly seems like a “main topic” or reflection of the Sidrah at large. That is not to say that there aren’t important lessons to be learned from this Haftarah’s reference to Chukas. It’s important to learn history, and for a Ben Yisrael, to know Israel’s rights. It’s also important to know that people will often misquote history and take advantage of the ignorant over diplomatic issues. We might add that it’s important for Klal Yisrael to remember that no matter what its opponents think or do, Hashem will always fight for Israel. Despite all of that, Chukas deals with so much more. If anything, Chukas is remembered more for things like Parah Adumah and the tragedy at Mei Merivah. So, how might the story of Yiftach HaGil’adi encompass some of these larger themes of Parshas Chukas?
Another question on the story of Yiftach as a Haftarah for Chukas is that the Haftarah doesn’t merely cover the diplomatic discussion and the battle with Amon, but it actually goes through Yiftach’s backstory story. We hear about how he was a lowly son of a harlot, rejected by his paternal half-brothers of Gil’ad, and was forced away from the family. It was only when the people of Gil’ad realized that they were desperate for Yiftach’s help that they begged him to come back and serve as the mighty leader that only he was naturally capable being.
Now, we might say that as long as the Haftarah was already going to discuss Yiftach’s battle with Amon over the land of Mo’av, it just made sense to include Yiftach’s backstory. However, at first glance, there’s really no reason to include such peripheral points to that of the target discussion in the Haftarah. The Navi should record the entire story, but the Haftarah is meant to be an excerpt. And as was mentioned, the “extra text” of the Haftarah is introductory section of background information. In other words, it can easily be shaved off for the purposes of the Haftarah. Why not? The Haftarah doesn’t need to be longer “just because.” So, what does the backstory do for this Haftarah?
Indeed, our two questions can possibly answer each other. We first wondered why our Haftarah of choice only seemed to cover a small portion of Chukas as opposed to referencing a main topic like Moshe’s tragic mistake at Mei Merivah. Our second question was why the Haftarah seems to contain some extra text. But, perhaps this Haftarah is not just about Israel’s rights to the Moavi land, and perhaps the rest of Yiftach’s story contains other integral connections to Chukas.
Indeed, Yiftach’s life might serve as a parallel of sorts for the difficult beginning and challenges of Moshe Rabbeinu. Both of these heroes had difficulty being accepted by their brethren, and both were ultimately summoned to be Hashem’s messengers and saviors for the B’nei Yisrael. Neither of them asked for the jobs they were signed up for, but they were faithfully and loyally committed to those jobs and their Avodas Hashem. And yet, there is one more, heartbreaking, parallel between them. Both Moshe and Yiftach made tragic mistakes which brought each of their dreams to a standstill. We’ve referenced Moshe’s mistake, but what exactly did Yiftach do wrong?
As the Navi records, Yiftach, against his better judgment, infamously made a pledge that should Hashem give him and the B’nei Yisrael the victory over Amon, the first thing that would emerge from his barn would be consecrated to Hashem as a Korban (offering). And although making pledges to Hashem at a time of war is a normal practice, as is seen in our own Parshas Chukas when the B’nei Yisrael went to war with the Amaleilim after Aharon’s death, the nature of Yiftach’s pledge was slightly unorthodox and a bit risky. And as the story goes, the risk came to fruition when Yiftach returned from the victory and out of the barn emerged none other than his daughter to congratulate him. Without getting into the technical ramifications of his pledge and what exactly should have been done about his daughter in that situation, a discussion the M’forshim deal very much with, ultimately, the Navi tells us that Yiftach’s daughter subjected herself to a life of solitude, never to marry, but to remain consecrated to Hashem alone. Although it was a great day for the B’nei Yisrael, it was a tough time for Yiftach’s family.
And perhaps this dichotomy between the B’nei Yisrael and Yiftach can be compared to that between the B’nei Yisrael and Moshe in our Sidrah. The B’nei Yisrael got what they desperately needed; water for their families and livestock. It was a time of relief. Everyone could return to their camps and rest assured, except for their leader and human provider Moshe Rabbeinu whom would have to live on with this dark cloud hovering over him for the rest of his life.
Many might think that the challenge of Parshas Chukas is to understand what was so bad about Moshe hitting a rock rather than speaking to it, that Hashem had to take the one thing Moshe wanted away from him. But, really, the challenge is way more sophisticated than that. From the standpoint of justice, for whatever reason, Moshe didn’t do the right thing in this circumstance. At the very least, he violated G-d’s word. To be held accountable for one’s slipup and to suffer the consequences is fair. And the very same can be said for Yiftach. It was wrong for him to make a pledge, even for good reason, under such rickety stipulations. That Yiftach or anyone would suffer the consequences is just a part of life sometimes. Even if we could argue that the consequences are unnecessarily heavy, it does not take away from the fact that the individual did the wrong thing. Had they not made their mistakes, the consequences would not have happened. Unfortunately though, Moshe violated Hashem’s command and Yiftach set himself up for an accident waiting to happen. That individuals suffer for their mistakes is understandable.
The challenge of Chukas is how the most righteous of individuals who live to serve G-d and His people could be dealt so harshly with, despite their services. We’re not talking about people seeking glory and grandeur. We’re talking about Moshe who originally wanted nothing to do with leadership and only took the job because Hashem forced him into it. We’re talking about Yiftach who, despite being shamed by his brethren, came back to save his brethren. Yes, each one made mistakes, but couldn’t Hashem give at least His heroes a break? Moshe, who has been G-d’s righthand man for the past forty plus years just could not be permitted to step a single foot into the Promised Land, the one thing he wanted? Yiftach had to get tripped up by a mere technicality in his words? Hashem couldn’t just make an animal come out of the barn instead of his daughter? After everything Yiftach had been through, he did not deserve to see his daughter get married and have a family? We would think that Hashem’s most loyal subjects, the great defenders of Israel, would be entitled to some kind of slack. That’s the challenge of Chukas.
And if one thinks about it, this challenge can be seen from Chukas’s opening topic of Parah Adumah. The well-known paradox of the laws of Parah Adumah is how the Kohein Gadol who engages in the service to purify the impure individual, himself, becomes ritually impure, despite his sacrifice on behalf of the other. Yes, if one makes contact with dirt, he will naturally get dirty, but it still bothers us, and it should. To the natural mind, it might sort of make sense, but it’s still not fair. As far as we’re concerned, it didn’t HAVE to be that way. Hashem declared that it be that way. And at the end if the day, until the Next World, we won’t completely understand why life has to be this way. All we can do is make like Moshe and Yiftach by living out the rest of our lives as righteous and unwavering Ovdei Hashem.
What emerges from all of the above is an amazing, multifaceted Haftarah to match our amazing, multifaceted Sidrah. But beyond that, we have to keep the crucial lessons in mind. Firstly, the importance of history and the rights of Hashem’s chosen people to its chosen land. But perhaps even more fundamentally, the lesson of humbly accepting Hashem’s decrees. They are a mystery, but a true Eved Hashem will stick it out and remain loyal until the end of his days as did Moshe and Yiftach, two great defenders of Israel.
May we all be Zocheh to be true Ovdei Hashem, receive as much of Hashem’s grace as possible, but also have the ability to stick it out when the going gets tough and life seems unfair, and Hashem should reveal to us the ultimate good of His every decree with the Geulah and the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
– Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂