This week’s Haftorah (Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33) provides a lesson in parenting through one of the most disturbing stories in Tanach. Yiftach haGileadi (Jephthah) vows to G-d that in exchange for Israel’s victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice whatever walks out of the doorway of his house. The Haftorah concludes with Yiftach’s victory.
The story continues: Yiftach returns home to discover his daughter (unnamed in the text) dancing at the doorway, timbrel in hand. Yiftach rents his clothing, distressed that he now must fulfill his vow and sacrifice his only child. (There is no mention of Yiftach’s wife or his daughter’s mother in text or Midrash, so it is possible that Yiftach is a single parent who has no wife to protest his troubling decision regarding his daughter’s fate.)
Some background on Yiftach before the rush to judgment: Yiftach is the tenth Judge of Israel appointed not for his wisdom, but for his bravery and might. He is the illegitimate son of a prostitute. His half-brothers (legitimate sons of Yiftach’s father) expel Yiftach from their home. (Yiftach does not have the benefit of good parental role models.) Yiftach goes to live in the land of Tov (Hebrew for “good”). From this, Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum infers that Yiftach is not a rasha (wicked man), but a tzaddik (righteous man) with good intentions.
Writes Rabbi Greenbaum: “The flaw lay in the fact that his [Yiftach’s] righteousness was not combined with clear understanding of Torah. Yiftach wanted to do the right thing, but not being a scholar he did what he imagined to be right and brought about a terrible tragedy.” Yiftach is not bound whatsoever by his vow, as human sacrifice transgresses Torah law, but he ignorantly offers his daughter as a sacrifice.
Moreover, if Yiftach had simply asked Pinchas, the high priest, to annul the vow, senseless tragedy could have been averted. Unfortunately, Yiftach is too arrogant to approach Pinchas for guidance. And Pinchas is too proud to approach Yiftach. Writes Rabbi Naftali Silberberg on chabad.org: “The hubris demonstrated by these two leaders cost an innocent girl her life.” The text is ambiguous as to whether Yiftach actually kills his daughter, or simply condemns her to a monastic life, forfeiting marriage and motherhood and thus terminating Yiftach’s lineage.
Besides the obvious admonition about the gravity of making and annulling vows (especially those involving our children), Yiftach’s story provides other valuable lessons for parents. We should heed Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers 1:6: appoint a rav, a Torah teacher, for ourselves. No matter how long we have been studying Torah, or how learned we feel we are, it is simply impossible for us to apply Torah to every situation we encounter.
A trusted, learned rabbi can help us to solve family problems and aid us in making difficult decisions, ensuring that our resolutions are consistent with Torah law and values. Once we find that rav, we should never feel too proud to ask for direction, for no question is a foolish one – only a fool fails to ask questions.