Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chukat 5773

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 “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.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Korach 5773

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach plots to overthrow Moshe (Moses). “Korach…took [himself to one side] along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On ben (son of) Pelet, descendants of Reuven. They confronted Moshe together with 250 men…” The earth opens and swallows Korach and his followers, but the Sages teach that On ben Pelet is spared, and that it is his wife who saves him.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 110) says that Korach’s wife incites him to rise up against Moshe. By contrast, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 109b) notes that On ben Pelet’s wife advises her husband to stay out of the fray. She asks her husband, “What difference will the outcome make to you? No matter who is named leader, you still will be a disciple.” In other words, she tells On that because he will never be the leader, he has nothing to gain from getting involved in the rebellion.

On’s wife states an obivious fact, but it is nothing short of the brilliance King Solomon attributes to her in Mishlei/Proverbs 14:1: “The wise woman builds her house.” 

Rav Yissocher Frand cites Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz: “When most people are involved in machlokes (disputes), they lose their cool and their common sense. The fire of machlokes – picking sides, getting involved, becoming part of it – is all-powerful. There is an overriding tendency and evil inclination to throw away one’s common sense and jump into the blinding dynamics of machlokes. It requires brilliance to overcome that tendency and instead use such a simple and down to earth approach. Maintaining common sense in moments of tension requires great wisdom.”

As parents, it is tempting to involve ourselves in arguments at our children’s schools, during our children’s competitive events, with our children’s friends’ parents. Often the disputes are about the politics of organizations, institutions or families in which we are not principal players. When these situations arise, we must maintain common sense and avoid participating in matters that are not our concern. In this way, our children will learn to avoid arguing or taking sides when there simply is nothing to be gained.