|June 19, 2010
A quick geography lesson
Palestine's topography worked against the establishment of a unified nation. Running length wise down the land are strip-like zones-the coastal plain, the mountains and the Jordan depression. To the south extends the vast, semi-arid expanse of the Negev and Arabah, while in Trans-Jordan the land rises to become a plateau with the desert behind.
Trans-Jordan, is described as the fertile land of Gilead. The land is within the tribe of Gad's borders and the Torah states that half of the tribe of Manasseh settled in the North of Gilead as far as Bashan. Clearly a great deal of assimilation and absorption took place during this period.
The stories of the major Judges illustrate that the author of the book of Judges understood both history and geography. Prior to Samuel, four Judges stand out as major figures. They are; Deborah, Gideon, Jepthah and Samson. The story of Deborah highlights the tensions and clashes that took place in the North with the Canaanites and the Gideon episode highlights the conflict which occurred in the east, Today's story, the story of Jepthah, highlights the conflict on the Trans-Jordan perimeter with the Moabites and Ammonites, and finally, the Samson story records the response to the Philistines in the west.
The Haftarah usually associated with Korah was concerned with Samuel's, (the last of the Judges, the priest, prophet and kingmaker) retirement which took place sometime around the year 990, B.C.E. This morning's haftarah occurs approximately fifty-sixty years earlier (sometime before 1047 when Samuel crowned Saul the first King of Israel) and tells part of Jepthah's story. The story of Jepthah and the conflict with the Ammonites are an indication that Joshua's reportedly successful conquest of the land was more complicated than the way it was written.
This morning's haftarah reveals a major tension and poses a major dilemma which the connection to the Torah reading attempts to reconcile. Let's begin with the tension, its easier that way.
Jepthah's was a person who is counted as one of the so-called judges or chieftains in the Book of Shoph'tim, who made a difference. These chieftains guided our people from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy. The entire book of Judges leads us to believe that the charismatic leadership model of the Judgeship, of heroic figures, was unstable and needed to be replaced by one of dynasty succession. Some commentators suggest that this is the very aim of the author(s) of the book. Initial attempts to achieve this new form of government met with internal opposition. When the “men of Israel,” approached Gideon with a desire to enthrone him after he defeated the Midianites, he responded, I will not rule over you neither shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you, (Judges 8:23). Whether he actually said these words or some editor put it in his mouth the anti-monarchism is clear.
On the other hand some Judges desired to rule. Jepthah's insistence that he be recognized as the head of all the inhabitants of Gilead meant that he wished to act as a supreme sovereign in peace and in war. This suggests that, in certain circles, people had begun to seriously consider creating a monarchy. A generation later, Samuel discouraged it finally but acquiesced after Saul triumphed over the Ammonites. (1 Sam 11).
The dilemma described in the haftarah is about who owns ancestral land. It hasn't changed in two thousand years. Jepthah (Shoph'tim 11:12-28) negotiates with the Ammonites who demand the return of land which they had lost 300 years earlier. Actually it was closer to 180 years in real time but regardless of the time discrepancy, the land under dispute is the same land that Moses attempted to obtain permission from the Ammonites and Moabites to pass through during our trek out of Egypt.
In one sense the connection to the Torah justifies Jepthah's actions and was probably the reason our rabbis connected this morning's haftarah reading to parshat Hukkat . Unfortunately it resonates too closely to our situation today. How Countries come to understand prior ownership remains an issue still requiring resolution. Does the claim of ancestral land really stand up or must it and we make a commitment to living in and with the present. The text takes us there, the real question is what are we going to do about it?
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by
Rabbi Charles Simon,
Executive Director of the FJMC and author of
"Building A Successful Volunteer Culture: Finding Meaning in Service in the Jewish"
Jewish Lights Publishing.
Translation of the Haftarah may be found here: http://www.jtsa.edu/PreBuilt/ParashahArchives/jpstext/
The FJMC weekly haftarah commentary is one of the few haftarah commentaries available on line. The USCJ through its Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem has also been posting a weekly haftarah commentary for a number of years. We highly recommend it. If you are interested you can find a link on the left side of our weekly commentary and click through.
In 2003 the FJMC commissioned a Sefer Haftarah, a scroll consisting of all the Haftarot which follows the Haftarah order that appears in the USCJ and Rabbinical Assembly Torah translation and commentary Etz Hayim. The FJMC Sefer Haftarah visits a different synagogue in North America every week.This scroll contains vowels and cantillation and allows the haftarah reader to experience the Haftarah in a more personal way. FJMC also produces individual personalized Haftarot for those who wish to recognize a special occasion. Scrolls of Haftarot have been in use since the early middle ages.