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June 14, 2013
We've all seen the movie. The outcast from the wrong side of the tracks comes home to save the day. His name might have been Maverick, or Wolverine, or Rocky, but the story stays the same. We've seen this movie many times, and we will see it again in our Haftarah this week, which just might have been the original version.
The Haftarah comes from the book of Judges and tells the story of Jephthah. He is an able warrior from the region of Gilead, but his mother was a prostitute. This makes his father's other sons, the ones from his legitimate wife, dislike Jephthah, so they drive him out of town. Jephthah flees and finds a home in a rough neighborhood, with "men of low character." But he thrives there, and becomes their leader.
Everything seems perfect for Jephthah. He is leading a band of ruffians and raiding neighboring towns. What more could a lonely outlaw want? But then, one day, it all changes. Jephthah is visited by the elders of Gilead. They have been attacked by the Ammonites, and they need his help. He is their only hope. Jephthah agrees, as long as they make him their commander and chief. They hesitate, but ultimately approve. Jephthah is coming home.
Upon returning, Jephthah first tries to negotiate with the king of the Ammonites, but these negotiations quickly breakdown. So Jephthah leads the Gileadites into battle, and they crush the Ammonites. The people of Gilead can once again live in peace.
We have a soft spot for the underdog, the outcast who no one wants but who is ultimately what everyone needs. This is why I feel like there is something compelling about Jephthah. When the elders came to ask for his help at the beginning of the story, he could have said no. Forget you. You had your chance. But he doesn't. After everything that has happened, he still feels a sense of responsibility to his community. He still feels driven to help the very people who spurned him. We are not outcasts, nor warriors, but we too have a responsibility to our community. We might not always feel like it, and it might not be convenient, but adding our voices and our energy to our synagogues makes a difference. We can't just affirm its importance and then do something else. To paraphrase: our words can't write checks that our bodies can't cash. Maverick might not have understood this critique, but Jephthah did. He came back to help, and by doing so he saved his people. It's a good plot for a movie, and an even better story in real life.
This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Micah Peltz of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, NJ. Rabbi Peltz grew up in Minneapolis. He holds a B.A. from the University of Michigan, and also studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was ordained in May 2007 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he also received a Masters in Jewish Education from the William Davidson School of Education.