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Chukat: What’s the most irresponsible personal undertaking I have ever heard of?

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What’s the most irresponsible personal undertaking I have ever heard of?

It is probably Yiftach’s vow. The haftarah for Parshat Chukat (Judges 11:1) tells us how Yiftach, the leader of the tribe of Gilad, was called upon to wage war against the Ammonites. He was in a state of trepidation before leading his people in this fateful battle, and he took a vow. Pleading to the Almighty for help he said, “If I return home victorious, whatever comes out of my home first in order to run towards me, I will sacrifice it.”

Of course Yiftach presumed that a kosher animal would come out first. He indeed came back victorious. His daughter was so relieved and delighted to see her father coming towards the house that she ran out to greet him. Then the Bible says, “Yiftach fulfilled his vow” (Judges 11:39).

What does that mean? Surely it’s impossible that he actually offered her as a sacrifice. That’s why many of our commentators  explain it to mean that Yiftach inspired his daughter to lead a cloistered, sacred, separated form of living because of course, child sacrifice is so alien to us.

Now Tosfot, in their commentary on the Gemara Masechet Taanit, ask a great question. We’re familiar with the concept of hatarat nedarim, the annulment of vows. In the event that you make an undertaking and it transpires afterwards that it was impossible for you to carry this out or it wasn’t sincere, you go to a chacham, a great authority, who has the power, following various questions that he will ask, to annul that vow. And at that time Pinchas was the High Priest and he could’ve annulled Yiftach’s vow. Why did that not happen?

Yiftach said, “Ok, let Pinchas come to me. I am the national leader. He should come to me.”

Pinchas said, “I’m the religious leader of the people. Yiftach should come to me.”

There was a standoff, and as a result the vow was not annulled but he fulfilled his vow by inspiring his daughter to live a cloistered life.

There are so many lessons that we’ve been able to learn during the tragic period of the coronavirus.

One relates to who’s really important. Yichus, pride, ego, prominence – that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is being altruistic – being kind, being a mensch.

There’s a second lesson. What is really important is mishpacha. Family. Connections to people who count in our lives. Yiftach erred because for him the most important thing of all was to be important. He was willing to ‘sacrifice’ his daughter on the altar of his ego because he was unwilling to go beneath his dignity to see a High Priest. Our sages in their wisdom chose this passage of Tanach for a haftarah in order to highlight the crucial lesson for us. First of all, the lesson of mishpacha, family; the proper way in which we should care for others and how careful we should be in our undertakings relating to family; and secondly, when it comes to that which is significant in life, what’s important is not me but rather the people around me.

Shabbat shalom.




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