One of the most complex Tanach personalities is the central figure of this week’s Haftorah: Yiftach, the Shofet, Judge.
One the one hand, Yiftach is not seen as someone who was very knowledgeable in Torah. In fact, Chazal (Tanchuma Bechukosai 5) go so far as to describe Yiftach as not being a “ben Torah,” and due to his lack of knowledge and understanding, he very mistakenly believed that he was obligated to fulfill his fateful vow to sacrifice the first being to greet him after his victory over Ammon. As a result, Yiftach consecrated his daughter to Hashem.
As far as what that sacrifice actually meant, there are commentators (Radak, Malbim) who say that despite what the simple reading of the verses suggests, Yiftach did not actually bring his daughter as a human sacrifice. These commentaries refuse to accept that Yiftach would act in such an ignorant and lowly manner. The Chumash makes clear many times that the Ribbono Shel Olam detests human sacrifice. Yiftach’s sacrifice of his daughter means that she was made to live a hermit and nazirite type of holy life, never to marry. Be that as it may, Chazal do not seem to look to Yiftach as a paradigm of Torah scholarship.
On the other hand, Yiftach is listed as one of the Shoftim, and based on Avos D’Rav Nosson, and some Rishonim (Machzor Vitri and Meiri), we must say that as a judge of the Jewish People, he was part of the line of Torah giants who taught and transferred the Torah from generation to generation. Machzor Vitri goes so far as to mention Yiftach by name in the long list of the Torah leaders’ transmission of Torah from Sinai.
In addition, though acknowledging that Yiftach was far from being the greatest Torah scholar and leader in our history, Chazal emphatically state that his Torah leadership authority was supreme in his generation, Yiftach b’doro k’Shmuel b’doro – though not as great as Shmuel HaNavi, Yiftach must be given the same authority and respect as Shmuel was given (see Rosh HaShannah 25b, Shmuel Aleph 12:11, where the pasuk says Hashem sent Yiftach to the Jewish People to save them and Rashi Parshas Shoftim 17:9 on the phrase “the judge who is in your times”).
The same holds true in any generation in which the people might feel that their leaders are not as great as those of previous generations. Chazal instruct us that rather than lament the relative lack of greatness in our Torah leadership when contrasted with earlier ones, we are to give our full allegiance and respect to the greatest Torah giants that we possess, the leaders in our generation. No one should ever say, “Well, so and so is not as great as Rav Moshe Feinstein, so I don’t have to care what he says.” Such a statement flies flatly in the face of Yiftach b’doro k’Shmuel b’doro. Essentially, we must revere and respect the Torah leaders we do have – the best that we’ve got.
We must, therefore, surmise that Yiftach was actually a tremendous talmid chacham and Torah leader. If he were living today, he would be many thousands of times greater than our greatest Torah scholar. He was not the terrible ignoramus he appears to be when one superficially studies Tanach and some of Chazal’s statements regarding him. How then did he make such a colossal mistake regarding the sacrifice of his daughter?
The basic answer must be that things are not as simple as they sound. In fact, whenever we discuss a personality figure mentioned in Tanach, things are never as simple as they appear. Whatever the issue and struggle relating to his vow, his daughter and the fulfillment of it, we must realize that the subject is very deep and profound, a sophisticated issue in Torah law and philosophy. If indeed Yiftach failed this particular test, which Chazal do indicate (see Taanis 4a), we need to understand the failure in its proper context.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe writes that the sins of earlier generations mentioned in the Torah must never be understood at face value. They were not committed as a result of animalistic urges and desires, or even simple “foul-ups.” Rather, they were grounded in mistaken intellectual calculations, always sincerely l’shem Shamayim, for the sake of Heaven, as the pasuk in Yeshaya (5:21) states, “they were wise men in their own eyes.”