Yiftach HaGiladi, among a plethora of ambiguous heroes populating the book of Shoftim, is one of the most complicated. Yiftach is an outlaw warlord whom the desperate people of Israel turn to for victory over the enemies that have tormented them. He is an unsavory character from outside the mainstream, but he has the martial skill to destroy Israel’s enemies. In their fear of these enemies, this quality trumps all, so they beseech Yiftach to fight on their behalf.
But before the Jews of Gilead take up arms against the Ammonites, Yiftach attempts to entreat them in hopes of overcoming the conflict peacefully. The Ammonites will not be appeased. They believe in a distorted history according to which they claim to have been the rightful inhabitants and indigenous people of the land who have been usurped by the occupying power of Israel.
Yiftach attempts to reason with them and to educate them on the actual events that transpired when Israel inherited the land. However, the Ammonites are not interested in learning the truth – they only want to destroy Israel. Yiftach rallies his troops and defeats the forces of the Ammonites.
Before the fateful and decisive battle of Yiftach’s campaign against the Ammonites, he makes a very strange oath. This brings us to the denouement of the story of Yiftach which, strangely, is omitted in most traditions of the reading of this haftara. The Sages, in establishing the reading of the haftara, omit the conclusion of the story, presumably because it’s too horrible and strange. Yiftach’s ill-advised and poorly considered oath to Hashem was that if victorious, he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw leaving his home upon returning. And that turns out to be his only daughter.
There follows a very strange dialogue between Yiftach and his daughter which won’t be found in the haftara. Yiftach regrets the oath, but there is no way out for him. He made this solemn vow and Hashem did what He was asked to do; now Yiftach must make good on his promise. The Malbim points out that this demonstrates an ignorance of halacha on the part of Yiftach and his daughter. Because although oaths to Hashem are a serious business, better avoided altogether, there are provisions in Jewish law to negate such oaths made rashly.
Yiftach believed that his oath was not eligible for release because of the quid pro quo aspect of the arrangement. But this was not the correct interpretation of the law, and had he asked a competent halachic authority, he would have learned this and saved himself and his daughter a lot of unpleasantness. This belief that Yiftach was so special that he needed to be held to a different standard than regular Jewish people recalls a memorable episode from the Talmud involving one of the most infamous antiheroes in Jewish history.
When Elisha ben Abuya, a friend of Rabbi Akiva, is exploring the heavenly realms beyond the physical world, he sees something that causes him to doubt in an instant the unity of G-d. In that instant, the Gemara tells us, he renounces all of his faith and turns away from the Torah. His friends and his disciples urge him to repent and return to the faith of his people. But Elisha, now known as Acher (the Other) tells them, “I heard from beyond that every miscreant can return except for Acher.” (Chagiga 15a).
This, of course, is patent nonsense. Acher was not so special that he was not eligible to repent. In this way, the evil inclination overthrew the mind of even such a great talmid chacham and stole him away from the army of Hashem. It was Acher’s arrogance, like Yiftach’s, that was his undoing.