Photo Credit: Jodie Maoz

Yiftach HaGiladi was a great warrior in the time of the Shoftim when most of our stories seem morally ambiguous, with Yiftach no exception to this rule. In the time of the Shoftim, Israel lacked a central authority – political or spiritual – to unite the people, and a lot of complications arose as a result.

Scattered Israelite tribal groups, such as they were, also struggled to measure up militarily to the hostile nations surrounding Israel, so many of the stories in Shoftim deal with the rise of heroes and miraculous defeats of powerful enemies on the fields of battle. The story of Yiftach is one such example, but with a twist at the beginning and another at the end. Last year we dealt with the end; this year we will look a little bit at the beginning.

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To put things fully into context, though, first we have to look beyond the end of the story to the continuation of Yiftach’s career. Unfortunately, Yiftach would become a key participant in perhaps the bloodiest and most infamous civil war in Israel: that between Menashe and Ephraim. Yiftach does not lightly pass over offense or forgive disrespect. This returns us to the beginning of our story and the dubious origins of Yiftach HaGiladi.

The navi tells us that Yiftach was the son of a “zona” and that members of his community, led by his half-brothers, expelled him from his tribal lands and from the land of Israel altogether. Our Sages of blessed memory saw fit to cast some ambiguity on the story of Yiftach’s origins. In spite of it seeming at first glance to be clear, various commentators approach the question of who and what his mother was. Although some continue to take the term zona literally, to mean prostitute, there are other opinions to the effect that this was the way she was treated by her husband’s “legitimate” family. It was not necessarily what she was. In any event, the navi tells us with certainty that she was the mother of Yiftach, and Gilad was his father. So there was some established relationship between them.

We also see from the text (following, especially, Abarbanel) that the means by which Yiftach was expelled were extrajudicial. The agenda was advanced by the powerful half-brothers of Yiftach and was not justified under the law. The Malbim teaches that the legal institutions were exploited and corrupted by the wealthy and well-connected Giladites for the purpose of driving Yiftach out of the community. This remains as an unreconciled injustice from the opening verses of our haftara. In time, the Giladites realize their military plight and seek to induce Yiftach to return and defend them. This presents an opportunity for a comeuppance by Yiftach and he doesn’t pass it by.

But the intolerance shown by the community to Yiftach’s mother and to Yiftach himself belies a deeper problem in Israel at the time of the Shoftim. These disparate communities, lacking central leadership, became very clannish and intolerant of outsiders and of those who were different in any way. We see this carried out against Yiftach as a travesty of justice and we root for his victory in spite of his dubious origins. But the continuation of the saga shows how grave and decadent the intolerance can become when allowed to spread unchecked.

The civil war between Menashe and Ephraim, in spite of how bloody and murderous it became, began as a spat over the honor of two leaders of the two tribes in Israel that are closest to one another. The two sons of Yosef should feel a closer kinship to one another than any other pair of tribes. Unfortunately, without the moral authority and spiritual framework that comes from the unity of Israel, all that remains is petty quarrels and murderous feuds.

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Avraham Levitt is a poet and philosopher living in Philadelphia. He has written on Israeli art, music, and spirituality and is working to reawaken interest in medieval Jewish mysticism. He can be reached at avraham@thegeula.com.