Why in the world would the rabbis have chosen the odd story of Jephthah to accompany our super, action-packed portion from the Torah this week? Moses strikes the rock after being told by God to speak to it. Miriam dies. Aaron dies. There’s the mysterious discussion of the red heifer. Surely, there are passages in Prophets that would have been better companions to any of these fantastic strands of our narrative.
But, to the contrary, at least on the surface, the rabbis seem more interested in picking up on the story in which Moses conquers the Amorites and takes the land. A long time later, as we read in Judges, the Ammonites, who had much earlier been dispossessed of this land by the Amorites, made war on Israel to retrieve it.
(I know. I know. The battles in the Hebrew Bible can appear a turnoff. But, stay with me.)
When the Ammonites began to threaten Israel, the people turned to a fellow named Jephthah to lead them.
Get a load of Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute and Gilead. Gilead’s wife’s sons harassed Jephthah, saying he would never inherit with them as a member of the family. So, he fled to the outskirts of town, joining up with outlaws to engage in a life of raiding.
As Ammon approached, the elders realized that Jephthah was likely the most powerful, effective person to direct them in battle. After making peace over the previous slights, they agreed that he would command the troops, and, if victorious, lead Gilead. As the story goes, Jephthah conducted a “diplomatic” exchange with Ammon, which failed, and then he, with God’s spirit, led the Israelites to victory.
What are we to take away from this?
First, let’s focus on the fact that in this week’s Torah text the people had lost much leadership. The great figures of Aaron and Miriam had died. Further, we begin just now to see the initial signs of weakness in Moses’ leadership, in his wayward decision to strike the rock for water instead of speaking to it.
The Jephthah tale teaches us fundamentally that when, as here, we’re bereft of ideal leaders there can appear imperfect people who lead quite successfully.
We know Jephthah’s flaws – the son of a prostitute, he was banished by his family and took up a life of banditry with boorish men. And, though we won’t discuss it here, he was also a man who made a foolish vow with tragic consequences. (Can you imagine the backlash from all the interested parties who couldn’t believe this bad dude was being elevated to the top?!)
He was, however, also a “mighty man of valor.” “The spirit of the Eternal settled on him.” He was capable of, and, in fact, showed incredibly strong and effective leadership at a crucial time for the people and the nation.
In the Talmud, the great Samuel mentions in the same breath as Moses, Aaron, and himself the names of Gideon, Samson, and Jephthah.
We don’t always get a George Washington. We won’t always get a Moses, a Miriam or an Aaron as leaders. As King Solomon said, “Do not say, ‘How was it that the former days were better than these.’”
I am not saying that we should seek or be satisfied with bad or ineffective leaders. What I am saying is that we should be open to the lesson: Whatever their flaws, leaders who can achieve Torah-true results and success for the community are worthy for doing so. And we ought to be more patient and supportive of them, at least until we know whether or not our often-imperfect leaders are actually helping fulfill the community’s most important goals.