Weekly Torah Commentary – Chukat June 30, 2017

Torah reading:  Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

Haftorah reading: Judges 11: 1-33

All of us have flaws and failures. There are those who are crippled by them, others can rise above them and continue to live with confidence. But all of us have them.

Flaws are the imperfections – the weaknesses we are born with, bad experiences we had, unfortunate backgrounds we come from. These are not what we would have chosen.  We have no choice. They are not under our control.

Failures are the mistakes we made in life. We chose them wrongly and foolishly. We struggle and we suffer, because we made wrong decisions. But remember this, flaws and failures in life don’t define us, ultimately. We need not stay as victims of the past, nor victims of our flaws and failures.

That’s what we can learn from Jephthah, the judge in Judges 11.  Let’s look at this story in three ways: his flaw – his unfavorable past, then his failure, the unfortunate vow he made, and lastly his faith, his simple yet unflinching faith in God.

His past is something Jephthah cannot change. His birth. His background. He is an illegitimate child. Born to a prostitute. His father sinned and he was the result. Although his father Gilead brought him home, he wasn’t really a part of the family. Gilead’s wife and her sons rejected him. They said, “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family.” (11:2)  And this was likely said because their father Gilead has died. No one is left to defend him. No one in the family can now speak out for him. So the sons drove Jephthah away. Jephthah is an outcast, not just to the family, but also to the society as well.

According to Mosaic Law, Deut 23:2 “No one born of a forbidden marriage nor any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.” So Jephthat is a despised man. That explains why he ended up with a “group of adventurers” (worthless crooks and villains). He became a gang-leader, hanging around with fellow outcasts.

This is his unfavorable past, something he cannot change, something beyond his control. But that doesn’t define him. Our past doesn’t define us. We may be affected by it and influenced by it, we cannot ignore it, but it does not define WHO we are. But if we hold on to the past, if we believe in the past, if we are hindered by our past, then our faith is not in God. Our faith is in “FATE”.  We are then believing in a “force” over our lives that is greater than God.

God does not take away the past, undo the past, ignore the past; He REDEEMS the past. In fact, He makes use of our past and make something new out of it. God uses our past to prepare us, refine us, teach us, and mold us into who we are today if we will have more faith in Him than in our ‘past’.

Look what happened to Jephthah. After some time, the elders of Gilead come looking for him. The Ammonites made war on Israel and the elders wanted him to lead the fight.

Judges 11:7 Jephthah asks: “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” They have no answer. Judges 11:8 “The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.”

Jephthah sought confirmation. Judges 11:11 “So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.”

Then Jephthah made a foolish mistake. As he prepares for the fight, he made a rash vow to God that was uncalled for and unnecessary.  He must have thought he needed to bribe God in order to receive His help but it was a violation of the Mosaic Law.

Deut. 23:21-23 “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth.”

He vowed that whatever came out of his house, he would offer as a burnt offering. His only daughter came out dancing with joy when he returned triumphant from the battle.

Jephthah

Jephthah kept his promise to God! He offered his daughter to the Lord. Some says literally as a burnt offering, while others say she was dedicated to God (not going to marry but dedicating her life to serving God). I believe that latter meaning is more acceptable, because (1) human sacrifice is an abomination to the Lord and prohibited in the Law, (2) the daughter says she will never marry (not die), and the text ends with Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.” (11:39)

But this is not what defines him. His unflinching faith in God does.

His faith in God was evident at home. Look at his daughter’s response:

Judges 11:36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.”

It was not a simple thing. Jephthah had no other children and for his only daughter not to be married, it would mean the end of his family line.  And for her to agree with her father and willingly accept her fate is noteworthy.

Jephthah’s FAITH in God is what defines the man. And it’s our FAITH in God that defines us. God can and will redeem our past, use our flaws, and teach us through our failures.

In Tune with Torah this week = Jephthah teaches us to live free of our failures, our past and and our flaws.  To recognize that anything and everything that has happened in our lives contributes to our spiritual growth if we will seek the LORD in the midst of it is a desirable and worthy attitude to cultivate.  God is not about making us ‘happy’ but making us ‘holy’.  True happiness is found in knowing Him and growing into the mature son and daughter of a Heavenly Father.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Torah Commentary – Va’eira January 15, 2015

When Moses first returned to Egypt to lead the children of Israel to freedom, his mission seemed to be going well but the early sense of success was short-lived.  Things started to go wrong, and continued going wrong.

His first appearance before Pharaoh was a disaster. Pharaoh mocked God, rejected Moses’ request to let the people travel into the wilderness to worship, and increased the hardships on the people. They were required to make the same number of bricks but had to find their own raw materials. The result was that the Israelites turned against Moses:

“May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Ex. 5:21).

Moses and Aaron returned multiple times to Pharaoh with their persistent request.  Pharaoh remains increasingly un-cooperative. The plagues do not move him; he refuses to let the Israelites go. Though Moses has done everything God instructed him to do, the Israelites are still slaves.

The stress Moses felt is reflected in his prayer to God:

“Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all” (Ex. 5:22-23).

There is a profound message here. True leaders often experience failure.

Abraham Lincoln faced countless setbacks during the civil war. He was a deeply divisive figure, hated by many in his lifetime. Gandhi failed in his dream of uniting Muslims and Hindus together in a single nation. Nelson Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison, accused of treason and regarded as a violent agitator. Winston Churchill was held in low regard by the 1930s, and even after his heroic leadership during the Second World War was voted out of office at the first General Election after the war was over.

Principle: Heroes only appear heroic in retrospect when the setbacks and/or failures they faced can finally be seen as stepping stones to their greatness. Whether spiritual or secular, leaders are tested not by their successes but by their failures. It takes no special skill to succeed when the times are favorable. It’s when situations and conditions change that character is tested.

The great men and women of history are not those who never failed. They are those who survived failure, who kept on going, who refused to be defeated, who never gave up or gave in. They kept striving and they learned from every mistake. They viewed failure as a learning experience. Defeat was not an option; their drive was to become stronger, wiser and more determined.  That summarizes the life of Moses as described in last week’s Torah reading and this one as well.

Jim Collins, in his book HOW THE MIGHTY FALL, explains it this way:

The signature of the truly great versus the merely successful is not the absence of difficulty, but the ability to come back from setbacks, even cataclysmic catastrophes, stronger than before … The path out of darkness begins with those exasperatingly persistent individuals who are constitutionally incapable of capitulation. It’s one thing to suffer a staggering defeat… and entirely another to give up on the values and aspirations that make the protracted struggle worthwhile. Failure is not so much a physical state as a state of mind; success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.

The truth is that greatness cannot be achieved without failure. There are heights you cannot climb without first having stumbled. Defeats, delays and disappointments hurt. They hurt for Moses but he kept on keeping on.
In Tune with Torah this week = understanding that in those times we feel discouraged and demoralized, it behooves us to remember that today’s heroes, today’s ‘greats’ suffered failures. At times they were dismissed as troublemakers, even fools, but they never lost FAITH. What made them great is that they kept going. The road to success always passes through valleys of failure. There is no other way. Be strong and carry on.
Shabbat Shalom