Parashat Hukkat

Numbers 19:1–22:1
July 5, 2008 / 2 Tammuz 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, assistant vice chancellor, JTS.

There is a voice that echoes in my memory; so distinctive that I can recall it clearly even today. When I was growing up, on any car ride with my father, there it would be—that peculiar tone with strange dramatic pauses interspersed—the news and radio commentary that started, “Hello Americans, I'm Paul Harvey. You know what the news is. In a minute, you're going to hear the rest of the story.”

That was his signature, “the rest of the story.” Harvey’s commentary is predicated on the thinking that there is more to the news than we read in the papers: each story has little known details or forgotten facts that contribute to our understanding of the real story. Harvey teaches us that we cannot not sit passively and hear the news, but need to be active participants, in search of the latent truth.

We could all benefit from reading not only the news, but even this week’s haftarah, like Paul Harvey would. Like all haftarot, this week’s companion to Parashat Hukkat serves to buttress a point within the Torah reading.

The story—of an outcast becoming a leader from Judges—revolves around Jephthah the Gileadite, who comes on the scene with a description fitting a tragic character. Although he is an able warrior, he is the son of a prostitute and, as such, his stepbrothers (of his father’s wife) drove Jephthah out (Judg. 11:1–2). But as the story progresses, the people of Gilead realize that Jephthah’s military prowess is necessary to win the war against the Ammonites. With what we may expect from someone who was once ostracized, Jephthah shrewdly negotiates his place as leader of Gilead if and when he is victorious in battle. For insurance, Jephthah makes a vow to God to secure his victory and with the spirit of the Lord on him, he is victorious:

Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites and attacked them, and the Lord delivered them into his hands. He utterly routed them—from Aroer as far as Minnith, twenty towns —all the way to Abel-cheramim. So the Ammonites submitted to the Israelites. (Judg. 11:32–33)

What a wonderful ending to a haftarah: Jephthah is brought back into his ancestral home and made its rightful leader. And not only that. His leadership carries with it a divine mandate. His transformation is complete. What once was an ugly duckling is now a divinely inspired leader.

Professor Michael Fishbane in his wonderful remarks on the haftarot from the JPS Bible Commentary series makes a connection between each haftarah and the parashah it accompanies. With many, the connection is obvious; however, with Jephthah, the key is a bit deeper. Fishbane writes,

The parashah and haftarah refer to common historical events occurring in the period of the desert wanderings. Moses’ solicitation of the Edomites and Amorites to pass freely through their territory in the time of the desert trek (Numbers 20–21) is cited by Jephthah’s embassy to the king of the Ammonites. He does so in order to reject the claim that the Israelites now occupy Ammonite lands. Indeed, the historical facts are recited in order to indicate that the land under dispute had been conquered by the Israelites from the Amorites. (243)

The political message of the haftarah is clear and, through his commentary, Professor Fishbane extracts a lesson from its verses. But that, as Paul Harvey would say, is not “the rest of the story.”

While the haftarah ends at verse 33, the story of Jephthah continues. The vow to God we glossed over while reading the story actually has tragic consequences:

And when Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance! She was his only child; without her he had neither son nor daughter. On seeing her, he tore his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of my trouble; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot go back. And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to that which has come from your mouth; seeing that the Lord has taken vengeance for you of your enemies, of the Ammonites.” (Judg. 11:34–36)

In her book, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Tribble gives a voice to this daughter of Jephthah who is ignored not only by our haftarah, but by the text which leaves her nameless. Her reading critiques Jephthah for making an unnecessary vow—one that was not an act of faith, but faithlessness. What need did Jephthah have for a vow when the “spirit of the Lord” was on him? In this light, Jephthah seeks to bind God, rather than rely on his God-given power: “The meaning of his words is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage. To such a vow, the deity makes no reply” (97). It is this careless faithlessness that ultimately causes the death of his daughter.

After reading the conclusion of the narrative, we see another disturbing connection of the haftarah to our parashah. Parashat Hukkat includes the story of Moses’s and Aaron’s sin of striking the rock to produce water for the Israelites in the wilderness. God’s response to their action is telling, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). Read in its totality, the story from the haftarah highlights the faithlessness that surfaces in both accounts, and through it we learn a valuable lesson of recognizing the gifts from God that are already ours.

And now you know the rest of the story.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.