The Sacrifice of the Self

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat VaYera – The Sacrifice of the Self

By Rav Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Most of the charged but incomplete episodes of last week's Parashat Lekh Lekha reach their climactic conclusion in this week's Parashat VaYera.  Avraham and Sarah's deteriorating relationship with their estranged nephew Lot, the ongoing but so far unfulfilled aspirations of the aged couple for offspring, the declining fortunes of the iniquitous city of Sodom, the difficult circumstances surrounding Sarah's maidservant Hagar and her feral son Yishma'el, were all introduced with much fanfare in last week's reading but remained exceptionally unresolved at that reading's end. 

 

Lot may have been rescued by Avraham from the Mesopotamian kings who captured him at Sodom, but he then sheepishly returned to his home in the Jordan Plains, leaving in his wake no indication that his alienation from his aunt and uncle had been lessened.  Avraham and Sarah's perennial quest for offspring was highlighted last week against the backdrop of a recurring Divine pledge to grace them with a child, but no new developments had taken place by the time Parashat Lekh Lekha sounded its final note.  The proud and prosperous cities of Sodom and its satellites, tantalizingly described as luxuriant and lush but simultaneously implicated as full of "wickedness and transgression", were last week bested in battle but emerged otherwise unscathed, leaving us to continue to ponder their final fate.  Sarah had given Hagar to Avraham as a second wife and the union had produced Yishma'el, but the new household dynamic only introduced more instability as a consequence.  In short, every single one of last week's major events failed to foster any lasting equilibrium and instead only sowed further seeds of disquietude and turmoil.  Remarkably, it is within the narratives of this week's Parasha that all of these matters finally reach their electrifying resolution.

 

SERVICE OF GOD: COMMUNAL AND INDIVIDUAL

God appeared to Avraham in Elonei Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.  When he lifted up his eyes he saw three men standing before him.  When he saw them, he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent and bowed down to the ground.  He said: "My Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes then do not journey past your servant.  Let some water be brought to wash your feet, as you seat yourselves under the shade of the tree.  I will bring some bread so that you might fill yourselves and then you can continue on your journey.  [Let me do so] since you have passed by your servant.  They said: "Do as you have spoken" (Bereishit/Genesis 18:1-5).

So begins Parashat VaYera with a striking example of Avraham's hospitality.  Though the text does not indicate the exact chronology of the episode, we do know that it unfolds at the "heat of the day".  Avraham is already an old man, his wife Sarah no longer capable of conception, but neither age nor the infirmity that typically accompanies it will prevent him from welcoming the guests.  Spying them from his vantage point at the entrance of his tent, the hot midday wind swirling around him, he runs to greet the strangers and then prevails upon them to pause for a meal.  Though he only speaks of bread, in the end it is a banquet that he and his household set before them, all of it prepared with alacrity and haste:

 

Avraham HURRIED to Sarah who was in the tent and he said: "HURRY to prepare three seahs of fine flour, knead it, and prepare round breads.  Avraham RAN to the herd, chose a tender and fine calf and gave it to his servant, who HURRIED to prepare it.  He then took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it all before them.  He served them under the tree and they ate…

 

This opening passage, then, highlights Avraham's noble character, indicating that God's choice of him as the progenitor of His nation is well-founded, and impresses upon the reader the great importance of kindness and compassion.  Significantly, the Torah points out that Avraham does not act alone in his mission of benevolence, for both Sarah as well as the unnamed servant assist in the preparation of the meal.  In other words, it is not only Avraham's personal disposition that is the subject of the episode, but the character of the household that he leads as well as the community of which they are part.

 

How different is the end of the Parasha that describes the climactic events surrounding the Akeda.  There, once again, Avraham’s mettle is tested as God asks of him what ought to be asked of no man.  But now, in this overwhelming encounter, Avraham and cherished Yitzchak are entirely alone with Him, with no household or community to fortify them at the decisive moment of fulfilling of God’s command.  Even the two loyal servant boys have been left behind (Bereishit 22:5) as Avraham and Yitzchak solemnly ascend the slopes of Mount Moriah, in a moment of intense solitude and utter separation from the world and its cares.  No one accompanies them on this final leg of their journey of faith, no friends of family intrude upon its awesomeness, no one but these two alone – aged doting father and beloved youthful son, the progenitors of the people of Israel – stand before God and prepare to sacrifice their very lives in reverential love.

 

While often we tend to analyze the episode of the Akeda from its own entirely internal and self-contained perspective, this week we will consider the Akeda as it stands in comparison and contrast to another, seemingly dissimilar but equally harrowing Biblical event separated from it in time by about seven centuries – the immolation of Yiftach’s daughter at the hands of her own father.  Readers ought to familiarize themselves with the account of the Akeda by perusing Chapter 22 of Sefer Bereishit, as well as with the story of Yiftach’s daughter by considering Chapters 10 and 11 of Sefer Shoftim (the Book of Judges).

 

As recounted in the 10th and 11th chapters of the Book of Shoftim/Judges, the tribes of Israel, now settled in the land but having strayed once again from God, were subjected to eighteen years of harsh oppression, this time at the hands of the ‘Ammonites.  These ‘Ammonites, centered around their Transjordanian capital of Rabbat Bnei ‘Ammon, had not only terrorized the Israelite tribes east of the River Yarden but had also crossed the river and subjugated Yehuda, Binyamin, and Efraim. 

 

Providence selected an unlikely hero to rescue a chastened Israel: Yiftach of Gil’ad, a well-liked local brigand – the son of a prostitute! – who had earlier been expelled by his legitimate half-brothers from the family homestead.  As the war clouds gathered, the elders of Gil’ad unexpectedly approached Yiftach to lead the people, and he was summoned from the otherwise-unknown “land of Tov”. 

 

Yiftach secured a pledge from the elders that he would not be deposed after he had secured victory.  Constrained by the exigencies of the hour, the elders agreed, and after he had rallied the people and sent reasonable entreaties to the ‘Ammonite king that were rebuffed, Yiftach led the tribes into battle.  Miraculously, his force of irregulars handily defeated the ‘Ammonite hordes on the battlefield and went on to reduce twenty of their towns, and thus it was that Yiftach returned Israelite hegemony to the disputed lands.

 

 

A TIME FOR VOWING

 

On the eve of his departure to battle, Yiftach made a vow with the intent of securing Divine favor, namely that he would offer sacrifice to God upon his triumphant return.  Such conduct is itself unremarkable and should not necessarily be misconstrued as a mercenary attempt to “bribe” the Deity.  In fact, there are a number of other Biblical episodes that employ the vow motif in a similar fashion.  Recall, for instance, that after Ya’acov our forefather had fled from home and hearth into the uncertainty of exile because of the murderous wrath of his brother ‘Esav, he eventually came to a place that he himself would later call Beit El.  Resting his weary head within a protective cordon of stones, Ya’acov was soon awakened from his fitful sleep by a heavenly vision of Divine concern and care. On the morrow, Ya’acov took one of the larger stones and poured oil upon it, in order to set it up as a marker of the place where he had encountered God.  Then, he pronounced a vow to be fulfilled if God would only preserve him on his journey, sustain him, and return him one day in peace to the land of Canaan: “…this very stone that I have set up as a marker shall be a place of worshipping God, and from all that You shall give me I will offer a tithe to You” (Bereishit 28:10-22).

 

Much later, and in a situation more similar to the context of Sefer Shoftim, the people of Israel collectively undertook a vow on the eve of their battle with the Canaanite king of ‘Arad, as they neared the Promised Land at the conclusion of wilderness peregrinations:

 

The Canaanite King of ‘Arad who dwelt in the Negev heard that Israel had traversed by the way of the Atarim.  He made war with Israel and captured captives from them.  Israel undertook a vow to God and said: ‘if You will allow me to wholly prevail against this people, then I shall utterly dedicate their cities (and the victory to You, by not taking from the spoils)’.  God hearkened to the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanite to them, so that Israel utterly destroyed them and their cities.  They therefore called that place Chorma (BeMidbar 21:1-3).

 

In both of these situations, one taken from the world of worship and the other from the world of warfare, the vow was utilized as an incentive, spurring on the supplicant to expend superhuman effort in the midst of an adversarial situation.  Through exercising the vow, one’s trust in God became the means by which resolve in the face of difficult odds was yet maintained and devastating despair was overcome.  The vow became an expression of steadfast faith that God will not disappoint, even when the situation may have seemed less than sanguine.  We may even go so far as to argue that vows undertaken in such circumstances demonstrate humility on the part of the one who so affirmed, as if they themselves recognized that they did not possess sufficient merit to deserve Divine favor, if not for the power of the pledge to “secure a loan”.

 

 

A QUESTION OF CONTENT

 

What is remarkable concerning Yiftach’s vow, however, relates to its content, for while the warrior indicates that he will sacrifice to God upon his triumphant return from battle, he is (intentionally?) vague concerning the thing to be sacrificed:

 

Yiftach declared a vow to God and he said: ‘if You will completely surrender Bnei ‘Amon into my hands, then that which (literally “he that”) shall go forth from the portals of my house to greet me when I return in peace from Bnei ‘Amon will be for God, and I shall offer it (literally “him”) as a burnt offering!’ (Shoftim 11:29-31).  

 

The Rabbis, in commenting upon this episode, declared:

 

Said Rabbi Shemuel bear Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  Four Biblical figures initiated vows.  Three of them asked inappropriately but God nevertheless responded appropriately, while the fourth asked inappropriately and God responded in kind.  The first was Eli’ezer the servant of Avraham, for he stated that “the maiden to whom I shall say ‘tilt please your pitcher so that I might drink’ and she shall respond ‘drink! And I will also water your camels’, You have proven her to be the one for Yitzchak…” (Bereishit 24:14).  And what if she would have been a Canaanite maidservant or a prostitute?  Nevertheless, God brought about that it was Rivka. 

 

The second was Calev, for he stated that “I shall give my daughter Achsa in marriage to the one who shall capture Kiryat Sefer…” (Yehoshua 15:16).  And what if he would have been a Canaanite or else a slave?  Nevertheless, God brought about that it was Otniel. 

 

The third was King Shaul, for he stated that “the one who strikes him (Goliath) down shall be given great wealth by the king and he (the king) shall also give him his daughter” (Shemuel 1:17:25).  And what if he would have been an ‘Ammonite, a Canaanite or a mamzer (the offspring of an adulterous or incestuous relationship)?  Nevertheless, God brought about that it was David. 

 

The fourth was Yiftach, for he stated “that which shall go forth from the portals of my house to greet me when I return in peace from Bnei ‘Amon will be for God, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering!”.  And what if it would have been a camel, a donkey or a dog?  Would he still have offered it?  This time, however, God responded by bringing about that it was his own daughter! (cited with variations in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta’anit 4a, Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 37:4, and Yalkut Shim’oni Yehoshua 25).

 

 

EXERCISING CARE WITH ONE’S WORDS

 

In three of the pivotal examples quoted above, the protagonists in question made ambiguous commitments that related to marriage and that concerned the identity of potential mates or suitors.  Eli’ezer the loyal steward of Avraham should have been more specific about the qualities of the woman that he was seeking as a match for Yitzchak, Avraham’s son.  Old Calev should have more careful to indicate what other traits ought to characterize a potential suitor for his daughter, over and above valor and courage.  Shaul, in attempting to encourage someone to step forward in order to battle the Philistine giant Goliath, should have stipulated more in his challenge to the people of Israel, so that mighty but otherwise inappropriate individuals would not apply.  Nevertheless, in all of these situations, Divine providence smiled upon these leaders and their rash words did not come back to haunt them.  But Yiftach, alone among them all in dedicating his vow to God’s glory exclusively – “that which shall go forth from the portals of my house…will be for God, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering” – lived to regret his impulsive offer, for it was his own daughter that came out to greet him.

 

The Rabbis, truth be told, could not imagine that Yiftach intended anything other than to offer an animal as a sacrifice to God.  When they wished to characterize the impetuousness of his vow, they stated that Yiftach should have exercised more caution, for instead of being met upon his return by an animal from the permitted species fit for sacrifice such as a sheep, goat or cow, he could have also been greeted by “a camel, a donkey or a dog”.  But why should this lack of specificity have aroused so much Divine displeasure?  After all, didn’t Yiftach undertake the vow in the best tradition of meeting adversity with a call to piety, and with God’s glory alone in mind?

 

 

CONSIDERING THE AKEDA

 

The answer is to be found in noting a striking series of parallels between this episode that culminates in the sacrifice of Yiftach’s daughter, and its only (almost only!) analog in all of Tanakh – the Akeda of our Parasha.  Let us begin our analysis by noting some of the similarities as well as the telling differences.  In both situations, it is the relationship with God that is highlighted – Avraham is called upon to demonstrate his absolute loyalty to his Creator’s unfathomable will while Yiftach seeks to show his dedication and gratitude to the Deity so that He might bring him victory.  In both episodes, the one singled out by God for immolation is an only child described in the original text as “yachid” (“only one” – masculine) (Bereishit 22:2) or “yechida” (“only one” – feminine) (Shoftim 11:34).  Yitzchak is the precious offspring of Avraham and Sarah’s old age as well as their spiritual heir while Yiftach’s daughter is her father’s most beloved thing in the whole world. 

 

In both passages, there is an anxious period of dreadful anticipation between the pronouncement of the decree and its fulfillment – three days journey separate God’s command to Avraham from the building of the altar upon Mount Moriah (Bereishit 22:4), while two months pass between Yiftach’s return from battle and the sacrifice of his daughter (Shoftim 11:39).  In both circumstances, it is the parent-child bond that is so sorely tried, with the parent showing superhuman preparedness to carry out the terrible act and the child demonstrating Herculean resignation, staggering acceptance and extraordinary trust.  At the same time, as the awful moment draws closer, there are words of affection that pass between the parent and the child, with the child invariably addressing the parent as “avi” or “my father” (Bereishit 22:7; Shoftim 11:36) while the father in turn refers to “my son” or “my daughter” (Bereishit  22:7; Shoftim 11:35).  And finally, in both situations, the site or the event of the sacrifice becomes an occasion for future pilgrimage –  Moriah is called by Avraham “the place that God shall see” and becomes the mountain of the future Temple where He shall in turn be seen (Bereishit 22:14), while the site of Yiftach’s altar is annually visited by the “daughters of Israel who lament Yiftach’s daughter four days each year” (Shoftim 11:40). 

 

There are, as well, a number of glaring differences.  At the Akeda, it is God who demands the unthinkable of Avraham as a trial of faith, while in our chapter it is Yiftach who initiates the challenge in order to secure victory upon the battlefield.  At the Akeda, God specifically selects Yitzchak as the intended sacrifice, while it is serendipity that apparently singles out Yiftach’s daughter.  At the Akeda, Yitzchak’s words are not recorded (could his response have been anything other than awesome silence?), while in our passage, Yiftach’s daughter not only fails to discourage her father from carrying out the act but actually ENCOURAGES him to do so: “She said to him: ‘Father, you have made a vow to God, therefore do to me what you did declare, since God has performed great vengeance upon your enemies, Bnei ‘Amon!’” (Shoftim 11:36).  And, most tragically, at the Akeda God stays Avraham’s hand at the last moment, while here there is no Divine intervention to save Yiftach’s daughter from her father’s fulfillment of his reckless vow.

 

 

AN INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION

 

The startling conclusion of the matter and the shocking explanation for all of the above is therefore the following: Yiftach DID NOT intend at all to offer an animal as sacrifice to God upon his return, but rather another HUMAN BEING!  When he states that ‘if you will completely surrender Bnei ‘Amon into my hands, then that which (literally “he that”) shall go forth from the portals of my house to greet me when I return in peace from Bnei ‘Amon will be for God, and I shall offer it (literally “him”) as a burnt offering!’ he is not referring to a lower creature, but rather to a person.  The first person, says Yiftach, that shall come forth from my home, passing the threshold of the doorway, shall be dedicated to God as a burnt offering! 

 

There is no reference in this passage to gates or to barns, to fields or to sheepfolds, but rather only to “the portals of my house”.  And animals, though in ancient times they may have lived in close quarters with their human masters, nevertheless did not share with them the actual living space implied by “house”.  The reference to “the portals of my house” may therefore be poetic way of saying “the first member of my household that I encounter”.  That person whom Providence would fatefully select could conceivably be a servant or slave, a cousin or clan member, a loyal supporter or else a casual visitor, but Yiftach surely did not expect it to be “his only child”!  His stunning surprise relates not the fact that a person has come forth to greet him (for that was his intent) but rather that it was, tragically, his own beloved daughter. 

 

 

LEXICOGRAPHICAL EVIDENCE

 

The idiom used, both in the vow as well as in its aftermath, to describe the act of going forth to greet – “latzeit likrat” (11:31,34) – occurs almost 40 times in the Tanakh.  Sometimes it is used to describe a hostile encounter such as going forth to meet the enemy on the battlefield (for example in BeMidbar 20:18,20; Shoftim 20:31; Divre HaYamim 2:35:20), often it is used in the more neutral sense of rendezvousing or else the friendly sense of greeting (for example in Shemot 18:7; Shoftim 4:18; Yeshayahu 7:5), but it is NEVER used to describe anything but an encounter between two or more human beings.  In fact, even the term “likrat” by itself, though it occurs well over 100 times, only refers to a non-human meeting once (see Shoftim 14:5, concerning Shimshon’s unexpected encounter with the young lion).    

 

The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that Yiftach’s vow was a repugnant and twisted act of piety that was met by God’s own ironic and thundering response of disapproval in the guise of Yiftach’s own daughter who unexpectedly (but not arbitrarily) went forth to meet him “with drums and with dances” (11:34).  It is for this reason that Yiftach did not merit a Divinely orchestrated turn of events for the good, as did the other three impulsive avowers, for though God may be forgiving concerning imprecise language, He will not forego the monstrous crime of murder in His name.  There must be consequences for such villainy, and let them fall upon the head of the perpetrator in the most unexpected but forceful fashion!  And in the larger context, what this episode corroborates is that which any careful reader of Sefer Shoftim sorrowfully suspects: Israel and its leaders, in this horrible culmination of the insidious process that has been underway since the Book of Judges began, have become indistinguishable from their Canaanite nemeses!

 

 

RECALLING THE INFAMY OF THE CANAANITES

 

Now the Canaanites were technologically more advanced, politically more astute, and culturally more aware than their Israelite neighbors, but none of that “enlightenment” seems to have been translated into a heightened moral sensitivity (is it ever?).  Over and over again, the Torah wages a war of words against the Canaanite infatuation with idolatry, sexual immorality, magic, and cruelty, but the most serious indictment against their societies is stated in the following passage, and it concerns, of all things, the act of worship:

 

When God your Lord extirpates from before you these nations (whose land) you go in to possess, and you shall drive them out and dwell in their land, then be very careful lest you be ensnared by them after they have been destroyed from before you.  Do not inquire after their gods saying: “just as these nations served their gods, so too shall I”!  Do not do so to God your Lord, FOR ALL THE ABOMINATIONS THAT GOD HATES THEY PERFORM FOR THEIR GODS, FOR EVEN THEIR SONS AND DAUGHTERS THEY BURN IN THE FIRE TO THEIR GODS!  (Rather) you shall observe all of the things that I command you, do not add to it nor take away from it…(Devarim 12:29-13:1).

 

The above text from Sefer Devarim clearly links devotion to the gods with human or child sacrifice, while making it abundantly clear that the God of Israel abhors such conduct.  The Akeda/Yiftach matrix is thus reinforced: to Avraham, God demonstrates that what He truly desires is utter devotion and trust but He WILL NOT countenance the sacrifice of Yitzchak.  The drama, then, is not only an exploration of the limits of profound faith but simultaneously a harsh polemic against prevailing Canaanite practice.  And as for Yiftach, though he is a self-styled leader of Israelite tribes and a seeming servant of all that is just and holy, by his vow he demonstrates that he is at the same time a product of the terrible effects of corrosive Canaanite culture that seeks to guarantee victory upon the battlefield by vowing to immolate an innocent human being!

 

 

ANOTHER EXAMPLE

 

Lest the reader object to this reading by disagreeing with the fundamental premise that Canaanites were capable of such things, consider the following episode from the second Book of Kings, Chapter 3.  While the historical specifics are not relevant to our discussion, the context concerns a battle that takes place between a confederacy composed of the King of Yehuda, the king of Yisrael and the king of Edom, against the king of Moav.  While the Moavites prepare to resolutely defend their border, they are routed and overrun, prompting their king to do a desperate (but not unthinkable) act:

 

He took his firstborn son, who would have ruled after him, and he offered him as a burnt offering upon the ramparts, so that there might be great fury upon Israel…(2:3:27).

 

There is more than a passing similarity here to our own passage, for in both situations it is defeat on the battlefield that is meant to be averted.  Could not Yiftach, who preceded this king of Moav by some three centuries, not have been thinking similar thoughts, that God desires desperate acts in order to provide solutions to desperate situations?  Could Yiftach not have believed that he would secure Divine favor by offering that which is most precious and dear to the Deity, namely inviolable human life?

 

 

THE RESPONSE OF YIFTACH’S DAUGHTER

 

Perhaps the most telling indication that our reading is inescapably correct is provided by Yiftach’s own daughter, for her response to the turn of events is unexpected to say the least.  Should she not cry out against her father’s monstrous vow, should she not engage God Himself in heated and desperate debate?  Her explicit approval of her father’s pledge and willingness to become his sacrifice (11:36) can only mean one thing: she herself regarded his vow of killing another human being for the sake of God as a pious pronouncement that (unfortunately?) had found her as its unintended target.  Like her own father as well as the morally corrupt Israelite society around her, she had imbibed only too deeply cherished Canaanite beliefs, at first making those twisted practices “fit for consumption” and then transforming them into acts of blind and utter devotion by grotesquely transposing them from molten fetishes and gods of fertility to the God of Israel Himself!  What else could one of the later prophets have meant when he solemnly declared:

 

With what shall I approach God and show deference to the Lord of heaven?  Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings or with one year old calves?  Shall God desire thousands of rams or tens of thousands of rivers of oil, SHALL I OFFER MY FIRSTBORN FOR MY TRANSGRESSION, THE FRUIT OF MY WOMB TO ATONE FOR THE SIN OF MY SOUL?  Man may have declared to you what he thinks is good, but what does God require of you, except to perform justice, to love compassion and to walk humbly with your Lord! (Micha 6:6-8, 8th century BCE).

 

So vile was the notion that Yiftach could have been initially considering such an act that the Rabbis, in their endless and noble capacity for exoneration of the culpable, refused to entertain the possibility.  Thus Yiftach was instead charged with the much less serious indiscretion of rash and impulsive language.  If so, however, one has to wonder mightily about the severity of the Divine response.  In similar fashion, so evil was the deed of immolating his own daughter in the final fulfillment of the vow, that the Biblical text itself refused to state the words, choosing instead to describe the deed with a polite but unmistakable circumlocution: “…he did to her in accordance with the vow that he had made” (11:39). 

 

In the end, though, the Rabbis certainly had little positive to say concerning Yiftach, and he is not remembered as a role model in any sense of the term.  Quite the contrary.  When the Rabbis wanted to teach us that every generation suffers the leaders that it deserves, they said: “Yiftach in his generation is like Shemuel in his generation…even a man who is the least of men but who has been appointed as an overseer of the community, must be accorded due respect” (see Talmud Bavli Tractate Rosh Hashanah 25a-25b).  The former became a paradigm for poor leadership, the life and career of the latter constituted an ideal.

 

 

REVISING OUR (MIS)CONCEPTIONS

 

We must accordingly revise our mental image of the episode.  Now we see in our mind’s eye brave Yiftach preparing to go out to battle, anxious and uncertain but brimming with the confidence inspired by his vindication.  As he prepares to take leave of the elders of Gil’ad who had come to fetch him, and from the assembly of the people who had apprehensively witnessed his investiture at Mitzpah, Yiftach casts one last long look towards the verdant hills that stretch out in the direction of his own home.  His mind races with a thousand desperate thoughts and plans, his heart pounds with the enormity of the task that lies before him.  But Yiftach, after all, though a brigand by trade, is a servant of God in spirit.  How will appease this Deity and cause His blessing to shower him with victory? 

 

Taking a cue from his cultural surroundings, and still possessed by the thought of the home and family that he fears he may never see again, Yiftach pronounces his fateful vow: “Oh mighty God, if You will but grant me triumph, then I will present You with the most valuable offering of all, a member of my own household, perhaps a relative or a dear friend!  The sacrificial victim will understand our desperate situation, he will not protest this act of extreme devotion perpetrated upon his being, for such has been the sanctioned and indeed hallowed practice among the peoples of this land from time immemorial!”

 

Remarkably, God grants Yiftach unexpected victory and he returns home flushed with excitement.  The accolades of the people are still ringing in his ears as he expectantly retraces his path towards his beloved homestead.  In the distance he can hear the rhythmic beating of the drum and the sound of song, and he absentmindedly wonders who might it be that has come forth.  “God was pleased with my vow”, he remarks, as he draws closer, “and now I must repay Him with joy!”  But soon the figure is recognizable, her sweet voice suddenly familiar, and Yiftach falls to the ground, doubled over in grief.  How unexpected was the victory against the ‘Ammonites, but how unexpectedly has merriment turned to tragic and indescribable mourning!  His only daughter (how innocent her smile was but a moment ago) attempts to raise him up, his other family members rush to his side, but no one can make out the incoherent cries that issue forth, now punctuated by heart-breaking sobs. 

 

Slowly, he regains his composure and then he solemnly declares the ineffable: the vow to God (cursed be the day that it was ever pronounced!  Cursed be the culture that could countenance such things!) must be fulfilled.  Silence falls upon the family now, swelled in number by all of the concerned onlookers who have hurriedly come in response to the commotion.  All eyes are upon Yiftach’s daughter, his only child and truly his most beloved thing in the entire world.  Her drum lies in the dust where it had fallen when she had run to greet her father as he collapsed, and her young and shapely shoulders, still draped in the brightly colored robe that she had specially donned for her father’s return, now seem stooped and hollow.  Though her eyes brim with tears, her voice is soft and comforting: “Father, you have made a vow to God, therefore do to me what you did declare, since God has performed great vengeance upon your enemies, Bnei ‘Amon!” 

 

 

GOD’S RESPONSE

 

All are struck by her sincerity and by Yiftach’s steely resolve, the people nod approvingly, and even the blue skies above seem pleased by the outcome.  But there is much consternation in heaven as God disappointingly looks on, not at all indifferent to what has transpired but determined to let human beings exercise their dismal choices.  Later, His thoughts will be articulated by Yirmiyahu, the Late First Temple prophet who lived to see Yiftach’s evil decision played out a thousand times around the outskirts of Jerusalem and in the verdant valley of Hinnom just to the west of the city wall:

 

…thus says God of hosts the Lord of Israel, behold I will bring evil upon this place, so that all that hear of it their ears shall ring.  This is because they have abandoned Me and have made this place unrecognizable, they have offered incense there to other gods that neither they, nor the kings of Yehuda, nor their ancestors knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.  They have built high places to Ba’al upon which to burn their children by fire as sacrifices to Ba’al. These are things that I did not command, nor did I say, nor did I ever contemplate! (Yirmiyahu 19:3-5).

 

Our conception of the episode must therefore be altered.  Far from being an innocent victim of Divine capriciousness and cruelty, a casualty of Kafkaesque circumstances that have conspired to destroy him, Yiftach himself has chosen the course that has brought him to this terrible moment.  It was not an innocent or ill-considered slip of the tongue that condemned him to losing his own beloved daughter but rather a conscious and deliberate pronouncement of iniquitous malevolence.  And rather than being cast as an innocent and pure sufferer for her only sin of loving and trusting her father too much, his daughter ought to be regarded as an accomplice to his act of infamy. 

 

And as for all of Israel that stood by their side in the aftermath of that terrible moment, we ought to compare their acquiescence to another and later instance of a rash vow pronounced in battle, this time by King Shaul who battled the Philistines (See Shemuel 1:14:20-45).  King Shaul forbade his army, on pain of death, to partake of any food or drink until the discomfited Philistines had been completely routed.  Shaul’s own son Yonatan, however, had not been present when the vow was uttered, and tasted from the wild honey that he found during the course of the pursuit of the enemy.  Though Shaul felt compelled to stand by his vow, “the people redeemed Yonatan so that he did not die”.  But in our passage of Sefer Shoftim, Israel did nothing to avert the decree, thus indicting themselves of having succumbed to the very Canaanite evil that God had repeatedly called upon them to extirpate so that they might avoid being consumed by it in turn.

 

 

CONCLUSION

 

And what of God in all of this?  What was His role?  As is most often the case, God remained silent, allowing people the opportunity to make their evil choices and to live (or die) by the consequences.  It is a basic premise of Biblical theology that human beings are free to make decisions of destiny.  Though we recoil from human acts of violence and cruelty, we simultaneously champion our freedom to choose.  The latter is truly only possible if we are willing to accept the possibility of the former.  But God’s silence in the arena of human history should not be misconstrued as absence. Patiently, He waits, hoping that we will choose the good.  And relentlessly, He makes His expectations of us clear, through the study of the very books of Tanakh that constitute His message to Israel and to mankind.  God is therefore never silent, for His words reverberate across the cosmos and the down through the generations until the end of time.  

 

And thus we return to the events of our own Parasha.  Rightly regarded as the culmination of his spiritual development and as the final act in the drama of Avraham’s acquisition of absolute trust in His God, the Akeda is much more than that.  It is the thundering pronouncement by the Deity that the ultimate sacrifice is not the surrender to Him of life’s most precious possessions and certainly not the presentation of the wholly innocent in the supplicant’s stead, but rather the sacrifice of the SELF in the performance of His will.  In our own day and in our own region we have witnessed the depravity of cultures that countenance and encourage the sacrifice of their young in the name of monstrous piety and devotion to the gods.  How many innocent lives have been violently and tragically cut short by their murderous deeds?  And yet these acts continue, because there is a larger culture that fosters and nurtures them.  And so, like Yiftach’s daughter, young people joyously immolate themselves because they are products of a twisted societal norm that celebrates death in the service of God, like the pagan Canaanites of old.  But our Parasha presents us with an antithetical message: God may sometimes severely test our resolve but He seeks life and not death, self-sacrifice of a person’s will and not their self-destruction.  The grandeur of the Akeda, therefore, lies in the fact that it WAS NOT initiated by Avraham.  Unfolding in silent and surreal detachment from community and nation it became a singular expression of complete and utter love and reverence for God, and a powerful protest against the accepted norms of devotion of the day.    

 

Shabbat Shalom