What Yiftach's Challenge Teaches Us about Our Own Challenges & How to Respond in the Best Way Possible
A recurring theme streaming throughout Tanach is the tremendous dedication to Am Yisrael demonstrated by even those rejected by Am Yisrael.
We see this with David Hamelech, Moshe Rabbeinu, Yosef Hatzaddik, Yirmiyahu HaNavi, Yiftach HaGiladi (Jephte of Gilad) and more.
Let's look at the saga of Yiftach (Shoftim/Judges 11:1-12:7), which also features in the Haftarah for Parshat Chukat.
Yiftach, like some other people in Tanach, did not start out from such noble stock.
Like Gidon, he was born into one of the smallest & least prestigious of the Tribes: Menashe.
Furthermore, his mother's status (which influences Yiftach's status) lacks propriety.
The Torah uses a term for her which could mean that she was a pundakeet (a woman who runs an inn — and while not forbidden, it's not a proper job for a bat Melech), or that she married out of her Tribe (again, not forbidden, but not the proper thing to do either), or that she was simply Gilad's pilegesh (concubine) — a woman permitted to him & faithful to him, but who is involved with him without the benefit of Kiddushin (marriage).
The truth is, none of these theories contradict each other, so she could have been all three.
Anyway, Yiftach's father, Gilad, also had an official wife. (I don't know whether Gilad's relationship with Yiftach's mother occurred before Gilad's proper marriage or during, though it sounds like before.)
At one point, Yiftach's half-brothers (from Gilad & Gilad's official wife) decided to banish Yiftach from their entire community.
Declaring they didn't want Yiftach inheriting with them from Gilad, they chased him out by force.
And the elders of that area supported the actions of Yiftach's half-brothers.
Let's stop here for a moment and examine what happened to Yiftach here.
Yiftach's Traumatic Experience
According to halacha, Yiftach had every right to inherit his father.
After all, the son of a pilegesh is still a son.
The pilegesh is wholly faithful to her man; there is no doubt as to who is the father of her child.
Yet even if the Yiftach's half-brothers didn't know this halacha, the elders certainly did!
Furthermore, the half-brothers chased out Yiftach with a great deal of force, say the commentaries. Described as a gibbur chayil later chosen to lead the battle against the powerful Ammonites, Yiftach must have been both physically imposing and a skillful combatant.
I don't know whether he physically fought back against his half-brothers, but the commentaries say they chased him out aggressively (maybe they took a strong offensive due to his size & skill, even if he didn't end up fighting back).
This is very serious because you have extremely aggressive and halachically wrong actions...supported by not only by Yiftach's own Tribe — but by the elders of his own community within that Tribe (which was also called Gilad, like his father).
And Yiftach was all on his own. He had no other full sibling, nor do the text or commentaries mention other family members.
This all sounds profoundly traumatic.
Where Yiftach Crosses the Line from Good into Great
And indeed, Yiftach ends up in a land called "Tov," where he hangs out with do-nothings.
But he also ends up as their leader; they willingly follow him.
And he apparently enjoys the good life in the land of Tov.
Yet Yiftach's physical prowess & charisma don't go unnoticed by his Tribe.
At one point, the same elders of Gilad make their way to the land of Tov and approach Yiftach with an offer: They want him to fight the powerful Ammonite nation on their behalf.
They immediately offer him chiefdom before even stating their request.
But Yiftach reminds them how they hate him and drove him out from his father's house:
"And why have you come to me now when you're in distress?"
The elders don't even try to play games with him. (You know, like, "Oh, but Yiftach our brother, YOU didn't understand...it was all a big misunderstanding!" or "Oh, are you still upset over THAT? C'mon, you're bigger than that..." or "Look, no one could be completely sure about your paternity, so you gotta understand this was the only way.")
Instead, the elders basically say, "Yeah, that IS why we've come now. Exactly. Now, come on; let's get going with this conquest."
But Yiftach has one more stipulation: If Hashem delivers the Ammonites into Yiftach's hand, Yiftach wants to be more than a military chief; he wants to be their leader.
So Yiftach travels back with them to Gilad and he rejoins his birthplace and his people.
And he also maintains his connection with Hashem. (He doesn't move forward without praying first.)
Why Yiftach is a Real Gibbur Chayil
The story of Yiftach continues with tremendous victory in battle & successful leadership, but also personal tragedy.
Yet all in all, Yiftach who was an am ha'aretz of ignoble birth (and his ending is so great either), merited not only to become a Shofet, but also merited an entire chapter about him in Tanach.
Not all the Shoftim earned more than a brief mention.
Furthermore, when he needed it for his role as Judge, ruach hakodesh rested upon him.
So what's behind the success of Yiftach, who was prioritized by Chazal as the LEAST of the Shoftim?
So it's like this:
Yiftach could have told the elders to go jump.
Yes, he could have.
Yiftach was enjoying the good life in Tov with his band of merry men.
He didn't need to be affected by an Ammonite invasion of Menashe.
Also, if Menashe really found itself in trouble, other Tribes could come to the rescue (as they did).
Furthermore, Yiftach was a religious person. Not a scholarly one, but a religious one. (Everyone was religious back then.)
If the people merited it & Hashem wanted them to win, so they would.
Simple as that.
Finally, couldn't Yiftach gloat in the persecution of Menashe?
"Oho!" he could have said with the smuggest of smirks. "Now you're on the other side of the stick. How does it feel, eh? You know what? You had your chance. You could've stepped up to plate when I was down for the count, but you didn't. You made your bed — so go lie in it and leave me the heck alone."
And then he could have cheered on the Ammonites. ("Stick it to 'em! Yeeeeah!")
He really didn't have to care.
Also, he was already a successful leader in Tov. What did he need the prestige of Tribal leadership for? For what did he need the responsibility of people who'd treated him so badly and seemed not to like him at all?
But not only did Yiftach did step up to bat...he performed marvelously.
He saved his Tribe and then as their leader, he was a good & honest Judge.
In other words: not one smidgen of retaliation.
He consistently behaved with goodness & fairness to the same people who had so badly hurt and rejected him.
And Yiftach was always whole with Hashem. Whether he was living as the unwanted brother in Gilad or cruising as the leader of empty-headed men in Tov or presiding over Am Yisrael as a Shofet, Yiftach held on to his emunah.
Ultimately, Yiftach was loyal.
Despite everything, Yiftach maintained loyalty to Hashem and thus, loyalty to his Tribe.
He was there for them when they really needed him.
And that's the example to learn from.
Why Yiftach was a Real Gibbur — a Real Winner
Certainly, in both halacha & Tanach, we find situations when we must be tough with others.
But in general, we're supposed to know that Hashem is behind everything and not take stuff personally.
We are supposed to overcome our pain and do the right thing no matter what.
Rav Avigdor Miller has stressed that love of our fellows must emanate from a love of Hashem — and that's what happened with Yiftach.
The text mentions how he prayed and spoke to Hashem.
Yiftach was able to overcome his trauma and preside with good grace over the same people who'd hurt him so badly because of his emunah.
As the Pele Yoetz reiterates throughout, a rodef shalom is only made when peace flees a person and he must pursue it.
If the peace stays serenely with a person, then there is no need to pursue it and thus, such a person cannot be a pursuer of peace.
Likewise, the Pele Yoetz also asks rhetorically whether a man can be praised for his good behavior if his household is pleasant & accommodating.
If his wife, children, and household staff always behave with him pleasantly & accommodatingly, says the Pele Yoetz, then what's the big deal for him to be Mr. Nicey-Nice in return?
Where's the challenge? Of course he's nice to such nice people!
But, says the Pele Yoetz, if his wife his difficult and his family & household staff try his patience, then a man who behaves pleasantly to such people — HE deserves praise! He's the winner.
That's real middot.
Why Yiftach's Half-Brothers & the Elders of Gilad Do NOT Reflect Badly on Am Yisrael as a Whole
Another important facet needs to be addressed here.
Unfortunately, Jew-disdainers look to magnify scenarios like the above as examples of those "bad Jews" in Tanach and why Hashem rejected the Jews (chas v'shalom) in favor of believers in the gospels.
And sometimes unthinking Jews themselves wonder what there is to be proud of when we have ancestors who behaved like Yiftach's half-brothers & the elders of Gilad.
(There's a LOT to be proud of! So many of our ancestors did magnificently wonderful things!)
So again, to reiterate the point of the Pele Yoetz: Being really nice to people who are really nice to you does NOT mean you are a nice person.
It could mean that, but it doesn't have to.
After all, being surrounded by pleasant & accommodating people does not incite you into behaving not-nice.
Therefore, if you want to be a truly good person, then you need to behave with integrity & love in situations when you are being treated UNfairly & UNlovingly & UNpleasantly.
This means that Hashem must put you in such situations.
In other words: To be the kind of person who responds to darkness with illumination, you must be placed in a dark room.
Your light can never be seen in the brightness of the noonday sun.
In order to see your light, there needs to be darkness.
And that's why these persecutions of very good & innocent people needed to happen.
These persecutions do not reflect on Am Yisrael as a whole.
These people NEEDED for them to happen. So Hashem activated these events.
How Bar Kamtzah Not Only Missed the Boat, But Sank the Whole Ship
One final piece of food for thought:
We see that behaving with love & integrity & emunah in the face of terrible rejection is the cornerstone for true greatness and also for Mashiach (Ruth, King David, and Leah Imeinu were all terribly rejected at some point.)
But the opposite is also true.
In the infamous story of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza, Bar Kamtza found himself faced with terrible rejection & humiliation — rejection & humiliation that occurred with the seeming agreement of the great rabbis seated there.
It was a much lighter version of what happened to Yiftach and others.
Yet was was Bar Kamtzah's reaction?
SEETHING HATRED. REVENGE. RETALIATION.
Bar Kamtzah actively sought to hurt the people who hurt him — and he involved a powerful enemy nation in order to execute his plan.
It was the exact opposite of how our greatest people responded to pain & rejection...
...and it led to the Destruction of the Second Beit Hamikdash, which still remains desolate 2000 years later.
Elevating Yourself & Your Nation (or not)
So we see here that taking the low road in response to rejection & pain leads to terrible destruction of everything we cherish most.
Yet we also see that taking the higher road in response to rejection & pain leads to the highest levels of human achievement: nevuah (prophecy), ruach kodesh (a lower level of prophecy), and Mashiach.
So we see that our response to pain, rejection, betrayal, persecution, and unfairness holds the key to our own personal greatness & National success...or not.
The Authentic Torah View of (and Advice for) a Truly Awful Person...including One who was Born that Way.
In the Pele Yoetz's chapter Character Traits/Middot, Rav Eliezer Papo addresses the personality that seems "born to be bad"— a bad seed, in other words.
He rhetorically asks what shall a "son" do if he personifies the following:
...and to compound things, the above dynamics are perfectly "straight in his eyes."
"This is a sick evil with no cure," Rav Papo pronounces.
That sounds pretty hopeless.
Also, notice he doesn't just say it's bad. Rav Papo calls such a situation a ra'ah cholah — the ra'ah, the evil is not only evil, it's cholah — it's sick.
And it's apparently 100% incurable.
So what's a "son" to do?
(It's also interesting that he uses the word ben, "son" or "child," rather than "person" or "man." I don't know why he uses that term.)
How to Stop being Awful & Start Living
Never give up! Despite his stoic assessment, Rav Papo has some tips for such a hopelessly awful person:
Finally, he must strive to actualize all of the above until he it's ingrained within him and Hashem opens his eyes to allow him to see with his eyes & understand with his heart which is the straight path.
Then he'll repent and heal.
It's important to note that Rav Papo makes no promises; he prefaces the above by saying ulai — perhaps he will be saved. Maybe.
At the same time, a person who commits to the above program is fairly certain to succeed, Rav Papo reassures us.
He reminds us that any person who comes to purify him- or herself merits assistance directly from Heaven.
Also, l'fum tza'ara agra — according to the effort you invest, that's what you'll reap.
(It's also illuminating to learn how Shemoneh Esrei plays such a powerful role in transforming an awful person. It's clear from the Pele Yoetz that Shemoneh Esrei said with kavanah, plus the inclusion of heartfelt personal pleading at the appropriate point, is a type of segulah for one imbued with "sick evil.")
Life is Not a Monopoly Game
Rav Papo emphasizes that life is not a Monopoly game.
There is no Get Out of Gehinnom Free! card.
It does not exempt him on the Day of Judgment by saying: "That's how my character was, that's what my mind grasped, and I couldn't resist and go beyond my character and my way of thinking."
This will not extract him from the the "hands" of transgression.
...because anything that a man desires — he can do everything by means of toil and exertion..."man was born to toil."
Rav Papo wraps up this short (but powerful!) chapter by reminding us that a person's entire purpose of existence is to:
How does this apply to us today?
The Road to Hell is Paved with Popeyes
The "I'm okay, you're okay" mentality developed in the Seventies has seeped into over 2 generations so far.
Long before that, you had Popeye the Sailorman inculcating generations of small children by singing "I yam what yam and that's all that I yam!" (I am what I am and that's all that I am.)
In the Seventies & Eighties, blaming negative experiences & faulty upbringings excused a lot of poor behavior — including in the courtroom.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned frum people (in a desire to give the benefit of the doubt) embraced this way of thinking and inadvertently justify unjustifiable behavior.
(Doing so is a form of chanifah, by the way; a severe Torah prohibition.)
Then came labels and that's still in vogue: narcissist, personality disorder, psychopath, sociopath, hyperactive, and so on.
(I use these terms too, by the way, because I find them a good short-cut to conveying a certain idea. But modern pop psychology uses them to support a different agenda.)
Tremendous amounts of literature exist on whether psychopaths are born or made (some say psychopaths are born while sociopaths are made), whether narcissist personality disorder is an inherited disorder, genetic determination, and so on.
And also, there is so much discussion as to whether any of the above can be cured. (Science says it can't...although the field epigenetics is fighting against the idea of genetic determination. Epigenetics basically means that your thoughts & behavior can activate or deactivate various genes.)
But the answers were laid out in this short chapter nearly 2 centuries ago.
In other words, a person who is a narcissist or a psychopath will not be excused for their abusive behavior when standing before the Heavenly Court.
And they're not totally hopeless either.
Either way, the "Popeye defense" will not be admissible in Court.
There is Still Room for Patience & Compassion. However...
It's important to stress that showing compassion for someone going through a hard time is not the same as justifying bad behavior.
I think we've all encountered people who behave like a person crying & thrashing out in pain, like the emotional version of a person with a foot caught crushed in an animal trap.
That's their emotional state.
And probably we've all behaved in that way at least once ourselves.
If so, we probably remember with gratitude any people who showed us compassion while we were trapped in that state. Maybe they even helped us out of it (i.e., managed to extract our mangled foot from the crushing trap).
So if someone is going through a difficult time or if they are really struggling to work on themselves, but fail at times, then why not give them a break?
Why not give them the benefit of the doubt, along with some patience, compassion, and encouragement?
After all, no one is perfect!
However, people who consistently behave badly with little or no remorse — and have done so for most of their lives?
And furthermore, they don't even seem to know that their behavior is hurtful or wrong?
Their trail of transgressions isn't going to be swept clean.
And please note that the description of personality disorders and psycho/sociopathy is completely encompassed by Rav Papo's description of a person imbued with "sick evil."
Evil looks good to such a person. That's what he says. Think about that for a minute.
Think about what that means & everything that implies.
And even more strangely, goodness looks BAD.
His or her very way of thinking (de'ot) is ugly; it's all warped.
And all the wrong, warped, crazy thoughts & attitudes seem perfectly upright (yashar) in the eyes of such a person.
They're the normal person (in their own mind).
They're the superior person (in their own mind).
Yet ultimately, they don't have any excuse.
Somewhere inside of them, implies the Pele Yoetz, is some type of awareness they can access and then utilize for self-improvement.
In other words, they are still expected to try.
Toil can Make a Bitter Fate Turn Sweet
We are doing neither victims nor their persecutors a favor by justifying halachically forbidden behavior.
If it's forbidden, then it's forbidden.
And if a person habitually indulges in such behavior, and thinks it's perfectly right while being convinced that the opposite behavior (a mitzvah) is wrong, then we certainly cannot minimize or whitewash it with platitudes like, "Oh, that's just the way she is" or "He was abused as a child." And so on.
And tough luck to any of us born with any bad middot or da'ot that make good behavior feel all wrong.
We're just going to have to work even harder and suffer more discomfort than others.
But in the end, all that exertion & discomfort turns into something wonderful (Eternal Life) if we keep on pushing.
When you see the same values emphasized repeatedly throughout Jewish scholarship, regardless of the era, surrounding culture, and anything else, then you know it is a core universal Torah value.
Likewise when Rav Avigdor Miller (a Slabodka-educated American rav from the 20th century) emphasizes the same points — even word for word at times! — as Rav Eliezer Papo (a Sefardi rav living in Muslim Bulgaria in the late 1700s-early 1800s), then you know that means that is core Torah value that must be taken to heart.
Rav Avigdor Miller has discussed the importance of taking care not to hurt people with words. (Please see Destructive Words & Healing Words: Rav Avigdor Miller on Parshat Behar-Bechukotai.)
And Rav Papo does the same in his masterpiece Pele Yoetz.
(The following points are gleaned from the chapters Ona'ah/Deceit & Fraud, pg. 86-87, and Klilot 1/General Principles I, #26, pg. 666-667.)
I Think Sticks & Stones Might be the Better Option Here...
The Pele Yoetz notes that ona'at devarim (harmful words) is more severe than ona'at mamon (monetary fraud).
Many of us struggle to get our head around that idea.
Due to outside influences, verbal abuse and other harmful words are often shrugged off as "Oh, he's just letting off steam; he doesn't mean anything by it" or "That's just how she is — blunt! Don't take it so much to heart" or "Just kidding!"
However, if someone steals or tricks a person out of money (even a small amount), does anyone ever say, "Oh, he's just greedy like that, but he doesn't mean anything by it" or "That's just how she is — a fraudster! Don't take it so much to heart" or "Just kidding!"?
At the same time, the Pele Yoetz gives the benefit of the doubt by acknowledging that many people stumble in this prohibition because they do not know what hurtful speech entails.
So here is Rav Eliezer Papo's definition:
והכלל הוא שכל שמצער את חברו בדבריו הוי אונאת דברים
The rule is that anyone who pains his fellow with his words — this is ona'at devarim.
This also includes returning a hurt with a hurt.
So if you say something hurtful to someone who hurt you (even in jest!), says the Pele Yoetz, then in addition to the prohibition of hurtful speech, you are also transgressing the prohibition against taking revenge.
And exactly how careful do we need to be with the prohibition against hurtful speech?
Here's the Pele Yoetz again:
ולא יעשה ולא ידבר שום דבר שיש לחוש אחד למני אלף שיכול לגרום צער לחברו
And he must not do and must not say anything for which there is even a one-in-a-thousand chance that it could cause pain to his fellow.
At one point, the Pele Yoetz goes on to emphasize the Heavenly punishment for such things: "total destruction."
Is your stomach clenching at these words? Are you getting that "Uh-oh" feeling?
Is your heart sinking as you remember all the times you were "just kidding" or "just being honest" or only doing to them what they did to you — or even the innocent words said when you do care about feelings, but simply weren't aware of how they affected the other person?
(That's how I felt reading the above.)
Well, never fear!
The Pele Yoetz has some helpful tips for us.
Here's the main one:
I'm a middle-aged housewife and mother in Eretz Yisrael who likes to read and write a lot.
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