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Parshas Chukas

History Repeats Itself

Someone pointed out to me that my mentioning of trillions of people living since the beginning of man was quite incorrect, the number being more like 12 billion. Though it was just a wild guess on my part, I stand corrected.

I rarely speak about the weekly Haftarah, which is a shame since Nach (Nevi’im and Kesuvim) is so important, especially at this crucial stage of history. Therefore, I’d like to try doing more of that on a weekly basis, starting with this week’s Haftarah about Yiftach, and his connection to this week’s parshah.

The reason why I even paid any attention to this week’s Haftarah is because this Shabbos is the Shabbos before the first yahrzeit of my father, Yisroel Ya’akov ben Tzvi HaLevi, z”l, in whose memory I dedicate this Dvar Torah. As such, it is customary to receive Maftir, which in some shuls means actually reading the Haftarah itself, and not just saying the brochos before and after. For me, this requires some practice in advance.

I read the story of Yiftach many years ago, and have come across pieces of it over the years. And, even though I do make a concerted effort each Shabbos to pay attention when the Haftarah is being read, for some reason, it is only this year that the story made an impression on me, and the reasons are obvious: I am reading it myself, and it is an amazing example of history repeating itself. First, a brief overview of the Haftarah.

The story begins by introducing Yiftach as “a mighty man of valor,” but then detracts from his importance by pointing out that his mother was a concubine, a wife of Gilad who was not given a Kesubah like his other wife. This gave her a lesser stature in the eyes of the rest of the family, and therefore, Yiftach as well.

Consequently, his brothers from the official wife of Gilad banished Yiftach, telling him, “you will not inherit from our father with us,” one of the drawbacks of being born from a concubine. Mighty as Yiftach was, he nevertheless took their ‘hint’ and fled to another land, where he attracted a group of people who also were misfits and of little importance.

However, Jewish history is rarely straightforward, and it certainly wasn’t here. One day, the B’nei Ammon get it in their mind that, after hundreds of years, they want their land back. They tell the people of Gilad:

The king of the children of Ammon answered the messengers of Yiftach: “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon even unto the Yabok, and to the Jordan. Therefore, restore those cities peacefully.” (Shoftim 11:13)

Not so fast, Yiftach answered him, providing a history lesson along the way:

Israel did not take away the land of Moav, nor the land of the children of Ammon. When they came up from Egypt, and Israel walked through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying: “Let me, please, pass through your land,” but the king of Edom would not listen. Similarly they sent to the king of Moav, but he would not [listen as well], so Israel remained in Kadesh. Then they walked through the wilderness, and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moav, and came to the east side of the land of Moav, where they encamped on the other side of the Arnon. However, they did not do so within the border of Moav, because the Arnon was the border of Moav. Then Israel sent messengers unto Sichon king of the Amorites, the king of Cheshbon, and Israel said to him: “Let us pass, please, through your land to our place.” Sichon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his border, and [instead] Sichon gathered all his people together and encamped in Yahtza, and fought against Israel. The God of Israel delivered Sichon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and defeating them, Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. They possessed all the borders of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Yabok, and from the wilderness to the Jordan. The God of Israel had dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel, and you would possess it? Will you not possess that which Kemosh, your god, gives you to possess? Whomsoever our God has dispossessed from before us we will possess. (Shoftim 11:15-24)

Hmm, sounds familiar, does it not? Land for peace, said the King of Ammon. “You give your land to us, and we’ll give you peace,” he told Yiftach, acting as if perfectly within in his right when he actually had none. Was this a precursor of things to come thousands of years later in our time, when Arabs, in search of a livelihood (which they could not make back in their host Arab countries), who only came to Eretz Yisroel after Jews first came and made it prosper (it had been a barren land and no one had been able to make it grow anything of significance before the Jews did) would claim the land for themselves, citing rights that they just don’t have?

While Israel dwelt in Cheshbon and its towns, and in Aroer and its towns, and in all the cities that are along by the side of the Arnon, 300 years, why did you not recover them within that time? (Shoftim 13:126)

Furthermore, Yiftach added, if our land really belonged to you as you say it did, where have you been for the last 300 years? There is an expression in the Talmud: Silence is like admission. To live with the situation for 300 years means that you had accepted originally, and just now, all of a sudden, have changed your mind, and are trying to get through ‘peace’ what you probably can’t get through war, exactly the Arab strategy today, who created the PLO to wrangle from the Jewish people through ‘peace’ and ‘diplomacy’ what they failed to steal through war.

However, just as interesting and telling as this part of the story is, there is another very important piece of the picture that is not to be ignored, especially by the Jewish people, and especially today.

God runs the world, and history too for that matter. As discussed on many occasions in the past, nothing happens by chance, especially when what happens causes us to raise an eyebrow or two.

Ironic, is it not, that God created a Yiftach, who was destined to be rejected by his relatives and community, only to begin a war that forced them to not only bring him back into their fold, but to humble themselves before him and make him their leader? What is the message in that?

There are several, actually. But, one of the most important is one that Kabbalah discusses, Jewish history illustrates over and over again, and the Jewish people seem to either ignore or negate altogether. It is this: As nice as it is for redeemers of the Jewish people to be from the list of what we consider to be the top five popular Torah Jews, it doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, judging from Jewish history, it rarely works out that way.

God, too, likes to pick from the best to work on His behalf to bring redemption to the Jewish people. It is the ideal way, and the greatest Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s Name, which is what we’re supposed to be all about. It doesn’t look so good when He has to accomplish holy things through seemingly unholy people or acts.

However, explains the Arizal, sometimes we force His hand, so-to-speak. A “clean history” requires a “clean people,” meaning that we are doing our part to keep history on track, and the people loyal to God, Torah, mitzvos, and the mandate for Creation. When that is the case, then everything works out as our sense of perfection says it ought to.

However, when this is not the case, then redemption has to come through the back door, and often through the most unlikely of advocates, or even through our enemies and the destruction they wrought. It doesn’t make for a very pretty history, but it gets the job done, ultimately.

Unfortunately, though, when that is the case, history shifts into a different gear, that of chok. As this week’s parshah teaches, chukim defy human logic, so we mock them, and many even reject them, or the kind of history and scenarios they create. Expecting history to be straightforward, we reject when it appears to us to be crooked.

However, just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, at least somewhat, crooked history to a crooked people is really straight. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we’ll stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and realize that once we straighten ourselves out, history will get straightened out as well.

Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and



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