Dueling narratives

By Rabbi Michael Lewis
Parashat Chukat

I think that sometimes, as Jews, we forget that the story of the Torah continues beyond the actual Torah itself. Come the fall, when we celebrate Simchat Torah, we will conclude our reading of the Torah with the end of the book of Devarim and Moses’ death in the wilderness before turning back to the beginning. By reading Torah this way, it gives us this perception that it is about a journey toward the Promised Land, rather than what we must do once we arrive.

But if we were to keep reading after Deuteronomy, the story naturally continues with the dueling narratives of Joshua and Judges. These two books take what seems to be the exact same set of events — the Israelites entering and settling Eretz Yisrael — and they read them in the exact opposite ways. In Joshua, which comes immediately after the Torah, the story starts off with an anxious leader not sure if he is up to the daunting task of succeeding Moses. But it’s uphill from there: the story is swift and seamless. Joshua sends spies into Jericho and realizes that this ancient citadel’s walls are more intimidating than they are protective. Seven shofar blasts later, the walls come tumbling down; Joshua and his army rush forth from there and swiftly defeat 31 other Canaanite kings. Most of the book details how the land is divided up. Joshua gives his concluding speech, settles in his ancestral land of Ephraim and dies peacefully. It seems like everything is great!

Then comes Judges. Instead of conquering the land, the narrative teaches that the different tribes struggled to control the land. The Israelites find themselves in a geopolitical back-and-forth with local rivals, jockeying for territory and power. The leaders and heroes of the Israelites are a series of misfits, starting with the least innocuous: Ehud, a left-handed man from the Tribe of the Right-Handed (Ben-Yamin); Deborah, a woman (something that would have surprised ancient readers); and Gideon, someone who was so turned around that he was making bread in a winepress. As the narrative continues, the judges become more and more problematic. The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Chukat, tells the story of one of those judges, Yiftach. Yiftach seems like a rather normal fellow, but his mother was not his father’s wife, so he was an outcast from a young age. When the Ammonites came to make war against the Israelites and Yiftach was their fiercest warrior, the people called on him anyway. Yiftach was successful in battle but made one grave mistake: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my hand,” he said, “whatever comes out of my door to meet me on my return will be sacrificed” (Judges 11:31). Maybe expecting a dog to be the first to greet his master, Yiftach is shocked when his daughter walks out. He has to sacrifice his only child.

With moral leadership waning with the child-sacrificing Yiftach in charge, the brother tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh let rivalry spill into bloodshed. Yiftach oversees a civil war between the two tribes, in which those who have an accent and say “shibboleth” murder their brothers who have a different accent and say “sibboleth.” If you’re like me, the Book of Judges will have you clawing out your eyes, shouting at the characters, begging them to use their brains and not be so stupid. Of course your daughter would be the first “thing” to come out of your door to greet you! Stop fighting your brothers just because they pronounce one word differently than you!

Our sages could have simply cut the Book of Judges and imagined that life in the Promised Land was all roses and sunshine, as portrayed in Joshua. But our tradition asks us to hold these two books side-by-side because that is part of what it means to be living in a free society. Our country sometimes feels like the Book of Judges: Moral leadership feels like it’s waning, brothers are fighting one another over politics instead of arguing the way that brothers normally do. If you’re like me, you might be clawing out your eyes, shouting at the characters and begging everyone to use their brains!

But we can’t forget that it’s not just Judges — we have Joshua in us, too. There are ways in which our own place in the world is remarkable and unique, not something to be taken for granted, something that came swiftly and easily for our ancestors and is up to us to celebrate. According to Gallup, among people in the world who want to migrate (usually because of their economic or political situation), the United States is still far and away the No. 1 destination: 21% of potential migrants say they would want to move to the U.S. Canada is second at 8%. It is a testament to our free society, even with all of the challenges that we have. Our tradition reminds us that, as we celebrated the Fourth of July last week, it is essential to hold all the beauty and ease of life (see Joshua) alongside the challenges that we face as a people (see Judges). Because that’s part of what it is to be in the Promised Land.

Rabbi Michael Lewis serves Temple Emanu-El and is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas

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