Chukas – “Ah Tzadik in Peltz”

Every day when thanking Hashem for giving us the ability to learn Torah we make the blessing “…to engross ourselves in the words of Torah.” Why don’t we just thank Hashem for letting us learn Torah; what is so special about being engrossed in the words of Torah?
We find an illustration that answers this question, in this week’s haftorah for the Torah portion of Chukas, which takes place in the Navi of Shoftim. Yiftach was a tzadik (righteous person) who eventually became the leader of the Jewish people and Hashem even endowed him with the special strength and bravery needed to defeat the nation of Ammon. Before the battle he swore to Hashem that if he was victorious he would sacrifice the first living being that he sees come out of his house on the way home from battle. What came out of his house, to his horror, was his daughter singing and dancing for joy over his victory. In the end he felt he must fulfill what he swore and he sacrificed his daughter (Shoftim perek 11).
The Yalkut Shimone paraphrasing a Medrish Tanchuma in Bechukosai relates that four people made a request in an inappropriate manner. One of them was Yiftach, and because he wasn’t a ben Torah he lost his daughter. This is what the pasuk in Mishlay meant when it said: “The fruit of a tzadik is the tree of life and one who takes souls is wise” (Mishlay 11:30). A person could be righteous but if he is not engrossed in Torah he has nothing, for from within the Torah he learns how to “take souls.” Yiftach’s daughter said to him: “Lest one might think the Torah writes that they can sacrifice souls, doesn’t it write ‘from a domesticated animal from the flock”? Yiftach said to her: “I made an oath and you came out!” She said to him: “Yaakov our forefather swore, ‘and all You will give to me I will tithe to you’ and Hashem gave to him 12 tribes do you think he sacrificed one of them, and we never heard about it?” She continued: “Leave me alone and go to court, maybe they will find an excuse to annul your vow.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Zayis Ra’anan observes that he really didn’t need to find an excuse to annul his vow, but rather she just said this hoping he would go to court and they would tell him he does not have to sacrifice her. (What is interesting to note is that he did go to court and the way a decision is made is largely based on how one formulates his or her question, so Yiftach asked his question in a form of wondering if they can find an excuse to annul his vow, and they could not find one).

What should Yiftach have done? The Yalkut Shimone goes on to list an argument about what he should have done: Rebbe Yochanan says her monetary value was sanctified and had to be donated to the Mishkan. Reish Lakish says Yiftach wasn’t even obligated to donate her value.

In any event, the Etz Yosef on the Medrish Tanchuma says that Yiftach should have been more specific when making an oath or he should have been more knowledgeable when making this type of oath that in the event he might have to sacrifice a person it is giving the person’s value to the Mishkan and not literally sacrificing the person as Yiftach mistakenly thought. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

We see from here an incredibly eye opening thought. Yiftach must have been a Torah observant Jew who did learn Torah, at least every once in a while, because the Medrish said that he was righteous. He would never have become the Jewish leader in the times of the Judges or have Divine powers endowed upon him if he did not observe Torah and mitzvos. Yet, because he wasn’t engrossed in Torah, he made a deadly mistake which caused the loss of his daughter.

A person can be known for his righteousness, but if he isn’t engrossed in his Torah study he essentially can make up his own religion, to the extent that he would execute his own absurd idea of physically sacrificing his own daughter!
We see how important it is not just to live by the Torah and mitzvos, but our attitudes must also be that the Torah is our guidebook to life. We must totally immerse ourselves in its, understanding in order that we can live our lives in a healthy and proper manner.