A man named Gilad had a son with a prostitute. The child was named Yiftach. Now Gilad was a married man who had Yiftach through an affair. His legitimate wife had children, too, and those children weren’t happy about having a step-brother born in this manner. They didn’t want Yiftach to be raised with them or to inherit the property of their father. Hence, they chased away Yiftach. With cruelty.
Yiftach fled. A person has to make peace with his situation, and so Yiftach settled himself in a good land and eventually gathered around him a bunch of “empty folks”. Other people chased out of society found a natural leader here. They pledged allegiance to Yiftach, resulting in Yiftach eventually having a strong army of loyal followers. He was a somebody.
Then war broke out with Amon threatening the properties of the Gilad folks. Scared of losing the war, the Gilad folks decided they needed Yiftach’s prowess and so they came and invited him home, to live among them. These were the same kinfolk who had shunned him. Suddenly they needed him. Forgotten was who his mother was. Forgotten was the cruelty they exhibited previously to him. He was now all they wanted.
Yiftach hadn’t forgotten, and he let them know, asking, ‘why are you coming to me, didn’t you hate me and chase me away?’
They said, yup, but now we are coming to undo that, and if you fight against our enemy Amon, we will appoint you our leader.
Yiftach was a firm believer in G-d’s might and so he said, ‘If G-d hands over Amon to me, then I’ll become your leader.’
Malbim explains he was telling them a coded message: if he wins the war, it isn’t up to them if he leads. Lead he will. Victors usually seize power. He was stressing to these folks who wronged him that they still hadn’t shown him their remorse over the fact they hurt him in the past. They could show true repentance by appointing him leader immediately, without any conditions of winning wars for them.
The folks agreed with him, that they would appoint him their leader right away. Not just after the battle. And under these terms Yiftach became a leader of the Jews.
With the enemy, Yiftach first tried diplomacy. He immediately sent a message to Amon, “Why are you guys coming to invade our land?” Amon’s king replied that the Jews stole land when they came from Egypt to Israel. Yiftach, therefore, gave the king a history lesson (not that it works with our enemies). Patiently Yiftach gave all the circumstances and facts of which king of which land fought with us as we traveled on our way from desert to Israel. He also told Amon how Hashem gave land to us, and he ought to make peace with the fact that his idols didn’t give him this land. A subtle rib on how idols don’t produce, whilst G-d is Conductor of the world.
But, the King of Amon didn’t want to listen to reason.
At that point, Yiftach got “ruach Hashem” a burst of spirit from Hashem and off he went traveling toward his enemy. He made a vow and said to G-d, ‘if You let me win, the first thing coming out my door to meet me when I come back in peace will be for You G-d and I will bring it as an offering.’
G-d heard his prayer and Yiftach won the battle. He arrived home, and uh, oh, coming out of his door, was his daughter. He went into mourning, “I promised, I cannot renege” thinking he had to offer up his daughter to G-d.
And so it was. He never let his daughter get married.
Rabbeinu Bachya on this week’s Parsha points out what went wrong. This week’s Parsha talks about what could or could not be promised as Kadosh La’Hashem, as an offering to G-d – and people are not on that list. Rabbeinu Bachya further points out how Chana also promised something similar, but in a learned way. Yiftach was an Am Ha’aretz, an ignoramus. He didn’t know Halacha [Jewish law] and what was proper. Chana, on the other hand, knew how to couch her commitment and how to honor it. She told G-d that if she gave birth to a son, she would have her son dedicated to G-d. When G-d granted her a son, she took her son Shmuel and sent him off to serve Hashem under Eli HaKohen. She put him to work in spiritual realms. Yiftach, on the other hand, destroyed his daughter for no reason.
The blame was not his totally. We are told Pinchas was the Kohain and spiritual leader in those days and could have taught Yiftach that the way he was acting was not Halacha. There was the possibility of annulling a vow. There was the fact that Halacha doesn’t allow for a person to be an Olah. Things needed to be said. Yet, Yiftach didn’t go for guidance — he attempted to be righteous but without knowledge. You cannot keep Torah when you don’t know Halacha and are too stubborn to ask for guidance. Hence Yiftach is faulted for ruining his daughter’s life. Pinchas is faulted because as a leader he should have felt the pain of that poor daughter and come to rescue her from her father’s mistaken approach. He could have undone the harm easily.
Both men, however, had a Ga’avah problem, a disorder of pride. Each one thought they were so important that the other party should come calling. Yiftach said he was leader and should get the rabbi at his door. Pinchas said he was rabbi and should have the political figure at his door. Neither agreed to put pride aside to do the right thing. Because of those two men’s pride, a girl lived her life subverted from her true mission in this world, crippled by the ignorance of her father and the indifference of Pinchas. As punishment, Pinchas lost his Ruach Hakodesh, G-d didn’t want to communicate with him or through him anymore. And Yiftach, he met a tragic end, with all his limbs atrophying and falling off one by one.
No one ended up winning. And all because justice and true Halacha was not the order of the day. Kavod, the quest for pride, was.
May we merit to have leaders who chase after justice and not pride.