Parshah cautions against danger of arrogance, ignorance

By Rabbi Daniel Plotkin

The Haftarah for the Torah portion of Chukat serves as the introduction of one of the most disturbing stories in the entire Tanakh. Linking from the negotiations between Moses and some of the various people in the land, the Haftarah describes negotiations between the Judge Jephthah and the Ammonites. In both cases the negotiations break down and the result is battle.

The disturbing part comes at the end as Jephthah prepares for the inevitable battle. He vows that if God delivers the Ammonites into his hands then, “Whatever comes out of the door of my house…shall be offered by me [to the Lord] as a burnt offering.” Although the Haftarah ends there, the story does not.

When Jephthah returns home he is first greeted by his daughter. While the text is not entirely clear, the story makes it seem that Jephthah does indeed sacrifice his daughter. In a collection of Midrash called Tanchuma Yahsan, our ancient sages blame this tragic circumstance on arrogance and ignorance. The sages tell us that Jephthah was too proud to lower himself in order to see the High Priest, Pinchas, and ask for a nullification of the vow.

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All the more so, the tragedy of Jephthah’s daughter was complicated by Jephthah’s ignorance of the Torah. If he had better understood the Torah, say the sages, he would have known that God does not desire human sacrifice (as detailed in the binding of Isaac story) and furthermore that it is considered an affront to God to sacrifice anything that is not suitable as food. The sages portray God as asking if Jephthah would have sacrificed a dog or a pig if that was what came out of his house.

It is the combination of arrogance and ignorance that led to this tragic and bothersome incident in the Book of Judges. That is as true today as it was 3,000 years ago. When we approach a situation, from personal to international in scope, it is important that we are well informed and that we understand that our perspective is not the only one. While defense of our own prerogatives is certainly not arrogant, when we do so in ways that respects the other we are often far more successful in protecting our own interests and in creating an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Conversely, when we approach a situation in a way that is arrogant or ignorant the results tend to turn negative. When we put on an air that we are too good to learn or respect other cultures, when we suggest within our own communities that there is only one way to approach a challenging situation, when we expect that everyone will see things only as we see them, then we have created a situation where hostility, mistrust and fear will be commonplace.

We can only control ourselves in this way; we cannot control other people, be they individuals or nations. If, however, we respond to arrogance and ignorance of others by making it an excuse for our own arrogance or ignorance, we simply fall deeper into the trap that was laid for us by the arrogant and ignorant. We have the power over ourselves to avoid the traps of arrogance and ignorance and to avoid the tragic results that so often come along for the ride.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin serves B’nai El Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.