The Destructive Power Of The Human Ego [Parshat Chukat By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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The Kohen shall take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson thread, and cast them into the burning of the cow — Numbers 19:6

And Jephthah vowed … “If You will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand … whatever comes forth from the doors of my house towards me … I will offer up for a burnt-offering.” — Judges 11:30-31

One of the more tragic stories in Tanach is the one in the Book of Judges involving the warrior Yiftach (Jephthah) and his only daughter, which we read in today’s haftarah. Yiftach, who grew up in a troubled environment, rejected by his family for being the product of an inappropriate relationship, has left the fold. He is later headhunted by the leadership to lead the military into war, and after he has agreed, he makes a strange vow: He vows that if victorious in battle, he would show G-d his gratitude by sacrificing the first living thing to greet him upon his return home.

You can see where this is going … Yiftach routs the enemy and returns to great glory as the leader of the nation and a victorious warrior. He travels home, expecting to fulfil his vow with the first animal to catch his eye, but there are no animals to be seen. Instead, running out to greet him is his beloved only daughter.

Yiftach is in a terrible dilemma. He has made a binding vow to G-d about the sacrifice. He feels that G-d has kept His part of the vow, and the onus is now on him to keep his side of the deal. What should he do?

Before answering that question, let’s look at the Torah reading for today. Parshat Chukat begins with a fascinating, yet incomprehensible purification ritual – the mitzvah of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah). This mitzva is what we term a “chok” – meaning that no reason is listed in the Torah for its observance, unlike most of the commandments which come with explanations. Observance of this type of mitzva is a sign of our faith in G-d, showing that we fulfil all the commandments whether we understand the reasons for them or not.

The ritual of the Red Heifer entailed sprinkling a spiritually impure (tamei) individual with a mixture of ash and spring water. The ash itself was produced by burning cedar wood, hyssop, crimson thread and the carcass of a red heifer. When mixed with spring water (mayim chayim) these ashes became a potent mixture somehow capable of removing impurity.  (The specific impurity these ashes are used for is caused by coming into contact with a dead body, the strongest form of spiritual impurity.)

No explanation is given for this process, or how it works, but our Sages find deep significance in the detail. The three ingredients used along with the red heifer are cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread. These three items symbolise sin and repentance: The lofty cedar tree represents haughtiness, pride and arrogance while the other two items symbolise humility – the low lying hyssop and the worm-like crimson thread. The Red Heifer is seen as atoning for the sin of the Golden Calf, and the connection here is clear – arrogance leads us to sin, whereas humility leads us away from sin.

Tragically, in the narrative of Yiftach and his daughter, a lack of humility had tragic consequences.

In the Sages’ discussion of Yiftach and his vow, Jewish law is unequivocal: Human sacrifice is taboo, totally and absolutely forbidden. The commentaries are not divided on that opinion, their disagreement is only on what action Yiftach needed to take, if any, to resolve his vow. Some are of the opinion that since the vow was against Torah law it was invalid from the start, while others opine that it needed the High Priest to proclaim it null and void.

Here lay the problem: Yiftach, as leader of the nation, felt that the High Priest (Pinchas) should come to him to offer the annulment. Pinchas, on the other hand, felt that as High Priest it was beneath his dignity to go to Yiftach, and waited for Yiftach to approach him. Since neither had the humility to back down, a terrible tragedy was allowed to occur, as Yiftach felt obligated to fulfil his vow.

Many of the commentaries explain that he did not actually kill his daughter, he simply sent her into isolation for the rest of her days, a situation akin to death. But whether she was killed or sent into isolation, both are reprehensible, one is simply more horrific than the other. All because two men were unable to control their egos.

The messages from Tanach have held true for thousands of years. They are no less valuable today. The destructive power of the human ego is as strong now as it was in the times of Yiftach and Pinchas. British author Monica Baldwin writes, “What makes humility so desirable is the marvellous thing it does to us; it creates in us a capacity for the closest possible intimacy with G-d.” If we can learn to avoid hubris and arrogance, and to live with humility and respect for others, as well as being closer to G-d, the world we inhabit would be a better place for all. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of  Chabad of Ireland.

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