Haftarat Chukat: Brilliant Statesmanship

[Ashekenazim/Sefardim: Shoftim 11:1-33

Yemenite Jews: 11:1-40]

Did our politicians read chapter 11 of the Book of Shoftim, which describes the peace process between Yitach and the Amonites?

"Yitach of Gilad was a valiant warrior" (Shoftim 11:1).  The elders of Gilad turned to him when the Nation was mired in distress.  The Amonites attacked us and we had no leader.  The Nation of Israel therefore turned to Yiftach, who was not an official leader; on the contrary, he was unjustifiably pushed to the edge of society following feelings of jealously and the coveting of inheritance (ibid. 11:3).  But he was a great warrior and the Nation made him their leader (ibid. v. 11).

What was his first act?  "Yiftach sent messengers to the king of the Amonites saying: What is between you and me that you have come to wage war in my Land?" (ibid. v. 12).  Although he was a brazen warrior, he was not rash to start a war.  He knew his Land and preferred to open negotiations - a peace process.  Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, the great Torah commentator who was also a well-regarded statesman, first in Portugal and then in Spain, praises Yiftach's attempt at offering peace first.

What was the king's response?  "Because Israel took my land when it ascended from Egypt, from Arnon to the Yabok until the Jordan, so now return them [the lands] in peace" (ibid. v. 13).  He essentially said: this is only a territorial disagreement.  He had no intention to begin a war for war's sake.  He just wanted Israel to return the land we took from him.

It thus seemed that there was no chance for negotiations. But Yiftach did not think that all was lost.  He sent a new delegation.  The Abarbanel precisely analyzed his strategy and words, and identified four main parts:

1.      Yifatch reconstructed the facts: There was no war against you (the Amonites) during that period, but against Sichon, who had conquered your territory.  We, in turn, captured the territory from Sichon.  Therefore, you cannot make such a claim against us, but against him.  Our Land was under his control at that time (ibid. v. 19).

2.      We were not the ones who attacked Sichon - he attacked us, at a time that we desired peace.  Long before then, we asked permission from the king of Amon to pass through his land to arrive to our destination.  Because of his refusal, we were forced to take a lengthy, indirect route.  The same thing happened with Moav.  When we sent the same message to Sichon, he not only refused to let us pass through his land, he assembled his army and waged war against us.  We were forced to protect ourselves. We were victorious, and we took control of the Land.  This victory, the result of a defensive war, was completely legitimate.  When a nation attacks another and losses territory as a result, it is immoral to demand its return.  The risk of not regaining lost territory has the ability to stop political attacks (ibid. v. 15-22).

3.      Moshe Rabbenu's war against King Sichon began on account of Divine will.  Their dispute was not only against the Nation of Israel but against the presence of Hashem Himself.  The Master of the Universe is the One who gave us this Land.  If you have problems with our G-d, turn to your own: "Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you?  Likewise, whatever Hashem our G-d has given us, we will possess" (ibid. v. 24).  It appears that your "god" Chemosh did not help you when Sichon conquered your land.  There is therefore no benefit in hoping to be victorious over us or defeating our G-d.  Your motives are not political but an attempt at opposing the will of our G-d.

4. Over the course of three hundred years, from the conquest of Moshe Rabbenu until that point, this Land was not in your hands.  During this entire period, we dwelt in its cities and you did not say a word.  Why didn't you take them in return?  Why are you only starting up now?  (ibid. v. 26).

As we see, Yiftach had many claims: historical, ethical, and religious, and those which stem from true intellect.  But none of them were accepted by the King of Amon: "And the king of Amon did not listen to the words of Yiftach, which he sent" (ibid. v. 28).

The Amonites were therefore determined to go to war.  This created an opportunity for Yiftach to prove that he was not only a brilliant statesman but a brilliant military strategist as well.  He decided not to run a defensive war on our territory, but to plan an attack on enemy territory: "Then Yiftach went out to wage war against the Amonites, and Hashem gave them into his hands.  He struck twenty towns with a great blow from Aro'er to the vicinity of Minit, as far as Avel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Amon" (ibid. v. 32-33).  It is always preferable to wage war on the enemy's territory.  Yiftach's plan was successful, and the Amonites were convinced not to deal with us, which allowed us to reside in peace for many years.

We can only suggest to our statesman, who negotiate for peace with our enemies, that they prepare by learning the precedents, for as you know: "Many prophets stood for Israel, double those who left Egypt, but only a prophecy which was needed for all generations was written, one which was not needed for generations was not written" (Megillah 14a).