Our haftarah this week relates to us the well-known story of Shimshon HaGibor. Over the past few years I have written about the difficulties in understanding the decisions and actions of this final Shofet, as well as the behavior of the nation itself. But the truth is that the entire Book of Judges demands our close attention because, all too often, we tend to “get lost” in the historical events and personal stories and, interesting as they are, this focus prevents us from extracting the moral lessons and the unique challenges of that 350-year epoch. With this in mind, let us try to understand the accomplishments and failures of this era and what we can learn from them.
To begin, we must clarify what the difference is between a “shofet” and a “melech,” a “judge” and a “king.” Some of the differences are obvious, others are not so clear. To begin with, the English term “judge” is misleading because it implies one who sits in judgment of others, something that was not necessarily true of a shofet. Some did, indeed, judge; some did not. The term shofet implies more than a judge and refers to a leader as well. In the ancient world, the political leader was generally the supreme judge as well—just as Moshe Rabbeinu, David HaMelech and his son Shlomo—hence the usage of that term. For this reason, our daily prayer of “Hashiva Shofteinu” is not a prayer for proper judicial leadership alone but for fitting political leaders as well (hence the closing wish that Hashem alone rule over us).
The shofet in the time of the shoftim was, with one exception, a military leader. He/she (Devora) was generally a chieftain of a tribe who was successful in gathering a military force and, with God’s help, removing the threat posed by the enemy. Sometimes he rose to the position of leadership through divine choice brought by a prophet or a vision; sometimes the local leadership offered him the post, and sometimes the individual took upon himself the mantle of leadership in an attempt to help the nation. The shofet could not demand the allegiance of all, nor was his position hereditary.
In contrast, a king, as described in the Torah, was chosen by Hashem through the navi. As a result, he was anointed by the prophet in the presence of the Sanhedrin and was to be succeeded by his son (unless decreed elsewise by God), thereby creating political stability for the people. When he fought, he led a united, national army, consisting of fighters from all his kingdom and could impose his will on his subjects, who were required to be obedient and to bow to his authority.
Although one shofet was offered kingship (Gid’on, who refused it) and another attempted to usurp it by force (Avimelech, who caused a civil war but failed to take the throne), no shofet succeeded in becoming a national leader. Shimshon was the last of the judges in the book and his story is especially tragic because he was granted the strength to succeed as a warrior, and his miraculous birth foretold by an angel proved that Hashem had chosen him. And yet, he failed in the two crucial challenges of a Jewish leader: he did not unite the people (indeed, he was not even able to gather an army to battle the enemy) nor did he draw them closer to God.
In the end, the journey from the Era of Judges to the Era of Kings lasted for over 350 years. And that extended time period can be explained quite simply. The people were not ready to unite as one nation and to accept one leader. It was this disunity that delayed the arrival of a national leader and, consequently, the construction of the Beit Hamikdash.
The lesson taught to us by Sefer Shoftim must not be ignored. It is a lesson that pertains to each and every era of Jewish history. Only a united nation can be a strong nation. Only a united nation can receive all of the brachot that Hashem promises. Only a united nation can bring the ultimate mortal king, Melech HaMashiach, who will bring us all closer to each other and closer to Hashem.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.