Our haftarah this week relates the story of the predicted (and eventually actualized) birth of Shimshon HaGibor who, his parents are told, would begin the process of weakening the Philistine hold upon the nation. Our rabbis chose this story of the only nazir we find in Tanach, since all the laws of nezirut are found in this week’s parsha.
Sefer Shoftim, from which this haftarah is taken, is a record of the events that transpired over a span of 350 years, between the passing of Yehoshua and the rise of Shmuel HaNavi. But, as I have often pointed out, the purpose of any book in Tanach is not to relate history but to teach a prophetic message to the future generations. A close reading of the sefer will reflect a slow deterioration in the behavior of Israel and their commitment to Hashem and His Torah. Throughout this time period, Israel falls into a dangerous cycle of sin—punishment—repentance—redemption…..sin, never fully learning from their lapses in observance of the mitzvot. In fact, we do not read of any festival or sacrifice being offered in the Mishkan in Shilo throughout the entire Book of Judges!
The story of Shimshon, besides the battles and successes he had, is a story of opportunity lost.
As the haftarah relates, the birth of Shimshon could have ushered in a new era of strength and independence for the Israelites. The powerful Shimshon was to be the leader who would start breaking the bonds of Philistine oppression. He would be a military leader who could lead the Israelite army against the Plishtim and yet also be a nazir, one who would live a more ascetic life, dedicated to spiritual pursuits. The promise of a spiritual, God-inspired personality who would also be capable of defeating Israel’s enemies and bring salvation to Israel and relief from the oppressive hold of the Plishtim was a promise not realized since the days of Yehoshua.
Nor was it through Shimshon.
Samson lives a rather hedonistic life, marrying a Philistine woman and eventually seduced and handed over to his death by another Philistine woman. He is a warrior but one who never organized or led an Israelite army into battle, a hero who was regarded by his own nation as a threat to their security, a leader who was handed over to the enemy by his own countrymen. In the end, he dies a defeated man, blinded by his enemy—a man who chooses to die with the enemy.
The fault, however, was not Shimshon’s alone. The people, who knew of the prophecy given to his parents, never accepted him or chose to follow him. The nation who suffered so under the rule of the Plishtim never turn to Samson for help. The population who needed his support never supported him.
The story of Shimshon is one of lost opportunity. But it is also a story that underscores the need for people to band together and fight off the common enemy. Victory and defeat are not defined by leaders alone but by the ability to stand behind a leader as one people, as one nation.
And the truth of these ancient lessons have stood the test of time until this very day.
By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.