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Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The sages have a problem. Samson, the classic bad boy, is on a Divine mission. How can they reconcile his bad behavior with his holy work?

Even before he is conceived the Tanakh informs us that Samson will “be the first to deliver Israel from the Philistines.” (Judges 13:5) Throughout his life he receives guidance from God. As a youth “the spirit of the Lord began to move him in the camp of Dan.” (Judges 13:25) When he goes down to Timneh and sees a certain Philistine woman, who he asks his father to get for him as a wife, that too comes from God, as we are told, “His father and mother did not realize that this was the Lord’s doing.” (Judges 14:4) Even later in his career, after he slaughters 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, Samson calls upon God to give him water, and God responds. (Judges 15:19) For 20 years Samson served as a judge, and it seems he had clear a divine endorsement.

The chronicles of Samson are recorded in Judges 13-16. They begin with a lovely, mystical oracle – an angel coming to tell Manoach and his wife that they will finally bear a child, although all earlier attempts failed. But very quickly we see Samson emerge as the proverbial wild child. Among his exploits:

  • He takes a Philistine wife, as a pretext for attacking the Philistines;
  • He tears a lion to pieces;
  • He takes several other Philistine women;
  • He eats the honey that bees have collected directly from the corpse of the lion;
  • He kills thirty men in Ashkelon;
  • He takes 300 foxes, ties their tails together and sets themon fire, sending the out to destroy the surrounding fields and vineyards;
  • and more.

Yes, his task is to redeem the Israelites from the Philistines, but his methods are particularly brutal. He is just gross in so many ways.

While the Tanakh endorses Samson, the Mishnah condemns him. Mishnah 1:7 teaches that God matches one’s behavior with appropriate response: “With whatever measure one treats others, so it is done to him.” The following mishnah (1:8) offers positive and negative examples of this principle, with Samson being the first negative example. “Samson followed the desire of his eyes, so the Philistines put out his eyes.”

What is a sage to do? The Tanakh cannot be wrong – it repeatedly says that God endorses Samson’s behavior. The Mishnah cannot be wrong, and it unequivocally condemns him.

The gemara to this mishnah, Sotah 1:8, found on 9b, tries to thread a very narrow needle. They cannot condemn what the Tanakh endorses, but they are also unwilling to set Samson up as an exemplar. So they go through a careful, extended, confusing at times, analysis of Samson’s behavior. Where they can they offer justification of Samson’s behavior. Where they can they illustrate where he strays. Because the passage is long, I offer only two brief examples.

In response to the assertion that even in pursuing the Philistine women he is doing the will of God, the sages respond, “When he went, he went after his own arbitrary will [not the will of God],” and so he was liable to a punishment. If only he had not pursued the Philistine women with such passion…. But let’s not go down that objectionable path.

On the other side of the coin Rabbi Isaac, a member of the house of Rabbi Ammi, explains the closing words of the oracle that announce Samson’s birth, “And the spirit of the Lord began to move him in the camp of Dan,” (Judges 13: 25). He teaches that the Presence of God was striking like a bell before him.” (Sotah 9b)

And so it goes. Where they must justify his behavior, they do; where they can condemn him, they do.

Here is the problem. Samson is charged from conception with saving the Jews from the oppression of the Philistines, and he succeeds. By any measure that is a good thing. At the same time, Samson behaves horribly. His actions are abominable, beyond what any ethical teacher can endorse. How can those two realities exist side by side?

I am reminded of Oskar Schindler. He was, according to all accounts, a miserable person most of his life. But for one brief and crucial period of his life he was a tzadik among tzadikim. No one looking at the record of his life pre-war could have predicted that he would act to save innocent Jews as he did. No one assessing him during the war would have bet that he would so totally undermine the system that was supporting him. But he did! So with one hand we praise him and with one hand we don’t.

This is again a reminder that we humans are complicated creatures. The Mishnah tries to present a one-dimensional portrait of Samson, the bad boy who lusts after what his eyes see and is done in by his passions. But the sages tasked with explaining this teaching cannot ignore Samson’s divinely endorsed mission. He is deeply flawed even while he accomplishes significant good.

We prefer our heroes unblemished. It is best if their motivation is clear, their hearts pure, and their actions beyond reproach. Such a person rarely ever appears in our world – perhaps not in any world. Often, they are generally good people with whom we can identify. But sometimes we are forced to admit that they are, like Samson, tzadikim behaving badly.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

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