The Haftorah for Parshat Chukat comes from Sefer Shoftim (Judges 11) and relays an episode involving a man by the name of Yiftach (Jephtah) who was one of the Judges of Israel. The Haftorah begins by telling us (11:1) “Yiftach was a mighty warrior and the son of a harlot. “The Haftorah then informs us that Yiftach’s father had other sons with his “official” wife and, when those sons got older, they drove Yiftach out of the house, and out of the city of Gilad, so that he would not inherit anything. A year later, Ammon waged war upon the Jews and the leaders of Gilad went to Yiftach and begged him to help them fight. Shocked to see them, Yiftach said (11:7): “Are you not the ones who drove me out of my father’s house? Why are you coming to me now that you are in trouble?” In the end, Yiftach makes a deal with the elders that if he saves them from Ammon, he will become leader of the city of Gilad.
The first thing Yiftach does with regard to Ammon is to call upon them to surrender peaceably. He sends messengers to the King asking him why he was waging war against the Jews in the first place. The King sends word back saying that during their forty-year sojourn in the desert, the Jews defeated Sichon, the King of Amori and took all his lands. According to the King of Ammon, some of those lands actually belonged to Ammon and he was thus trying to retrieve them from the Jews. Yiftach tries to explain that the Jews originally asked to be allowed to pass through the land of Amori and instead, they were attacked by the Amorites. The Jews fought and won the Amori and therefore, the lands rightfully belonged to them. The King of Ammon refuses to listen to Yiftach’s explanation so Yiftach is forced to go to war with Ammon. Before he does, Yiftach makes the following vow (11:30): “If Hashem gives Ammon completely into my hands, whatever comes out first from my house when I return, shall belong to G-d and I will offer it as an elevation offering”.
Yiftach successfully defeats Ammon and becames the ninth Judge of the Jews,. He rules for a total of six years.
Ironically, the last part of this episode and the event that Yiftach is most known for, is not included in this week’s Haftorah. When Yiftach returns home, the first thing to come out of his house, is his daughter, who congratulates him on his victory. This creates an obvious problem for Yiftach, because he vowed to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. There is a debate among the Rabbis as to what Yiftach actually did. Ramban (Nachmanides) says that he actually offered her as a human sacrifice. However, Radak (R. Dovid Kimchi), Eben Ezra and others say that he “dedicated” her to Hashem by making her live a life of seclusion, never marrying or interacting socially with anyone.
There are various ways to connect this Haftorah to Parshat Chukat. The easiest way would be to note that the original war with Amori (which was the basis for Ammon’s attack on the Jews in the Haftorah) takes place in Parshat Chukat (21:21-30).
Another way to form a connection would be to note that the first topic in Parshat Chukat is the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) sacrifice which involved burning a red cow to ashes and sprinkling those ashes on a ritually-impure person. As a result of that sprinkling, the person would become pure again. Ironically, the pure Kohain (priest) involved in doing this sacrifice becomes impure as a result. The Midrash (Oral Tradition) says “Who can produce purity from impurity? Only Hashem.” In other words, the fact that the Parah Adumah which is inherently impure can make someone pure is something that only Hashem can do. The Midrash lists other examples of Hashem making something pure come from an impure source. One example is Avraham, the man who first came to believe in Hashem. Avraham was an extremely pure person despite the fact that he came from a father, Terach, who was impure because he made and worshipped idols. Another example of something pure coming from an impure source, is found in the Gemarra (Nidah 9a) where it mentions that mother’s milk (which is pure) comes from the blood, which is forbidden by the Torah for consumption. Along these lines, in the Haftorah we see that Yiftach, who became the savior and leader of the Jews came from an “impure” source, namely a harlot. As to why Hashem makes things happen this way, the Rabbis say it is for the purpose of testing our belief in Him.
One could even connect the parsha and Haftorah with the classic lesson of how careful we must be with our speech since it can sometimes be quite damaging to ourselves and others. As an example, Yiftach’s vow ends up harming himself and his daughter (according to either opinion regarding what he did with her). In Parshat Chukat, the Jews misuse their speech by complaining on two separate occasions regarding not having water and bread (20:1-6, 21:4-7). The second complaining results in death for many of them. Even Moshe and Aaron fail to use speech correctly in the parsha, as they are commanded to speak to a rock but instead they hit it (20:7-12). This failure to correctly use their speech also results in their death as Hashem decrees that they will die before the Jews enter Eretz Yisrael.
But how could a father sacrifice his daughter or force her to live a life of seclusion? This is especially perplexing given that the Yalkut Shimoni (Oral Tradition) says that Yiftach’s daughter begged him not to fulfill his vow. At first she said “Father, I came out to greet you with joy, would you sacrifice me for that?” When he stood firm, she began to plead with him saying “Doesn’t the Torah say that only an animal is to be sacrificed, not a human being?” But Yiftach replied “I have made a vow and must keep it.” She then said “Didn’t Yaakov make a vow to give one tenth of everything he had to Hashem and did Hashem not give him twelve children, yet he did not sacrifice any of them!” But Yiftach would not listen. Her final plea was “Let me go to a court of law, perhaps they can find a loophole to nullify your vow.” But Yiftach would not be swayed.
The Midrash goes so far as to tell us that Pinchas (the leader of the Jews at that time) could have nullified Yiftach’s vow. As to why Yiftach did not have him do it, the Midrash tells us that Yiftach said “I am the general of Israel’s army! I should not have to go to Pinchas. He should come to me!” At the same time, Pinchas felt that since he was the leader of the Jews, Yiftach should come to him. As a result of neither of them going to the other, the daughter suffered. Essentially, the problem here was one of ego. Yiftach’s ego went so far as to make him believe that by keeping his vow, he was serving Hashem. Pinchas believed that his insisting that Yiftach come to him was promoting respect for a leader of the Jews. Ironically, both Yiftach’s “service of Hashem” and Pinchas’ maintenance of honor for Hashem, resulted in Yiftach’s daughter suffering.
What is the solution to this problem of ego? According to the Midrash, had Yiftach been more diligent in Torah-study he would have known the correct law regarding sacrifices and thus his daughter would have been saved. In other words, a lack of Torah-study results in a person’s ego becoming inflated, which can lead to doing something which is not merely not a Mitzvah, but might actually be an Averah (sin).
The same is true regarding the Jews’ complaint to Moshe (20:3-5):
“Would that we had died the death of our brothers! Why did you bring us to this desert to die, us and our animals? Why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place where there is no water to drink?!”
This complaint implied a sense of ego on the Jews’ part which made them think that they knew better than Moshe, and even Hashem. Perhaps this is why the parsha begins with the Chok (statute) of Parah Adumah. Parah Adumah is the most difficult Chok because no one (except Moshe) really understands it. Despite the fact that we do not understand it, we still keep it. The point is that when it comes to serving Hashem we do not do what we think is right, rather we do what Hashem commands us to do via the Torah. And we do it whether or not we completely understand it. Only then can we be sure that we are serving Hashem correctly and as a result, no harm will come to us or anyone whom we love.