A Defense of Shimshon - Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
Last week, we discussed the basic issues that arise from the Shimshon story, the positive aspects of the character of Shimshon, and a basic understanding of Shimshon and his strategy. This week, we shall continue with a detailed discussion of how each aspect of the Shimshon story can be placed in perspective in light of our previous discussions. If you missed last week’s article, it is available on www.koltorah.org.
Explaining Shimshon’s Failure
We explained last week that Shimshon’s marrying a Plishti woman was an Aveirah Lishmah (a sin performed for the sake of heaven). However, it is vital to note that engaging in an Aveira Lishmah necessarily entails negative consequences. Hashem holds us accountable even for Aveirot performed for noble reasons (as noted at length by Rav Elchanan Samet, Iyunim Bifarshiot Hashavua 62-74). Moreover, the Radak notes (based on Sotah 9b) that Shimshon ultimately failed because his motivations were not entirely pure, as he felt an attraction for the Plishti woman (note that we have similar expectations for one who engages in Yibbum, which is the primary reason for the Ashkenazic tradition to refrain from Yibbum, see Rama Even Haezer 165:1). However, this failing of Shimshon is understandable as it would be very difficult for anyone to act in a purely Lishmah manner in such a situation. This would certainly be an incredibly difficult challenge for Shimshon, in light of the Gemara (Sukkah 52a) that states that the greater the individual the greater his Yetzer Hara (libido).
Shimshon takes a drastic turn for the worse in the beginning of Chapter 16 when he visits a Plishti prostitute in Aza (Gaza City). What motivated him to do this profoundly inappropriate act? It might be the result of Shimshon’s alienation from Am Yisrael. Am Yisrael should have responded to Shimshon’s actions by rallying behind him and fighting the Plishtim, as we noted last week. However, not only did Am Yisrael not cooperate with Shimshon, they even extradited him to the Plishtim. Moreover, Shimshon never seemed to find a home among Am Yisrael. His career began (13:25) between the towns of Tzorah and Eshte’ol (note these two towns the next time you travel between Beit Shemesh and Ben Gurion airport) and was buried between these two towns (16:31).
Accordingly, Shimshon might have felt alienated from Am Yisrael and left them for a Plishti woman. This might be seen to be similar to Moshe Rabbeinu who married a Midianite woman after his alienation from Am Yisrael (this seems to have occurred after Am Yisrael harmed him instead of helping him in his resistance to the Egyptian oppression, as explained by Rav Moshe Lichtenstein in his work Tzir VaTzon). Indeed, it is easy to feel compassion for Shimshon, since a human being cannot live alone (Bereshit 2:18 and Rashi to Bereshit 2:20-21). Moreover, Shimshon’s visiting the prostitute is a consequence of an Aveirah Lishma. Even though the sin is performed for a noble reason, it nonetheless habituates one to engage in similar Aveirot for less than noble reasons (see Eiruvin 40b and Teshuvot Sheivet Halevi 6:26).
Dr. Yisrael Rozenson explains Shimshon’s bringing the gates of Aza to Chevron as an expression of his frustration with Am Yisrael in general and Shevet Yehudah specifically. Shimshon brought the gates to the top of the Chevron mountains, the center of Yehudah’s tribal land and one of the highest locations in Eretz Yisrael, in order to make a statement. Shimshon can be understood as saying, “If you do not bring yourselves to Aza to fight the Plishtim, then I will bring Aza to you.” Alternatively, he tries to communicate to them that Aza is now conquerable since its walls have been breached.
The message is directed specifically to Yehudah because their tribe’s mission is to lead Am Yisrael in battle (see Bereshit 49:8-10 and Shofetim 1:1-2). Indeed, David HaMelech (who stems from Shevet Yehudah) who finally released us from Plishti rule, first established his rule in Chevron. Perhaps Shimshon foreshadows this role of David HaMelech. In addition, Shimshon’s ripping a lion apart (14:6) might symbolize his frustration with Yehudah’s lack of leadership (recall that Yehudah is symbolized by a lion, Bereshit 49:9).
The Delilah Debacle
The lack of response to this dramatic act seems to have driven Shimshon “over the edge.” Indeed, the Navi connects the Aza gate incident with Shimshon’s marriage to Delilah (16:4). For the first time Shimshon is described not only as finding a Plishti woman who attracts him, but even finding one that he loves. Delilah lived in Nachal Sorek, which is not one of the five Plishti centers described in the Tanach (see Shmuel 1:6:17) and, as Dr. Rozenson notes, the Tanach does not mention a specific place in Nachal Sorek where she resides (Nachal Sorek is a wadi that extends from the Jerusalem hills through the Sh’feilah, the lowlands in the general area of present day Beit Shemesh). Thus it is possible that Delilah herself was not rooted in Plishti society and thus was emotionally attractive to Shimshon, because they were both social outcasts (and according to the Rambam and Radak, Shimshon converted her).
Shimshon’s profound desperation for love and human fellowship (and not mere gratification of his Yetzer Hara) is most apparent in what may be the most pathetic scene in the entire Tanach. In 16:19, Delilah holds Shimshon on her knees while putting him to sleep and summons the barber to cut his hair. It almost seems that Shimshon subconsciously wanted to be captured, as he knew that Delilah summoned the Plishtim each time she acted on his three false explanations of his strength. Indeed, his entire marriage with Delilah was self-destructive; we should also note that a number of powerful figures in Sefer Shofetim met their end because of a woman’s action – Shimshon, Avimelech and Siserah.
The Cutting and Regrowth of Shimshon’s Hair
We noted earlier the apparent problem of the seemingly mythical nature of the Shimshon story. Why should cutting his hair dissipate Shimshon’s special strength and why would his hair’s regrowth while in the Plishti jail somewhat revive his powers (16:22)? The answer seems to be based on the aforementioned Ralbag’s explanation of the Nazirite restrictions placed on Shimshon. Hashem coupled his endowing Shimshon with special strength with the imposition of extra restrictions. Shimshon’s betrayal of Hashem’s command is the fundamental reason Hashem took away Shimshon’s special power. The cutting of Shimshon’s hair is not the fundamental reason for Shimshon’s lost powers.
Accordingly, one might interpret the regrowth of Shimshon’s hair as an expression of the Teshuvah that Shimshon engaged in while imprisoned (I admit that this interpretation is influenced by John Milton’s “Samson Agonistes”). This seems to explain why Hashem granted Shimshon’s last request. Shimshon requested the revenge for personal reasons and not for the purpose of Am Yisrael (16:28) due to his alienation from Am Yisrael.
Accordingly, we can identify two distinct periods in Shimshon’s life; his life from Chapters 13-15 on one hand and Chapter 16 on the other. In the first period, Shimshon faithfully worked for Am Yisrael in highly unconventional ways. In chapter 16 he was moved by understandable desperation to take steps that led to the horrific and tragic end of his life. This would seem to be why the Tanach mentions that Shimshom served as a Shofet for Am Yisrael twice, once at the conclusion of Chapter 15 and once at the end of Chapter 16. The Tanach seems to distinguish between these two fundamentally different periods in Shimshon’s life.
Shimshon’s heroics seem not to be performed for naught. The Tanach notes that in his death he killed more Plishtim than during his lifetime. This might refer not only to his destruction of the building of the Plishti house of Dagon but also to the inspiration that Shimshon provided for King Sha’ul and David HaMelech in overcoming the Plishtim against overwhelming odds. In his death his family bravely came into hostile Plishti territory and recovered Shimshon’s body (16:31). Perhaps this reflects the impact that Shimshon had in his death on later heroic actions of Am Yisrael. One might draw an analogy to the ghetto fighters’ desperate fight against the evil Nazis (may their evil name be blotted out), which posthumously inspired the brave soldiers of Tzahal to defeat their enemies despite the overwhelming odds. This is especially relevant for this week as we take the opportunity on Yom Haatzma’ut to thank Hashem for inspiring and directing Tzahal to perform great miracles.