For the past two summers, TABC ran a week long Tanach Kollel where a Sefer of Tanach was studied for three hours each day. This past year, more than twenty young men from a wide variety of Yeshiva High Schools gathered to learn Sefer Shofetim in this wonderful program (this summer the TABC Tanach Kollel shall study Ezra and Nechemia from June 20- June 24, please visit www.tabc.org for more information). In this essay we shall share some thoughts that we developed in the Tanach Kollel about Shimshon. This essay is also based on Dr. Yisrael Rozenson’s work entitled Sh’fot Hashofetim, a Shiur delivered by Rav Jack Bieler on the topic of Shimshon and my Shiur in Sefer Shofetim that I conducted after the Sunday morning Minyan when I served as rabbi at the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.
A Problematic Character and Story
The Shimshon story appears problematic on three levels. First is that his behavior with Nochri women appears to be outrageously inappropriate. It is especially problematic for someone who is described twice (15:20 and 16:31; all Tanach references in this essay refer to Sefer Shofetim unless otherwise indicated) as one who served as a Shofet of Am Yisrael for twenty years. Second, the story appears to have a mythical character (in regard to the power of Shimshon’s hair), which is entirely uncharacteristic of Tanach. Third is that the Navi states (14:4) that Hashem subtly arranged for Shimshon to marry a Plishti woman. Why would Hashem orchestrate such negative behavior? Moreover, it seems that Shimshon lost his free will in this matter. Accordingly, why did Hashem lead Shimshon on a path leading to such a horrific end?
One might be tempted to claim that Shimshon represents the low point of Sefer Shofetim and to view his heroics in fighting the Plishtim as mere personal revenge. However, we shall follow the path advocated by Rav Kook (see Igrot Re’iyah 555) that one should engage in Limud Zechut, seeking ways to defend rather than criticize others (see Avot 1:6). Indeed, the Rishonim adopt this approach in regard to Shimshon (see Rambam Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah 13:14, Radak to Shofetim 13:4 and Ralbag to Shofetim 13:3). They defend Shimshon yet they do not completely excuse his failings. In this essay we seek to delve into the story and character of Shimshon in order to understand this noble, yet somewhat flawed and tragic individual from whom we can learn so much.
The Positives of Shimshon
The Tanach and Chazal (Sotah 9b) do not deny Shimshon’s negative behavior. The tragic end of his life – his blindness (16:21), being robbed of his dignity (16:25) and his violent death (16:30)– all indicate Divine disapproval of some of his actions. A dominant theme of Tanach (emphasized by Chazal specifically in connection with Shimshon) is that Hashem operates this world based on the Midah Kineged Midah principle; in other words, “you reap what you sow.” Nonetheless, we can identify many positive aspects of Shimshon’s life.
Most obvious is Shimshon’s apparent full observance of the laws of Nezirut that was imposed on him (except once when he was under severe psychological pressure). Furthermore, Shimshon’s fundamentally positive nature is reflected in the story (15:9-13) where the tribe of Yehudah extradites Shimshon to the Plishtim upon the latter’s command. Shimshon could have harmed the leaders of Yehudah when they came to extradite him to the Plishtim (perhaps he even enjoyed the Halachic right to do so, see Sanhedrin 82a, Mishneh Lamelech to Hilchot Rotzei’ach 1:15 and Afikei Yam 2:40). Nevertheless, Shimshon chooses not to harm the leaders of Yehudah and saves his heroics for when he is in the hands of the Plishti authorities. Indeed, civil war was tragically not taboo during the period of the Shofetim (Sefer Shofetim records two civil wars occurring during this era).
This clearly proves that Shimshon was motivated by nationalistic concerns for Am Yisrael and not merely by personal revenge. In fact, Shimshon never complains to Hashem or to anyone else that he never received the support of his family (as did Gidon in his fight against the Midyanim) or any other member of Am Yisrael. Other explicit positive behaviors of Shimshon are his two Tefillot that the Navi records that serve as an example of reaching out to Hashem in times of distress. Finally, we noted that the Navi writes that Hashem wanted Shimshon to marry a Nochri woman, which seemingly indicates Hashem’s approval of Shimshon’s actions.
There is also a subtle indication in the Navi of its ambivalent attitude towards Shimshon. Dr. Rozenson asserts that in Sefer Shofetim the leaders may be evaluated in terms of the length of their tenure. The most positive Shofetim, such as Devorah (5:31), Otniel Ben Kenaz (3:12) and Gidon (8:28) ruled for forty years. Ehud ben Geira’s actions resulted in eighty years of stability (3:30), which might be interpreted as forty years under Ehud leadership and forty years under the leadership of Shamgar ben Anat (see Da’at Mikra to Shofetim 3:31).
By contrast, the most negative leader in Sefer Shofetim, Avimelech, rules for only three years (9:22). Yiftach, whom Chazal (Rosh Hashanah 25b) imply is the least worthy of the Shofetim, ruled only six years (12:7). Dr. Rozenson writes that this implies that Yiftach was more worthy than Avimelech (who was not even a legitimate Shofet; see Da’at Mikra to 9:22) but far less worthy than Gidon or Otniel ben Kenaz. Accordingly, the fact that the Navi twice states that Shimshon served as a Shofet for twenty years might reflect the Navi’s ambivalent attitude towards Shimshon. He is more worthy than Yiftach but less worthy than Devorah or Ehud ben Geira.
We should also note that Shimshon fits into the pattern of the unconventional leaders of Sefer Shofetim. Ehud is left-handed (3:15), Gidon stemmed from a family that did not enjoy a prominent stature (6:15), Devorah was a woman leader and Yiftach appears to be of questionable lineage (11:1). The Navi might be seeking to teach us that Hashem has many means in which to save us and that Divine deliverance can come from unexpected sources (see Da’at Mikra to Shofetim pp. 135-137).
Shimshon did not choose his role as a leader of Am Yisrael. Dr. Rozenson argues that the role had to be forced upon him because no leader willingly emerged from Am Yisrael to save them from the enemy, as had happened in the earlier chapters in Sefer Shofetim. The reason for this is that the Plishtim ruled us for forty years, far longer than any other subjugator in Sefer Shofetim.
The number forty in Tanach (especially in Sefer Shofetim) represents transformation, such as the case of the Mabul, the Dor HaMidbar, and the Teshuvah of the people in Nineveh in the time of Yonah. The number forty has similar significance in the Torah She’be’al Peh (Chazal state that grape juice is transformed to wine in forty days, a fetus has a “human appearance” forty days after conception and the minimum amount of water in a Mikveh is forty Se’ah). Am Yisrael was psychologically transformed during these forty years to accept Plishti rule and to avoid any resistance to them. This attitude is clearly expressed by the leaders of Yehudah when they criticize Shimshon for his aggressive acts against the Plishtim (15:11). Thus, Hashem had to force an unusual leader onto a docile and submissive Am Yisrael.
The Malach told Shimshon’s mother that Shimshon would begin the delivery of Am Yisrael from the Plishtim (13:5). Accordingly, Shimshon’s actions might have inspired Am Yisrael to join him and fight the Plishtim (in general, when studying Tanach one should often ask “what should have happened” and compare with what actually did occur). Once he demonstrated that it was possible to resist the Plishtim, Am Yisrael should have joined him. Shimshon could have led Am Yisrael in full-fledged battle, similar to Ehud ben Geira and Gidon. Tragically, though, this did not happen.
Shimshon in this way parallels Moshe Rabbeinu, whose actions can be interpreted (see Rav Moshe Lichtenstein’s Tzir VaTzon) as seeking to motivate Am Yisrael to resist the Egyptians by setting an example in his killing of one Egyptian oppressor (Shemot 2:12). Unfortunately, Am Yisrael rejected this action of Moshe Rabbeinu and he therefore withdrew from Am Yisrael for many years. Shimshon’s actions in chapter 16 might be understood in a similar manner as we explained earlier.
The Ralbag (ad. loc.) explains that Hashem commanded Shimshon to refrain from wine and haircutting (13:4-5) as a counterbalance to his extraordinary power. It seems that the greater the prowess, power, or privileges that Hashem gives someone, the more restrictions he is given, in order that he use that prowess in an appropriate manner. This might explain why males are given more commandments than women, why Kohanim have more restrictions than other Jews and why the Melech has unique restrictions and obligations (Devarim 17:16-20). Thus, Hashem gave Shimshon the tools to be able to manage his unusual strength. However, Shimshon was not able to fully exercise self-restraint for a variety of reasons, as we shall explain later.
The Radak (ad. loc.) explains that Shimshon engaged in guerilla warfare to avoid endangering Am Yisrael. It seems that Shimshon knew that Am Yisrael might not be willing to resist the Plishtim. He thus engaged in actions that the Plishtim would interpret as Shimshon’s personal revenge and subsequently not harm Am Yisrael. Shimshon’s noble intentions are evident from his words to the leaders of Yehudah, 15:11. They are also evidenced by the fact that when he withdrew from the Plishtim after the fox field burning incident he resided in an uninhabited section of Yehudah (15:8), so as not to endanger the inhabitants of a town that might be providing shelter to Shimshon.
Accordingly, Shimshon may be described as engaging in what Chazal (Nazir 23b) call an Aveirah Lishmah (engaging in sinful activity for a noble reason). This is not the first time in Sefer Shofetim that someone engages in an Aveirah Lishmah, as Yael engaged in such behavior with Sisera (note the allusion to Yael in 16:14). In fact, this idea seems to be implicit in Shimshon’s riddle (14:14) when he says during the celebration of his first marriage to a Plishti woman “Mei’az Yatza Matok” (something sweet emerges from something fierce; similarly, Shimshon wished the rescue of Am Yisrael to emerge from his sinful marriage).
Shimshon exercised his free will in these actions, even though Hashem wanted the marriage with the Plishti woman to occur (14:4). This appears to be an example of the Tanach phenomenon referred to by some (see the introduction Da’at Mikra commentary to Megillat Esther) as “dual causality.” A classic example of this phenomenon was the brothers’ exercising their free will in their choice to cast Yosef into a pit, even though Hashem wanted Yosef to go to Egypt (Breishit 45:7 and 50:20). Similarly, Hashem’s wanting Shimshon to marry the Plishti woman did not eliminate Shimshon’s free will.
Next week we shall continue with an explanation of Shimshon’s failure.