Shofetim Chapter 2
This chapter begins with an “angel of Hashem” addressing and rebuking the entire Jewish people. This “angel” or messenger is identified by our Sages as Pinhas the son of Elazar. Pinhas reminded the Jews of Hashem’s great benevolence to them and of their covenantal commitment to Him. Specifically, the Jews had been expected to remove all of the idolatrous populations and altars from the land of Israel and they had failed to do so, instead allowing these pockets of Canaanites to coexist with them in peace. While this may have seemed like a wise, judicious and tolerant choice from the perspective of the war-weary nation, it was a violation of the Torah’s commandments and created a situation that would soon cause substantial spiritual and political damage to Israel. The people cried when they heard this message and brought sacrifices to Hashem, but there was no real follow-through in practice; they maintained the status quo.
The chapter proceeds to chart the decline of the spiritual stature of the Jewish people, beginning with the generation of Yehoshua and the Elders who all remained steadfast in their commitment to Hashem. After the death of Yehoshua and the rest of those who had witnessed Hashem’s miraculous acts of providence firsthand, the Jews began to fall prey to the influence of their gentile neighbors and to assimilate into the surrounding culture, going so far as to worship idolatry. As foretold in the Torah, this caused Hashem to cease providing His support for the economic, political and military endeavors of Israel. The Jews found themselves harassed, persecuted and subjugated by Canaanites who had once paid them tribute and whom they had mistakenly allowed to dwell in their midst when they first conquered the land.
This chapter is a critical one because it defines for us the fundamental “cycle” of the Book of Shofetim. Almost every narrative in the book of Shofetim follows the four-stage pattern that is introduced and detailed here. First, the Jews engage in idolatry, abandon the Torah and assimilate, and this causes them to lose their Divine protection as well as their political independence and security. Second, they return to Torah under the leadership of a Shofet/Judge(whether it is Ehud, Devorah, Gideon, etc.) , who guides them away from paganism and back to the observance of mitzvot. Third, as a result of this turnaround, they once again become worthy of Hashem’s providential care and begin to experience remarkable successes in their military campaigns, reestablishing their sovereignty and enjoying the blessings of prosperity. Finally, following the death of the Shofet who orchestrated the initial spiritual-political revolution, the Jews lose their momentum and find themselves back in the clutches of idolatrous influence, only to see the cycle start over again…Tragically, with each revolution of the cycle, the Jews sink to lower and lower depths of depravity and materialism, as the Book of Shofetim will demonstrate.
One fascinating question we can raise is why the Sages identify the anonymous “angel” at the beginning of the chapter with Pinhas. In order to explain this, we must consider the early career of Pinhas, which began during the lifetime of Moshe Rabbenu. Witnessing a Jewish prince entering his tent with a Midianite woman in a public act of immorality and disregard for the holiness of the nation of Israel, Pinhas stood up and killed the paramours in their moment of passion. He had a profound understanding of the dangers of assimilation and the need to employ strident and even aggressive tactics to prevent the erosion of the purity of the Jewish people. So it is reasonable that he would be the person to stand up and preach vigorously against the laxity of the Jews in ridding their land of the influences and encroachment of idolaters, a compromise he knew would lead to intermarriage, the dilution of Judaism and the disintegration of the Nation of Hashem. Perhaps this is why the Rabbis were convinced that the messenger described at the beginning of this chapter was none other than Pinhas.