Leaders We Deserve
Haftarah Naso, Judges 13:2–25
Rabbi Paul L. Saal, Congregation Shuvah Yisrael, West Hartford, CT
I certainly do not want to retell the story of Samson in detail. You know it. You’ve heard it before. You may have even seen or heard any number of dramatizations. Of course, there is the famous 1949 Cecil B. DeMille film starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr (that’s Hedy not Headly!). This version was nominated for five Academy Awards and won two (probably for “most over-acted”). Subsequent versions abound (1984, 1996, and yet another version expected this year). George Frideric Handel, Newburgh Hamilton, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Ferdinand Lemaire all compose operas and librettos themed around this story. Most bizarre is the 1963 Italian film mash-up Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, where Samson is helped by the Greek/Italian mythological characters fighting the Phoenicians (Phoenicians, Philistines, what’s the diff?). https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=gxni6VZd4II
So what’s the point? It is almost impossible to have lived in Western society without having encountered this story, even if it comes to us with diverse embellishments. What differs is how we perceive and think of the person of Samson, and how this biblical star informs our own biblical understandings. Is Samson a hero or a scoundrel? Is he a tragic figure or a prototype of redemption? Does he truly repent at the end or does he simply continue in his lifelong patterns of seeking vengeance, tearing down the temple of Dagon upon himself along with the Philistines when his own life came to the proverbial end of the road?
My own early bromance with Samson began when I purchased a vinyl 33rpm biblical narration done by actor Leif Erickson in 1968 at the Temple Emanuel book sale in Mt. Vernon, New York. The front side story was the battle of Jericho, and on the flip side was the Samson story. As a 10-year-old boy I was only mildly interested in Joshua and Jericho—but Samson—wow! Samson was a super hero, the miracle birth and Nazarite vow were his origin story, and the haircut was his kryptonite.
What most caught my interest was the putting out of his eyes with a hot poker. This recording had a long, anguished scream which had a hypnotic effect on my young psyche. I listened to it over and over until I created a groove in the vinyl that only caused the recording to get stuck on the horrific screams longer. I could not understand at the time what my attraction was to this violent comeuppance, and I am sure my parents were a little disturbed by my fascination. In retrospect I think it was the first time I had ever come face to face with the reality that even the best among us have consequences for our actions. Samson was not like the comic characters I loved back then (and now!) who may have gotten knocked around, but I knew were going to triumph in the end. Samson was not a superman, he was everyman, and would get called on the carpet for bad action and wasted opportunity.
To say that Samson was born to privilege would be an understatement. An angel of Hashem literally came to the wife of Manoah to tell her that her child was special in the womb and would be until his death. But “with great power comes great responsibility” (ughh!). His mother was told that he would be a Nazarite and therefore would need to avoid strong drink and would not cut his hair. The hair was not his superpower as I had imagined, it was a public sign and display of his covenant responsibility. The book of Ruth begins with the words “bimei sh’fot hashoftim, in the days when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). This phrase is often translated when the judges ruled or governed. But the Hebrew for both judge and judged has the same root as the word mishpatim or ordinances. In other words, the judges were governors who governed in accordance with the righteous standards of Hashem, those given by the hand of Moses. Samson was given his power and status to rule Israel in accord with Hashem’s highest values, not to enrich himself or satisfy his every desire.
Throughout the narrative of Samson’s life (Judges 13:1–16:31) we get the picture of a young man not fully prepared for public service. He was continually motivated by a kind of 1500 BCE celebrity, and often ignored the instruction that his mother was given when he was still pre-natal. He pursued foreign women, consumed the fruit of the vine, acted violently for the sake of vengeance and financial gain. He was a bully and a braggart, and he mocked and intimidated and antagonized others. He rarely considered the needs of the people of the tribe of Dan who he was meant to govern, often bringing hardship upon them. When he eventually divulged the source of his great strength to the enigmatic Delilah, it is not his hair that is revealed as the true source of his power, rather it is the covenant with the Holy One of Israel, of which his un-sheared coif is emblematic.
It is easy to look at Samson’s successes and his failures from afar. He was selfish, but he eventually made it right. Or when backed into a corner he eventually fulfilled the purposes for which he was called. But the truth is that Samson’s story is all of Israel’s. We are told in Judges 17:6 that “in those days Israel had no king and everyman did what was right in his own eyes.” Perhaps the reference to king is the yet anointed line of David, but I think it more likely is an allusion to the One who anoints. Israel failed to acknowledge the true source of governance and protection. Samson was merely a reflection of his time and a symptom of the illness that had befallen God’s people. Without the God of Israel, they could not be the people of Israel; they were merely a loose affiliation of tribal states. Without Hashem’s highest standards (mitzvot and mishpatim), they could not possess the land of promise; they merely resided tentatively and insecurely in that land. Samson was not the source of Israel’s failure, he was precisely the leader they deserved.
When Samson pulled down the Temple of Dagon he did not solve the Philistine problem. He did, though, acknowledge the Samson problem. Although physically blind he could finally see. His sight became Hashem’s vision, and he finally had a lasting victory. In that moment he became enshrined in the legacy of Israel, and forever imprinted in the imagination of the world. He was buried among his tribe and considered a leader in Israel. He is ranked among the heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11:32) even though he fails to live up to his great gifts. He is a tragic example of man of enormous potential who lacked stability of character. Every 10-year-old child can know once and for all that it is not brute strength or oppressive power that accomplishes the will of Hashem, but rather his strength displayed through our vulnerability. If we will allow ourselves to be vulnerable, perhaps then we will truly get the leaders we deserve.