Bibi, Rebbe, and Israel’s Biblical Politics

This past Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu was unseated from Israel’s premiership after twelve continuous years in that role. (Together with his earlier stint as prime minister in the 90’s, Netanyahu was Israel’s longest-serving leader.) The fact that this happened particularly this week is not coincidental. As Torah-observant Jews, we firmly believe that the Torah informs each week and each day of our lives, and the events of the world around us. The weekly parasha and Haftarah are not just repetitive stories, and the dates of Biblical events are not just ancient history, they affect the present reality. With that said, it is incredible to note that this week’s Haftarah tells us about Yiftach, the ninth Judge of Israel. In the official count, Netanyahu is Israel’s ninth prime minister. While this may seem insignificant at first glance, there is actual a profound connection there.

Seven years ago, I first presented an idea about the modern prime ministers of Israel and the ancient Biblical shoftim, “Judges”. That piece was later included as the final essay in Garments of Light (first published in 2017), and I will excerpt here the passage that is especially relevant for the present discussion:

Joshua was the first of the so-called “Judges”, the Shoftim that led Israel over the period of nearly five centuries before Israel had a king… Each was a saviour in their generation, fighting off Israel’s enemies and bringing peace to the Holy Land. Each had the opportunity to reclaim Jerusalem and build the Holy Temple upon it, but ultimately failed. We read in Joshua 13:1 how God reprimands Joshua for growing old without completing his task, while the commentaries on Genesis 49:18 tell us how downtrodden Jacob was to prophetically foresee Samson fail to bring about the redemption.

The period of Judges would come to an end, and soon David would ascend the throne. It was he who acquired the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and brought the Ark of the Covenant there. David besought God to allow him to build the Temple, but God denied the request. However, he promised David that his dynasty would be everlasting, and that he would be the progenitor of the Messiah, who would complete David’s divine task.

It took a long and difficult, lawless period of Judges (where each person falsely did “what was right in their own eyes”, as we are told in Judges 17:6 and 21:25), full of warfare and oppression before the first footsteps of the Final Redemption were laid. This strongly resembles our present situation—“There is nothing new under the sun,” said King Solomon—and it appears we are reliving the past in our modern day.

In 1948, a fully independent Jewish state in the Holy Land was finally re-established, under quite miraculous circumstances. Jews were returning en masse to their ancestral home, on a scale unseen since the time of Joshua. There was a chance to reclaim all of the ancient borders and even (though it would be astronomically difficult) rebuild the Temple. An even better opportunity presented itself in 1967, after the phenomenal Six-Day War. Yet time and again Israel failed to fulfil its Biblical mission. Alas, we must wait for Mashiach, the scion of David’s dynasty, to get the job done. The feeling among many Jews today is probably similar to that of the Jews in the period of Judges. And the similarities don’t end there.

The Israelite leaders in the period of Judges did some great things, but ultimately failed to realize their main task. A careful reading of the Book of Judges reveals that not all of the Judges were divinely appointed, and some weren’t even righteous! For the most part, the Judges were military leaders selected by the people. The Judge Avimelech was a powerful warrior, but such a wicked man that he was severely punished by God. Nonetheless, he is counted among the Judges because he was elected by the people. Sound familiar?

The situation in Israel today is much the same, with the people electing their leader, the prime minister, who is often a military hero and sometimes not so righteous. The parallels between the ancient Judges and the modern prime ministers of Israel are striking:

The fifth Judge was Deborah, the only female; the fifth prime minister was Golda Meir, also the only female. Prior to Deborah was Shamgar, who had such a brief stint that he is not included in the chronological record. Likewise, before Golda Meir was Yigal Allon, who served for just 19 days and is typically excluded from the list of official prime ministers. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about the Judges to make more detailed comparisons. Many are described in only one or two verses, and some just by name. (Did Prime Minister Ehud Barak appreciate the significance of his name, considering both Ehud and Barak were two central figures in the Book of Judges?)

What we do know is that there were a total of fifteen Judges who reigned from the time the Jews returned to Israel after their calamity in Egypt. Three thousand years later, the Jews once again return to Israel after the Holocaust, and thus far there have been thirteen prime ministers. The era of Judges concluded with the start of the monarchy and the subsequent construction of the Temple. It took fifteen judges to get there. Will it take fifteen prime ministers to do it again?

Based on this hypothesis, the prime ministers of Israel would correspond to the ancient Judges in the following way:

Netanyahu corresponds to Yiftach, and the parallels between the two leaders are striking. Yiftach was a military hero (גִּבּ֣וֹר חַ֔יִל) that became a powerful leader of Israel, keeping the nation’s borders secure. As our Haftarah recounts, he dwelt outside of the Holy Land for a time, before returning to Israel at a difficult period to take charge. He gives an eloquent speech reminding people about the true history of the Land, before striking down Israel’s enemies. Netanyahu, too, is a military hero who spent much of his earlier years (and the first part of his political career) in the United States, before returning to Israel. He is known for his eloquent speeches, especially his history lessons at the UN. And he has, of course, steered Israel through numerous wars to keep its borders secure.

While the Haftarah ends on a positive note, the story continues in the Tanakh. Yiftach goes on to, unfortunately, draw Israel into a civil war in which 42,000 Ephraimites end up being killed. More infamously, Yiftach makes a faulty vow that puts his daughter in a life-or-death situation. There are differing opinions as to what ended up happening with Yiftach’s daughter, whether she was really killed or ended up in seclusion for life. (Interestingly, Netanyahu’s own daughter is, unlike her father, a ba’alat teshuva and lives in Mea Shearim!) Whatever the case, Yiftach should have had his faulty vow annulled by paying a visit to Pinchas, the kohen gadol. However, his ego was so big he did not want to humble himself before the priest. He had become too unyielding and power-hungry. The Sages describe his punishment in grotesque terms that are best not to restate (see Beresheet Rabbah 60:3). The story of the great hero Yiftach ends with a most tragic conclusion.

The life of Yiftach may serve as a valuable lesson for Netanyahu. Will Netanyahu go down as one of Israel’s great modern-day “Judges”, or will he end up a tragic hero? While that remains to be seen, there are two other important bits of history that may shed some light on this. Netanyahu was unseated this past Sunday, the third of Tamuz. On this day in Jewish history, two critical events took place, one modern and one ancient: the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and the miraculous stopping of the sun and moon by the first shofet, Joshua.

Bibi and the Rebbe

During the 1982 Lebanon War, Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States and made a name for himself speaking eloquently on behalf of Israel. Two years later, he was made Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. That same year, he was invited to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe and join him for Simchat Torah at 770. Bibi was moved by the experience, and would later recall how the Rebbe told him: “You are going to a place of deep darkness and lies, and if you will light one candle of truth, you will dispel the darkness.” The two went on to have a fairly regular correspondence.

In 1988, Bibi decided to go back to Israel for a seat in the Knesset. It has been reported that the Rebbe actually advised Bibi not to do so, and to stay as an ambassador where he would continue to be a most effective spokesperson on behalf of Israel. Netanyahu had different ambitions, though he did go to the Rebbe one last time before he left, in a fateful encounter captured on video:

The Rebbe cautioned Bibi about entering Knesset and going up against 119 others. He told him not to be intimidated, and to remember that “God is on this side”. He didn’t say that God was on his side, but that God was on this side, the side of Torah and holiness, not inside the Knesset. He didn’t want Bibi to succumb to the trappings of politics and become another crooked politician. A few years later, Bibi returned for another meeting with the Rebbe, who was less jovial this time around, and implied that Bibi was not doing enough:

There is no doubt that Bibi went on to do some great things for Israel, some of which may have been inspired by the Rebbe. When his term ended this past Sunday, Bibi actually tweeted an image of himself with the Rebbe, and recalled the Rebbe’s advice from the 1988 encounter:

Aside from rightfully commemorating the Rebbe’s yahrzeit, the tweet had a political message, too, implying that God was on Bibi’s side and suggesting that he would continue to battle the other 119 members of the ungodly Knesset. Of course, as we have seen, the Rebbe never said specifically that God was on Bibi’s side. The Rebbe was extremely careful with his choice of words; if he had wanted to say that God was on Bibi’s side, he would have.

And that brings us to the other major event of the third of Tamuz, as described in the tenth chapter of Sefer Yehoshua. This event is perhaps the most spectacular in the entire Tanakh, and nearly on par with the Exodus. It begins by stating that the Canaanite king of Jerusalem had heard of the lightning Israelite invasion of the Holy Land, and made an alliance with four other local kings to stop Joshua’s advance.

The showdown took place at Givon. God spoke to Joshua prophetically and told him: “Do not be afraid of them, for I will deliver them into your hands; not one of them shall withstand you.” (Joshua 10:8) As the battle raged, God shot down meteorites and hailstones from the sky—resembling the seventh plague in Egypt—to destroy the Canaanites, and “more perished from the hailstones than were killed by the Israelite weapons.” The sun was starting to set, but the battle was still not won, so “Joshua addressed God and said in the presence of the Israelites: ‘Stand still, sun, at Givon; moon, in the Valley of Ayalon!’ And the sun stood still and the moon halted, while a nation wreaked judgment on its foes…” (Joshua 10:12-13)

‘Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon’ by John Martin

The allied Canaanite forces were soundly defeated, their kings executed. Joshua led the Israelite army to a series of swift victories, conquering the entire land “from Kadesh-barnea to Gaza, all the land of Goshen, and up to Givon. All those kings and their lands were conquered by Joshua at a single stroke, for Hashem, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” (Joshua 10:41-42) The third of Tamuz was among the greatest and most miraculous days in Israel’s entire history. It brought about a seismic shift in the Holy Land: in short, the “Land of Canaan” became the Land of Israel.

It remains to be seen whether this past third of Tamuz will also go down in history as one of the great seismic shifts in the Holy Land. If nothing else, for the first time ever the prime minister of Israel wears a kippah, and tweets to the whole world an image of himself in tallit and tefillin on the morning of his ascendency. This development in itself is miraculous, considering the deeply secular, anti-religious character of the State of Israel in its early years.

It remains to be seen what kind of prime minister Bennett will be, but if our hypothesis above is any indication, he may indeed have the potential of a Samson. Our Sages tell us that Samson was no Hercules; while metaphorically described with great strength, physically-speaking he was apparently small and unassuming (Sotah 10a says he was “lame in both legs”). It was God’s spirit alone that filled him with strength. Samson falsely believed his strength was in his Nazirite hair, and felt powerless when he was shaved bald. Of course, he finally realized that strength comes only from Above, and in his last act begged God to restore the power of his small, unassuming, hairless Judge, to allow him to destroy the Philistine tyrants in Gaza. Samson, too, made grave errors and ended up a tragic hero. Small, unassuming, hairless Bennett doesn’t have to be. For Israel’s new prime minister, the message is quite clear, and he need only remember at all times which side God is on, and where strength and power truly come from.