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Child sacrifice and Shmitah

Thoughts about this week's Haftarah

Shmitah is a practice in thinking about the future and in our ability to comprehend a time beyond this year, or even beyond next year. When we practice Shmitah we think in increments of seven years, of forty nine years, of fifty. These are generational timespans, that call on us to expand our thinking into the days of our children and grandchildren.

Our week’s Torah portion is Chukat, a goody bag of a Parasha full of huge and important subjects. The Haftarah (this Shabbat’s reading from the prophets and judges) on the other hand tells us the story of the warlord Yiftach and ends with a vow he takes: “And Yiftach made a vow to Adonai and said ‘If You indeed give me the Ammonites into my hand, it shall be that whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return safe and sound from the Ammonites shall be Adonai’s, and I shall offer it up as a burnet offering’” (Judges 11:30-31).

We know the story ends with Yiftach sacrificing is daughter (and only child) in a heart wrenching conclusion to his sad life. Generations of Torah commentary and midrashim have struggled with this cruel act of child sacrifice, and in one ancient midrash they add “Then the Ruach Hakodesh’s (Holy Spirit) screamed out ‘Did I desire you to sacrifice lives (NPShWT) to me, which I never commanded, never spoke for, and which never entered my mind?!’ ”. We won't focus on the question of sacrifice today, but rather on the puzzling fact of Yiftach not annulling his vow, but rather imagining he’s allowed to sacrifice his future to enjoy the present. In the Midrash, Yiftach had the opportunity of going to the High Priest and cleansing his vow, but he was too arrogant to go there, and the priest was too arrogant to come over to him. And in the background the Ruach HaKodesh is Shrieking, and the children are crying on the mountains for the lost youth of Yiftach’s daughter.

This is us today. This is our generation of adults, arrogantly acting as if we can decide who and what to sacrifice for our life of comfort.

But Shmitah teaches us that we are only guests here on the Land, and it teaches us that we are always planning for at least seven years in the future, if not for forty nine or fifty. When we think in these bits of time, we must see beyond ourselves, we must think about our children and children’s children and the Earth we leave for them.

Torah’s prohibition of child sacrifice is not only about recoiling from murder, but also from the notion that our generation is the last one that counts. Now we need to translate this Torah into contemporary practice.

This D'var was originaly written for the Hazon Shmitah blog.

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