Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. — Judges 11:32
As we remember the anniversary of Fellowship Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s passing this month, we offer you a selection of his devotional thoughts on leadership. Learn how you can honor Rabbi Eckstein’s lifework and legacy through our Wings of Eagles ministry.
In Judges chapter 11, we read the story of Jephthah, one of Israel’s leaders who rescued the people from an attacking nation. On the surface, the story seems to be about Jephthah’s personal journey. The chapter begins by telling us that he was born from a questionable mother, exiled by his brothers, and then the leader of many strong but ignorant men. We read how when Israel was in danger, the elders came to Jephthah to ask for his help. After giving them a serious guilt trip and receiving a promise of leadership, he agrees. Jephthah triumph’s over Israel’s enemies and becomes the ruler of his tribe.
However, while it might seem that the focus is on Jephthah the individual, the truth is that this is a story about the nation of Israel. It might look as though Israel’s fate rested in the hands of Jephthah, but in reality, it was the people who determined their own destiny. Jephthah was merely a pawn in God’s hand.
Let’s take a look at a few verses before Jephthah’s story begins, in Judges 10, where we first learn that Israel is under threat. God makes clear the reason why Israel is in danger: “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD…And because the Israelites forsook the LORD and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines …” (v. 6-7). No secret there. The people abandoned God and brought harsh consequences upon themselves.
A few verses later we read: “But the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer” (v.15-16). Again, it’s as clear as black and white. When the people repented, God took up their cause and their safety was secured.
With that background, we can understand the narrative of our reading differently. Perhaps all the details of Jephthah’s personal life are to tell us what the Jewish teachers had long concluded — Jephthah was not the greatest leader that Israel ever had. However, it’s not the leader who determines our destiny; it’s the people and our relationship with God that secure our future.
This is an encouraging message for all of us who have lost faith in the people and circumstances that appear to be the determining factors of our destiny. The truth is that we, the people, determine our own destiny by how we relate to God, the only true Savior. Don’t give away your power; rather harness your power through prayer, repentance, and faith.
You can honor the lifework and legacy of Fellowship Founder Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein by participating in the Rabbi Eckstein Memorial Freedom Flight, bringing Jews from Ukraine and countries of distress home to Israel.