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June 4, 2017

Samson: A Perfect Failure

In September 1988, a leading rabbi of the Hareidi community, R. Eliezer Shach, criticized R. Adin Steinsaltz and called him a heretic. Soon after that he went on to ban three of his books.

There were two main critiques of R. Steinsaltz.

One critique was that the Steinsaltz edition of the Talmud departed from the layout of the traditional Talmud known as the Vilna Shas. The Vilna Shas was a late 19th century edition of the Talmud whose layout became the standard edition in yeshivot. R. Steinsaltz’ new edition of the Talmud offered a new page layout and his own modern commentary.

The other critique centered on the way the biblical character Shimshon was described in Steinsaltz’ book, Biblical Images. R. Steinsaltz writes that Shimshon acted like an “adolescent ruffian.” R. Steinsaltz argued that Shimshon’s leadership was highly flawed. Whereas the other Judges in the Book of Judges acted with support of the Jewish people, Shimshon acted alone. Further, all of Shimshon’s actions (save for his last one where he sacrificed his life in order to kill the Philistines) were for his own betterment and not for others.

This analysis rubbed R. Shach the wrong way and thus he attacked R. Steinsaltz. In response R. Steinsaltz apologized and offered to buy back any books from disgruntled clients. He later said that less than ten people returned his book.

On the one hand, it is incredibly offensive to hear such terrible insults hurled at R. Steinsaltz, one of the great rabbis of our generation. On the other hand, it is reassuring to know that R. Steinsaltz has not been diminished one iota by this unfair critique.

I don’t know what it means to call Shimshon “an adolescent ruffian,” but I do know that Shimshon is one of the most interesting of all the biblical characters.

There is so much going on in the Shimshon story that the Talmud draws two contradictory pictures of who Shimshon was.

On the one hand, the text calls Shimshon a judge (a shofet) and tells us that the spirit of the Lord visited him (15:14). Carrying on this theme, the Talmud calls him a tzaddik (Sotah, 9b). On the other hand, the text tells us that he spent time with a prostitute and married Philistine women (14:1, 16:1,16:5). Carrying on this theme, the Talmud tells us that Shimshon was punished by God for sinning though his lusting after Philistine women (Sotah, 9b).

As we read the Shimshon story over and over again, every year, we should try and consider what spiritual lessons we can take into our everyday lives.

Here is one suggestion:

The creation of Shimshon is the bible’s equivalent of a science fiction movie where scientists try to create the perfect creature. Of course, those experiments never work out. Do they? Shimshon represents the quest for perfection–a perfect human specimen--both spiritual and physical—an ubermensch.

We are told that an angel visits Shimshon’s mother and says that your future child will be a nazir Elokim, a nazirite to God, who will begin the salvation of the Jewish people (13:5). For this reason, Shimshon’s mother is not allowed to drink wine or eat anything tamei, and Shimshon himself is not allowed to ever cut his hair.

In general, even an ordinary nazir represents an extreme path for spiritual perfection. A nazir recognizes that in order to come closer to Hashem, he or she must extend the laws of the Torah—no wine, never becoming tamei, no haircuts.

But for Shimshon, even a regular nazir is insufficient.

The Talmud notes that Shimshon’s nazirut is unique. According to the Talmud, there are different categories of being a nazir—a regular nazir; a nazir forever; and a nazir like Shimshon (Nazir, 4a).

Shimshon is the only person in history who is a nazir mibeten (13:5), a nazir from the womb. The angel tells us that Shimshon’s mission is nothing short of saving the Jewish people (yachel lehoshiah et ha-am). Thus, Shimshon represents an attempt to create a super-child to save the people. Even the name Shimshon hints to our dreams for him. The Talmud says that Shimshon’s name is like the name of God (Sotah 10a). God is described as a shemesh, and so is Shimshon (Tehillim 84:12). Shimshon’s name reminds us of the Sun, a deity in the ancient world.

The Talmud also tells us that Shimshon was created with a strength that mimics divine strength. Chamishah nivreu mei-ein dugmah shel maaleh, shimshon bekocho (Sotah, 10a). Shimshon lifted up mountains on his own and ground them up. He was a super hero type figure and a spiritual giant (Sotah, 9b).

And yet, the experiment from the perspective of creating a super man to lead the people to a glorious salvation was a total failure. Shimshon was unable to unite his brothers to help themselves. They did not even like Shimshon. Just the opposite. They turned him over to the Philistines (15:12). He was not a beloved leader. Just the opposite, he was in their eyes a nuisance.

Shimshon died a broken man physically. Of course he died. The point of the story is that his strength was ephemeral and that he was bested by a woman—multiple times. He was not divine. He was a mere man, like the rest of us, only worse.

Shimshon did not achieve spiritual perfection. He sinned by following after the idolatrous, Philistine women, which was the core sin of the Jewish people. Forget about giving us lofty prophecies like Moses and Isaiah, Shimshon followed his basest instincts and was unable to control himself.

And before anyone bans my books and calls me a heretic for criticizing Shimshon, let’s be clear. It is not me who says that Shimshon sinned, it is the Talmud.

Says the Talmud, “basar yashrusa azil, Shimshon followed his own desires” (Sotah, 9b). Kilkulah be-azah, his initial wrongdoing was in Gaza, and therefore he was punished in Gaza. Delilah weakened his strength and his heart. Dildelah et kocho ve-dildelah et maasav de-istalek shekhinah mei-atzmo. And she weakened his deeds, so that the Divine Presence departed from him.

So Shimshon who was created for perfection, ended up broken.

Perfection is not a quality we should seek or admire in human beings—neither physical nor spiritual perfection. It is the Greeks of the ancient world who admired physical perfection. It is the American culture that foolishly praises athletic prowess.

We Jews have always sought to remind ourselves that we are but dust and ashes. We praise Moshe, who the Torah tells us sinned. Our prophets are great, but they have all sinned.

When the goal is perfection, the inevitable result is a crushing failure. Shimshon was bred to be perfectly strong and perfectly pious, but in the end he was unable to defeat the simple and obvious seductions of Delilah. According to many commentators, a nazir is not someone we admire because a nazir is a sinner. As Rambam tells us, this is the reason why a nazir must bring a korban chatat—a sin offering (Deot 3:1).

The Talmud tells us that the great Shimon Hatzaddik refused to partake of any of the offerings of a nazir. He wanted no part of a nazir—not them nor their offerings.

But then one time a handsome man came to Shimon Hatzaddik to bring the nazirite offerings. Shimon asked him, “My son, what did you see to become a nazirite, which would force you to destroy this beautiful hair, as a nazirite must cut off all his hair at the conclusion of his term? He said to me: I was a shepherd for my father in my town, and I went to draw water from the spring, and I looked at my reflection in the water. And my evil inclination quickly rose against me and sought to drive me from the world. I said to my evil inclination: Empty one! For what reason are you proud in a world that is not yours, as your end is to be maggots and worms when you die. I swear by the Temple service that I will become a nazirite and shave you for the sake of Heaven. Shimon HaTzaddik relates: When I heard his response, I arose and kissed him on his head, and said to him: May there be more nazirites like you in Israel, whose intentions are noble, and who would not regret their vow of naziriteship even if they became impure.”

If the nazir becomes a nazir in order to achieve spiritual perfection, then he is a sinner who is doomed to failure. The only pure nazir is the nazir who recognizes that he is the farthest thing in the world for perfection. A nazir that seeks perfection is a flawed nazir; however, a nazir that seeks redemption is praiseworthy.

If perfection is our goal or our ideal, then as soon as any challenge comes along we are bound to end up like Shimshon: a broken shell unable to defeat anything at all.

The goal of our Torah is not perfection, but redemption—a coming closer to Hashem. Closeness to Hashem has nothing to do with how strong we are, but rather, with how virtuous we are.

How do we remain virtuous?

We Jews remain virtuous by committing ourselves to walk in the path of Torah.

Shimshon was a nazir but he did not obey the Torah’s nazirite laws.

The Torah tells us how a nazir should act. A nazir is not allowed to come in contact with the dead. Shimshon came into contact with the dead. Says the talmud, “gemara gemiri lah, this is an established tradition that Shimshon came into contact with dead bodies.”

So too, Shimshon acted on his own by marrying philistine women.

Rambam writes that Shimshon converted the women who he married (Issurei Biah,13:14).

I would never dare to argue with Rambam, but there is no biblical or talmudic evidence to support that claim. Just the opposite the evidence of the early texts suggests that Shimshon thought he could controh his relationships. He started off using a relationship with a Philistine woman as a pretext to raise a complaint against the Philistines (see Radak 14:4), and he then turns to a prostitute, and he ultimately comes to love Delilah (16:5) and betray his own mission.

The Torah gives us these laws and guidelines for a reason. We interpret these biblical laws through halakhah. It is our path to virtue.

So the story of Shimshon is a cautionary tragic tale. It tells us that when we seek perfection we are doomed to failure. It tells us that if we think we are above the limitations of the Torah, we will not be able to retain the path of virtue.

But the story also carries an inspirational message.

Once we realize our own flaws—once we realize the folly of seeking perfection--then the path to redemption is so much clearer. For Shimshon his redemptive moment was only after he hit rock bottom. Only once he hit the bottom does he realize his true strength is not physical, but in his convictions. For the rest of us, we have the opportunity to learn from Shimshon’s mistakes. We are not interested in perfection. We know that such a pursuit is idolatrous. Instead, we seek a closeness with the one and only True Perfection, the embrace of God.

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