The rabbis of the Talmud (Bava Batra 15b) teach that Sefer Shoftim, the second book of the Prophets, was written by the prophet Shmuel. This book tells the story of 390 difficult years of Israelite history, ending with the statement, “In those days there was no king in Yisrael; everyone did as he pleased” (Judges 21:24-25). This verse, which appears several times in the book of Shoftim, sums up this challenging era. During this period, the children of Israel often turned away from Hashem’s Torah, and fell prey to the cardinal sins of idolatry, murder and sexual immorality. In return, God often allowed Israel’s enemies to oppress them; in Sefer Shoftim, we read of the Israelites suffering at the hands of Moabites, Canaanites, Midianites, Ammonites and Philistines. All too often throughout this period, though they were living in their own land, the children of Israel were not actually a free people.
However, not everything described in this book is tragic. After each descent into sin and subjugation, we learn about the judges who fostered spiritual reawakening and led the Israelites to military victories and salvation. In the era prior to Israel’s kings, the judges provided leadership to all who were willing to follow. These judges, drawn from various tribes of Israel, included some of the most heroic figures in Jewish history. For example, we learn about Otniel, who was both a Torah scholar and a warrior, about Devora, the prophetess and judge who sang to Hashem after Israel’s miraculous victory, and about Shimshon, the symbol of great physical strength and willingness to sacrifice everything for the people of Israel. Throughout this book, we see that the judges served as both worldly and spiritual leaders. When the Israelites followed their guidance, they prospered.
Thus, Sefer Shoftim depicts a repeating cycle, in which sins, punishment and suffering are followed by repentance, military victory and spiritual growth. The lesson that success in the land of Israel depends on following the God of Israel emerges as a consistent theme.
The books of the Prophets were written to teach lessons that would be needed to guide future generations. In his commentary to Sefer Shoftim (upon which much of the following commentary is based), Israeli scholar Rabbi Shlomo Aviner writes, “In the future there would be difficult and complicated situations faced by the people of Israel. Due to the prophecy of the Shoftim, the nation would be able to learn and strengthen itself.”
Rabbi Aviner teaches that as our generation faces complicated challenges, we must look to Sefer Shoftim for inspiration and for lessons about how to muster the spiritual and physical strength necessary to cope with these challenges.