By Rabbi Elie Mischel
The Hebrew Bible is careful with its words. When introducing a new protagonist, the Bible rarely tells us about their background. Famously, the story of Abraham begins when he is already 75 years old, forcing the reader to speculate about the great man’s beginnings and the road that led him to God. At the same time, a close study of the Biblical text will often reveal telling insights into the lives of its heroes.
When introducing us to Gideon, the Bible shares very little about his background and what makes him unique. A careful reading, however, reveals some essential details.
“An angel of Hashem came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Yoash the Abiezrite. His son Gideon was then beating out wheat inside a winepress in order to keep it safe from the Midianites.” (Judges 6:11)
Though this appears to be a mundane verse with little interesting information, it is actually the key to understanding Gideon’s personality and motivations.
Gideon was the son of Joash the Abiezrite, meaning his family descended from Abiezer. Abiezer was the son of Gilead, who was the son of Machir and grandson of Manasseh, the firstborn son of Joseph. Why is this significant?
While Ephraim spent time learning with his grandfather Jacob, Manasseh was Joseph’s right hand man, living and working with him in the Egyptian capitol. The sages say that he served as Joseph’s “interpreter” when Joseph pretended not to recognize his brothers. Manasseh, more than any other son of Jacob, was particularly dedicated to honoring his father.
And so it is not surprising that Manasseh and his children and grandchildren were particularly close to Joseph and honored him greatly:
“Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were likewise born upon Joseph’s knees.” (Genesis 50:23)
By going above and beyond to honor his father, Manasseh left a powerful legacy to his own descendants. The children of Manasseh became known for going above and beyond to honor their elders. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness and as the people of Israel prepared to enter the Land of Israel, the daughters of Zelophehad, a man of Manasseh who had died in the wilderness, approached Moses with a request:
“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, which banded together against Hashem, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Numbers 27:3-4)
Though there were likely thousands of men who died in the wilderness without any sons, it was only the daughters of Zelophehad – the descendants of Manasseh – who petitioned Moses for an inheritance to remember the legacy of their father.
Gideon continued his forefather Manasseh’s legacy of honoring his parents. The verse states that Joash’s son Gideon “was then beating out wheat inside a winepress in order to keep it safe from the Midianites.” The medieval commentator, Rabbi David Kimche, explains that initially, Joash himself was beating the wheat. But his son Gideon said to him: “My father, you have grown old; please go inside the house and allow me to beat the wheat instead of you. For if the Midianite [plunderers] come while you are beating the wheat, you won’t have the strength to run from them [and hide the wheat].” In the merit of honoring his father, even in a dangerous situation, Gideon was chosen to be the savior of the people of Israel.
Modern culture is obsessed with youth. Television, movies and media all highlight young people in the prime of their lives, and generally ignore the elders of our society.
By contrast, the tribe of Manasseh, and Gideon in particular, highlight the importance of honoring our parents and our elders. By following in their footsteps, we not only honor the memory of those who came before us, but we also tap into the wealth of knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated over their lifetime. When we show them respect, we acknowledge their contributions to society and the value they bring to our lives. By following in the footsteps of Gideon and his forefather Manasseh, we too can honor the legacy of our own elders and ensure that their memory and influence lives on for future generations.